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Friday, 23 February, 2007

'Snowstorm of hate'... one year ago in Ladakh

MOHAMMAD MUSA stamped down the steps of the ramshackle mosque in the village of Bodh Kharbu and glowered at the two men with whom he had spent almost every working-day morning. "What have you done?" he growled angrily.
Neither Shravan Kumar, a migrant from Sikkim who runs a roadside tea shop, nor Tashi Namgyal, an unemployed village resident who was amongst its most loyal customers, seemed to have any idea what Musa was talking about. Musa told them that pages of the Koran stored in the mosque had been torn to pieces. The three men sat in the teashop, discussing what to do next. "I've had enough of all this talk," Musa finally said. "I'm going to deal with things my way." Soon after dark, a mob from Musa's village, Khangral, attacked Buddhist homes on the fringes of Bodh Kharbu, sparking off a series of communal attacks and counter-attacks unprecedented in Ladakh's history. Ladakh's Shia Muslims and Buddhists, who are bound together by ties of language, culture and even kinship, found their historic ties ripped apart by a snowstorm of hate.
Just what led a small shack in an obscure village to become the starting point of a communal conflagration? At first glance, the violence appears as a straightforward Buddhist-Muslim confrontation. After the first attacks on Buddhist homes in Bodh Kharbu, which took place on the night of February 5, the authorities focussed on preventing the outbreak of similar violence in the Shia-dominated town of Kargil. Crowds that gathered to commemorate Muharram were incensed by the news from Bodh Kharbu. However, thanks to the intervention by religious and political leaders as well as the police, no violence took place.
On February 7, though, things began to go wrong. That morning, young Shia men who had gathered in Leh's Imambara for a Muharram procession began to force shops in the city bazaar to shut down. Aziz Darzi, an ethnic-Kashmiri Sunni shoe-store owner who failed to respect this demand, was attacked. Shoes stored in his shop were tossed on to the street. One of them ended up outside the door of the offices of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), where a prayer meeting was under way.
The next morning, Buddhist chauvinists gathered at the LBA office to avenge the supposed insult to their faith. Even while officials negotiated with LBA leaders, the mob attacked and seriously injured a Muslim policeman, Mohammad Abdullah. LBA leaders eventually agreed not to take out a protest procession, but low-grade attacks on Muslims in Leh grew in volume. Stones were thrown at Muharram processions in Leh on February 8 and 9, while Muslim-owned homes were set on fire in the hamlet of Horzey.
Shia retaliation came soon. Leh policeman Padam Dorje lost an eye after a protester lashed out at his face with a sharp-tipped iron chain, a device used for flagellation by penitents during Muharram processions. In Kargil, a mob set ablaze the home of Deputy Superintendent of Police P. Sonam; several senior officials were injured in stone-throwing. Troops from the Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police were called out to enforce curfews in Kargil and Leh, which dragged on until February 16.
A close study of the violence in Ladakh, though, makes clear that the violence was not a two-way fight between Buddhists and Shia Muslims. Struggles internal to both communities were just as important. In Kargil, for example, the violence of February 11 mainly targeted the offices of the Kargil Hill Council and its chief executive, Asghar Ali Karbalai, not local Buddhists. Karbalai, a Congress-affiliated politician, took charge of the Kargil Hill Council as a result of new legislation that gave the four nominated members of the body voting rights. National Conference-backed councillors were thus reduced to a minority - and the events of Bodh Kharbu gave them a chance to settle the score.
Underpinning the Congress-N.C. feud in Kargil is a deeper disputation: the right to speak for Kargil's Shia community. The traditional order is represented by the traditionalist Islamia School, which represents the clerical class. By contrast, the newer Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT) voices the aspirations of new trading and business elites. Like the Islamia School, the IKMT has a chauvinist approach to religious practice. But it embraces reform in matters of education, particularly the schooling of girls.
Matters came to a head in 2002, when the IKMT broke ranks with the Islamia School and backed an independent Lok Sabha candidate who had the support of the Congress. The IKMT's candidate lost, but the action heralded the end of a unitary, pro-N.C. Shia order. In December 2003, the Islamia School hit back by winning the first elections to the new Kargil Hill Council. Soon, however, it was dethroned by the legislative coup which gave Karbalai and the IKMT control of the body.
In Leh, similarly, local politics underpinned the violence. Thupstan Chhewang, who represents the Ladakh Union Territory Front, was elected Member of Parliament as a direct consequence of the Congress-IKMT actions in Kargil. The LUTF was born after all Leh-based political parties were dissolved in the course of the 1989-1992 agitation demanding Union Territory status for Ladakh. The agitation, which included a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses, dragged on until 1992. Three people were killed in its course.
Chhewang's claims to speak, through the medium of the LUTF, for all of Ladakh's Buddhists came under challenge last year. In December, former LBA president Tsering Samphel broke ranks and announced the rebirth of the Ladakh unit of the Congress. Even though the LUTF sat on the Treasury bench in Parliament, Chhewang claimed that the decision betrayed Ladakh's united fight for Union Territory status. Split down the middle, the LBA executive had to be dissolved. LUTF hegemony was again under threat.
For elites in the region, struggles for political authority have more meaning now than at any point in the past. Because of its massive tourism earnings and huge flows of funds from military contracts, Leh has seen an influx of economic migrants, provoking fears among the district's Buddhists that they will eventually be marginalised. Many of the migrants are not Muslim - affluent Buddhists from the eastern agricultural regions of Leh and people from the plains have also settled in good numbers, but Ladakh's Shias make an easy target.
In Kargil, too, there are unprecedented stakes. As in Leh, military contracts have given birth to a new contractor class, which finds religion useful to consolidate its influence. Development funds now being handed over to the Kargil Hill Council, too, are a major means of patronage. If, as most people in the region expect, the Line of Control softens to enable trade with Gilgit and Baltistan, Kargil could witness an economic boom that will enable it to break its centuries-old economic bondage to both Leh and Srinagar.
Could the Bodh Kharbu incident, then, have been a deliberate act of provocation? At least some evidence points in that direction. Musa, speaking to Frontline, asserted that he had not actually entered the mosque to survey the damage; nor did he invite Shravan Kumar or Tashi Namgyal to witness the torn Koran. Whoever tore the pages from the book inflicted no damage on any other religious object.
However, a local feud might have prompted the act. Bodh Kharbu residents had sought permission from the residents of nearby Chiktan to rebuild Buddhist idols and a chorten located in the Shia-dominated village. The Shias had refused, demanding first the right to build a new mosque.
Two years ago, Musa said, someone had thrown a piece of rock through the mosque window; on another occasion, the safe containing donations from the occasional visitor had been robbed.
Whatever the truth, it is unlikely that the lifting of curfew in Ladakh will mark the end of its new communal war. Leh's business elites, who came up during the anti-Muslim trade boycott of 1989-1992, are already sensing opportunity. "I vow," reads an SMS message in Leh, "not to do business or have any social relations with any non-Buddhist."
While few in tourism-driven Ladakh can afford more violence this spring, there are many others who see profit in a slow campaign of hate.


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