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14 October 2016, Gateway House

Ladakh should not go unheard

Peaceful, Buddhist-majority Ladakh has been quietly resentful of the fact that Kashmir grabs attention at its expense. Taking it for granted may cost India dear, especially with China seeking to deepen its influence across the Himalayas

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It’s not yet a unified voice, aloud in uproar, but protests in parts of South Kashmir are  attracting media–and lately, political– attention too. There were  sms-es in circulation weeks after terrorist Burhan Wani was killed by armed forces in Kashmir in July. Social media posts   are currently continuing to remind people that Kashmir is but one of  three regions in the area: any political dialogue to address the concerns of a section of the Kashmiri people cannot be held at the expense of Ladakh and Jammu.

The capital city of Leh saw small protests in August. Later, a delegation of Ladakhis, claiming to represent Buddhists, Muslims and Christians of the region, presented a memorandum to Prime Minister Modi in Delhi. They reiterated their old demand: that Ladakh be made a Union Territory and its people be allowed to vote in their own elected legislature.

Their concerns centred on the debate on Kashmir’s future which had so far precluded any discussion on the aspirations of the Ladakhi people, the memorandum stated. Expressing their faith in the Indian Constitution, the memorandum stressed that Ladakh resented Kashmir’s domination  over what is principally  a Buddhist region of Jammu and Kashmir.

They warned that “any attempt at handling the Kashmir issue in isolation by ignoring the problems of Ladakh will be short-sighted and prove counterproductive”.

“It is absolutely erroneous to equate the Kashmir valley with the rest of the state. Ladakh constitutes 69.6 per cent of total J&K territory with a distinct geo-political and geo-cultural identity of its own. The aspirations of the people of Ladakh and their national outlook are different from those of the people of Kashmir,” they said in the memorandum.

Geographically, the Ladakh region comprises the districts of Leh and Kargil, which form two-thirds of Jammu and Kashmir, but in terms of population, it is smaller than Kashmir. There is a stark difference in population within Ladakh too. While Leh is predominantly Buddhist, Kargil has a majority of Muslims. When the populations of Kargil and Leh are combined then Muslims actually outnumber Buddhists. Herein lies the genesis of the Ladakhis’ grouse against domination by Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Ladakh and its people find it difficult to gain any political or media attention in today’s noisy news environment in India. What’s more, India regards the region’s loyalty and support to be unshakeable. This ‘taking for granted’ attitude towards Ladakh is clear also from the fact that young officers with little administrative experience — four to five years after leaving the Mussoorie Academy, which is quite early in their career –are posted as district collector or district magistrate in a place of as much geo-strategic importance as Leh. The job involves reporting to the Chief Secretary of J&K and assisting the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council to plan various development programmes in the region. However bright the officer may be his lack of experience gets reflected in his regarding Ladakh as just another posting.

This belies a lack of seriousness of approach on the part of the government – and this is having its own repercussions.

It’s over a period of decades and far removed from the Indian mainland’s gaze that Ladakh has witnessed a subtle change, with China having adopted a policy of what some call “invisible incursion”. Religion, ideas, language and culture have been used as weapons to gain a foothold in India’s cold desert.

There are signs of a clear shift having taken place, such as the growing intervention and takeover of Buddhist institutions by Chinese Tibetans, rising sectarian tensions among Buddhist sects, and the popularity of Chinese food, and Mandarin as a language — many youngsters are picking up Mandarin Chinese. Estimates place the number of such speakers at around 300 today. There is also the expanding spiritual influence of Tibetan Buddhism from China over the centuries-old Ladakhi version of it.

China has adopted a multi-pronged strategy to tackle India through the use of cultural and religious tools even as it continues to mount political pressure to emphasise its claims on the border. Sections of the political establishment could interpret such concerns as overstated and emphatically assert Ladakh’s closeness to the rest of the country. But, one cannot overlook the fact that China is working to a strategy where it sets an extended timeline to achieve its objective.

The government of India needs to take a closer look at China’s game plan in Ladakh and the subtle changes coming about in Leh and beyond, which it has failed to do, given its overwhelming focus on the Kashmir Valley. India is boosting its military presence in the region: the recent move to deploy 100 tanks in eastern Ladakh and stress on building infrastructure there are welcome developments. But that does not mean that China’s use of soft power in a region as important as Ladakh should be ignored.

Its soft power, combined with geo-political realities have to be taken into account.  China’s illegal occupation of Aksai Chin in 1962 and the handover of a part of it to Pakistan has brought Ladakhis closer to Tibet.

Experts who did not wish to be quoted have warned that Beijing has used India’s open door policy to Tibetans  to get across thousands of them into the country, mostly through Nepal where China has  invested heavily in the creation and running of Buddhist institutions. As Nepal clamps down on Tibetans within its own confines, keeping a close watch on their activities, hundreds of them use the porous border with India to cross over.

Demographically, the entire Himalayan belt, extending from Ladakh in the north west to Arunachal Pradesh in the north east, has witnessed a sizeable change in the number of Tibetan settlers. Why is China allowing movement of Tibetans into India?

There is growing concern among a section of China watchers that Beijing is using “invisible” ways of having Tibetans infiltrate India.  In fact, the Qing Dynasty that ruled from 1720 to 1912, had cleverly used Tibetan Buddhism to expand its influence into the outlying regions of the empire. The Chinese Communist regime thus seems to be following an ancient strategy to widen its reach and deepen its influence across the Himalayas.

Ladakh’s peaceful environs are being exploited to culturally overwhelm the region with Tibetans loyal to Chinese-backed Buddhist sects. The Dalai Lama’s efforts, in recent years, to get the Buddhists of Ladakh not to entertain a rival Karmapa, Thaye Trinley Dorje, were not very successful.  Buddhist sects, like Druk-pa Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu, Ning-ma and the Sakya sect, do not question Dorje’s status.

If sectarian rifts and tensions have become a part of Ladakh’s spiritual landscape, China has also successfully flooded the region with CDs of the Lotus Sutra, a sacred Buddhist scripture that was popular in China and Japan, but not in India. Consequently, for decades now, families have become more familiar with the Lotus Sutra than their forefathers ever were because of the easy availability of these CDs.

Maybe, along with the strains of the Sutra, the protests that are becoming audible from the region need a clear, uncluttered and rather more urgent hearing.

Sunil Raman is a former BBC journalist.

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