In the September/October issue of Himal, Siddiq Wahid offered his views on the causes of the recent turmoil in Ladakh. According to this scholar, the cause of the unrest in this sensitive border area is neither economic nor political, as Ladakhi leaders themselves have suggested, but a phenomenon of ‘intellectual colonialism’ as Mr. Wahid termed it.
Wahid asserts that the Ladakhis, particularly the Buddhist community, have been “corrupted” by Western scholars and their books. He blames the “rupture of the fabric of Ladakhi. society’s health” exclusively on prejudiced Westerners, who he claims have not only mistaken Ladakhi culture as being part of Tibetan culture, but even succeeded in planting this idea into the heads of Ladakhis. An amazing case of indoctrination perpetrated by those unscrupulous Westerners, who have no other aim, but … but what? Apparently, the author argues, the poor, misguided Ladakhis have been lured into believing that their culture is unique and exclusively Buddhist in nature. And, apparently, this is why Muslims and Buddhists no longer live in the perfect harmony that the author implies prevailed earlier.
To a Westerner who has visited Ladakh several times, Wahid’s allegation seems to be unfair. A simplification such as this not only strengthens the already strong xenophobia that is such a prominent feature of science and politics in the Himalaya, but more important, it completely ignores the real grievances of Ladakhis, both Muslim and Buddhist. As a foreigner and outsider, I feel it is not for me to pass judgement on the parties involved in the conflict in Ladakh, it being a matter to be settled by those same parties. But as a social scientist interested in the processes of social change with some knowledge of Ladakh, I feel I am able and that I should give my views on this matter.
Wahid quotes Franzke, who supposedly claims that Islam is gaining ground in the Buddhist areas of Ladakh. Wahid takes issue with this statement as he does with Snellgrove’s seemingly similar conclusion that there,is no demographic evidence to sustain them. I do not have such evidence either. But to say that these statements, which others have made, imply that the authors believe that “to be Ladakhi is to be Buddhist” has no basis. In fact neither Francke nor Snellgrove make this statement. They only report what they observed: that the number of Muslims in Ladakh is increasing. Demographic surveys could either prove or disprove such an observation, but it is not a value judgement, and certainly not enough reason for such a serious allegation as “intellectual colonialism.” When Snellgrove writes that Ladakhi Buddhists are “driven into a small corner between Islam and Chinese Communism,” Wahid accuses Snellgrove of having implied that communism and Islam are working together to destroy Buddhism. The two examples cited by the author hardly substantiate the claim of “intellectual colonialism.” If we analyze the two statements by Francke and Snellgrove, there is nothing in them to support the author’s charges.
At the same time, I would not deny that there is a perception of Ladakhi Buddhism as a subject of curiosity on the part of Western scholars. Much of the scholarship on Ladakh centres on Buddhism and the Buddhist areas of Ladakh. The Muslims of Leh and Kargil districts deserve more attention from researchers, both Indian and foreign. The interest in Ladakhi culture and society stems not only from the fact that the Tibetan Buddhist culture is still alive here, but also in this culture’s interaction with Islam and its transformation by the forces of “modernisation.” But the interest of scholars in the Buddhist aspects of Ladakhi culture is perfectly understandable in light of Chinese policies in Tibet. Is this scholarly interest to be condemned? Is it exclusively the foreigners and their ‘intellectual colonialism’ that are to be blamed? One need only look at the brochures of the tourist offices in Delhi and Kashmir to see that here, too, it is the Buddhist aspects of Ladakhi culture that are highlighted.
Siddiq Wahid reduces the unrest in Ladakh to a clash between religious communities caused by some mysterious process of indoctrination of the Ladakhis by Western scholars. This explanation of the unrest in Ladakh is entirely at odds with what happened in Ladakh last summer.
Well before Muslim Ladakhis and Buddhist Ladakhis clashed, there were demonstrations in Leh, during which pro-Pakistan slogans were raised. Most of those involved in a demonstration I witnessed were not Ladakhi. Subsequently, a fight between Muslims and Buddhists led to agitation by the Ladakh Buddhist Association. However, considering their demands and my information about the agitation, it would be wrong to conclude that the agitation was directed at Ladakhi Muslims. Rather, the demands and the agitation itself were clearly directed at the state government for its perceived discrimination against Ladakh. Whether the demands of the agitators were justified or not is not for me to answer. To reduce the troubles to a purely communal conflict, however, is to ignore the real course of events and the grievances of the Ladakhis.
To many the outbreak of trouble was surprising, though not its timing and intensity. Anyone who has visited Ladakh in recent years would have been aware of the growing dissatisfaction of the Ladakhi people. In the July/August issue of Hintal, well before the first outbreak of violence in July, I described the disruptive effect of ‘modernisation’ on the economy and culture of Ladakh. I maintain that the causes of the growing tension in Ladakh are due to the disruption of the local economy and society. In a sense, this disruption is the result of a form of “intellectual colonialism,” but not in the way Siddiq Wahid suggests.
In Ladakh, the introduction of the money economy, of ‘modern’ education, health care, agricultural techniques, etc., has led to the collapse of the self-sufficient economy in the Indus Valley while increasing people’s dependence on imports. At the same time, education, radio, TV and tourism have created unrealistically high expectations that cannot be met, and certainly not through the present model of development. All these factors have generated growing dissatisfaction and intensified competition among Ladakhis and between Ladakhis and others.
To bring peace back to Ladakh, the present model of development may need revision. The Government of India has done much to improve the standard of living in Ladakh. However, the present turmoil in Ladakh is directly related to the larger process of “modernisation.” A different approach, aimed at a more sustainable development, would benefit not only Ladakh, but the economic, political and strategic interests of India.
I cannot accept that the root cause of all of Ladakhs problems is the alleged “innocuous advances of the missionary, reinforced by the agents of British India and, now, by the scholar.” I firmly believe that Ladakhis and the Government of India, making use of the insights of both Indian and Western scholars regarding development and planning, can arrive at a solution. The “foreign hand,” rightly blamed for many things, is not culpable in this case.
van Beek is a development sociologist.