Homeland Security

Boon is Central Rule for Ladakhi Buddhists
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 13 Apr , 2024

The one region which suffered huge socio-economic and political losses after the accession of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir to Bharat on October 26, 1947 was the Buddhist-dominated Leh district in the strategic Trans-Himalayan Ladakh region, also called “the roof of the world” and “the land of the Lamas”. The story of the overwhelmingly Buddhist-majority Zanskar tehsil in Karil district of Ladakh was no less pathetic. In fact, it suffered more as compared to Leh district.

The accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India in 1947 marginalized the Buddhist-dominated Leh district, sparking a struggle for political representation and cultural preservation.

The Muslim-majority Kargil district was created by Sheikh Abdullah in 1979 to pit his co-religionists against the Buddhists and puncture and defeat their movement calculated to achieving separation from Kashmir and secure a Union Territory status for Ladakh. 

The Buddhists suffered immense losses and a grave threat to their religion, culture, society, identity and their very demography due to two fundamental factors. One was the hostile attitude of the essentially pro-greater autonomy successive Kashmiri-dominated and Kashmir-centric Governments in the State. They considered Ladakh as Kashmir’s one of the two colonies and the Buddhists as subjects whose life was not one of political and economic aspirations. The other colony was the Jammu province to which Kashmir was added in March 1846 under the Treaty of Amritsar, signed between Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu and the British.

The other factor was the baneful influence of the Kashmiri ruling elite on the New Delhi’s South and North Blocks. To be more precise, the powers-that-be at the Centre consistently stood solidly behind the Kashmiri Muslim ruling elite and paid no heed to the needs, compulsions and aspirations of the peace-loving and God-fearing Buddhists. They, at the behest of the Kashmiri Muslim elite dismissed the Buddhists as no factor in the State’s political situation. And the result was widespread disappointment and dissatisfaction among all the Buddhists.

Convinced that Srinagar and New Delhi would not address the burning issues facing them, the Buddhists under the effective and skillful leadership of Head Lama of Ladakh, KushokBakula Rinpoche, raised a banner of revolt in 1952. That year, the Head Lama not only demanded an effective and real say in the politics and administration of the State, but also threatened that “they would join up Tibet” in the event of the Centre agreeing to the demand of Jammu and Kashmir Wazir-e-Azam Sheikh Abdullah seeking greater autonomy for the State”. In 1967, Rinpoche went to the extent of declaring that “Ladakh will become a second Tibet if his demand for a NEFA-type administration with representation in the Central Government was not conceded” (“The threat of Bakula to make Ladakh a second Tibet,” The News Srinagar, Sep 17, 1967).

Establishment of Kargil district in 1979 aimed to undermine Ladakh’s separatist movement, fueling tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities.

However, all these and similar other threats administered by the Buddhist leadership from time to time went down the drain as both Srinagar and New Delhi dismissed them as irrational, silly, preposterous, and utterly unacceptable. They overlooked all the Buddhists’ threats. New Delhi even rejected the loud clamour in Leh for the Ladakh’s merger either with Jammu province or the adjoining Himachal Pradesh (East Punjab). As early as on May 4, 1949, the Buddhist leadership had submitted a memorandum to the Maharaja of the State, Hari Singh, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to this effect. It was submitted by none other than the president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), ChhewangRigzin.

The situation as it prevailed in Leh clearly suggested that the otherwise peace-loving Buddhists would take recourse to agitation, and even adopt violent methods to achieve political emancipation from Kashmir to protect, preserve and promote further their religion, culture and civilisation and it did happen. They launched struggle after struggle to achieve their stated goal: Separation from Kashmir and Union Territory status/Central Rule. In October 1989, they under their leadership rose in revolt, attacked symbols of the State, including police stations, and took on the Leh-based agents of Kashmiri ruling class. The situation climaxed to the point that the police had to act to establish law and order and in the process three Buddhists lost their lives during the violent police-crowd clashes.

It was under these circumstances that the authorities in the State and at the Centre had to kneel and the result was the October 29, 1989 “Tripartite Agreement”. It was signed by the LBA chairman, ThupstanChhewang, son-in-law of Rani of Ladakh, Parvati; PP Srivastva, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs; and Ashok Jaitley, Additional Chief Secretary to the Farooq Abdullah Government, with the LBA dropping their demand for Union Territory for the time being in what it called the “larger national interest”. The Agreement was signed in the presence of Union Home Minister Buta Singh, who had gone all the way from New Delhi to Leh to conciliate the agitating Buddhists. The agreement provided for the establishment of “Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council” (LAHDC) at Leh, the district headquarters.

Believe it or not, but it’s a fact that the Kashmiri leaders of all hues, including Farooq Abdullah and Saif-ud-Din Soz (National Conference) and Ghulam Rasool Kar (Congress), opposed the Tripartite Agreement tooth and nail and left no stone unturned to scuttle it. Even the Union Home Minister SB Chavan sided with the anti-Buddhist Kashmiri politicians. While Chavan took the view that establishment of LAHDC was not possible as it would require an “amendment in the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution, 1957”, and the establishment of such a Council would “erode the special status the State enjoyed under Article 370”, Soz and Kar declared that “any change in the status of Ladakh would hurt the Kashmiri psyche” “Talks deferment inevitable,” The Hindustan Times, Apr 14, 1992).

Despite protests and warnings, successive governments ignored Buddhist demands for autonomy, leading to the formation of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) in 1989.

As for Farooq Abdullah, he lashed out at the Centre for what he called “fomenting regional and communal passions” in Jammu and Kashmir to “play dirty politics”. He, inter-alia, said: “The Government in Delhi tried to create doubts in the minds of Ladakhis (read Buddhists) about the intentions of the National Conference leadership and these leaders were responsible for creating hatred against Kashmiri Muslims and accentuating the propaganda of Kashmiri hegemony”.

As per the “National Convention on Ladakh in Delhi, March 18, 1990”, “citing constitutional difficulties in granting an Autonomous Hill Council, the Government of Farooq Abdullah made every attempt to ‘hoodwink the LBA’ with provisions of the Panchayati Raj Act” (The Hindustan Times, Mar 18, 1990).

However, good sense finally prevailed and the PV Narasimha Rao Government ignored the Home Minister SB Chavan’s view and ordered establishment of LAHDC Leh in 1995 to establish peace in Ladakh. The LAHDC came into being with the holding of elections on August 28, 1995 and the inaugural meeting of the Council took place on September 3, 1995. The Shiite-dominated Kargil bitterly opposed the idea of establishing LAHDC Leh as its attitude was no different from that of the Kashmiri attitude. The establishment of LAHDC was the Buddhists’ crowning triumph and humiliating defeat of the ardent believers in the concept of Kashmiri Muslim sub-nationalism and protagonists of “Greater Kashmir”.

However, notwithstanding the establishment of LAHDC Leh, the Buddhists were not happy. The reason was that the Kashmiri-dominated Civil Secretariat and the Kashmiri rulers themselves created a situation which converted the LAHDC into a white elephant, into a meaningless sham for all practical purposes. They didn’t allow it to function in the manner it wanted to function taking into consideration the needs and requirements of the district and the Buddhists.

The result was that the Buddhists again upped the ante and unleashed a relentless struggle to achieve Union Territory status for Ladakh, asserting that the Central Rule alone could end their night of discontent and despair and dispense justice to the neglected and discriminated against under-threat Buddhists. Their two other long-pending demands were divisional status for their region and a separate Ladakh University.

Recent government initiatives, like Ladakh’s divisional status and Union Territory elevation, signify progress in addressing Buddhist grievances and empowering the region.

The situation turned favourable for the agitating Buddhists only after June 19, 2018, when the BJP withdrew its support to the Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition Government and Jammu and Kashmir came under the Central rule. Thereafter, the Narendra Modi Government took momentous steps to conciliating the Buddhists.

A reference to just four such steps would be quite in order. One: On December 16, 2018, the Government established University of Ladakh at Leh, thus enabling the Ladakhis to acquire higher education in their own region.  Two: On February 9, 2019, Ladakh was separated from the Kashmir Division and granted the divisional status, much to the chagrin of Kashmiri politicians of all hues. Three: On August 5-6, 2019, the Narendra Modi Government overlooked the Kashmiri Muslims’ and the Shiite-dominated Kargil’s senseless opposition and separated Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir to meet the Buddhists’ age-old demand seeking Union Territory status for their region. And four: the Modi Government “enhanced Ladakh’s budget from Rs 1,136 crores during 2019-20 to Rs 6,000 crores in 2022-23” (The Indian Express, Dec 14, 2023).

What does all this suggest? It suggests that the Central rule turned out to be a boon for the Buddhists. They would do well to appreciate what happened between 2018 and 2023 and abandon their statehood demand. The State status, if granted to Ladakh, would hurt them the most and create the pre-June 2018 situation under which they faced only exclusion from all spheres and at all levels. The best thing for them to do would be to persuade the Modi Government to further strengthen the LAHDC Leh. The strengthened LAHDC would help them protect, preserve and promote further their religion, culture, civilisation and defeat those who have been striving hard to change the demography of Leh district and Zanskar Tehsil through abductions, conversion and forcible marriages of Buddhist girls since 1979.     

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Hari Om Mahajan

is former Member of Indian Council of Historical Research and former Dean of Jammu University’s Faculty of Social Sciences.

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