July 5, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

The Land of the Passes

The scholars do not agree on the etymology of the word Ladakh. For some, it is the 'Land of the Passes' (la); for others, it is the 'Land of the Lamas.' Whatever the correct interpretation, it is, for both reasons, certainly one of the most peaceful places on earth.

But, recently, foreign embassies in India decided otherwise; they issued a circular forbidding their nationals to visit the area which was suddenly tagged as 'the most dangerous place in the world,' though the ground reality said otherwise.

Visiting Leh last week, I had the chance to experience the celebrated peace and hospitality of the region (especially with all the tourists absent).

A recurrent mistake made by diplomats as well as political commentators is to equate Kashmir with the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is vaster (areawise and politically) than the valley.

As rightly pointed by Dr Karan Singh, the erstwhile Sadar-i-Ryasat and heir apparent to his father Hari Singh, the last maharaja of Kashmir: 'A common mistake is to use the word Kashmir as a shorthand for the multi-regional J&K state and then to proceed politically on this basis. This approach is the root of many problems.'

Though the Kashmir valley constantly draws the attention of the world media and the chancelleries in Delhi, it is geographically a very small portion of the state. In 1947, the area of the state was about 222,000 sq km. Today, about 79,000 sq km of that area is occupied by Pakistan, 5,300 sq km were generously 'ceded' to China by General Ayub Khan in 1963 and 37,000 sq km were grabbed by China in the early 1950s when Beijing decided to built a road linking occupied Tibet to Sinkiang.

At the time of Kashmir's accession to India in October 1947, political and economic power was offered to Sheikh Abdullah's National Conference government in Srinagar despite the fact that Ladakh covered 70 per cent of the area under India's administration. Dominated by the successive Kashmiri governments for the past 50 years, Ladakh has practically been deprived of any say in its development.

It is interesting to return to the period immediately succeeding the maharaja's signature on the Instruments of Accession, when raiders from the North West Frontier Province (the same region where, today, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers seem to have taken refuge) began pouring into the valley, looting and burning villages in their way and abducting and raping the women, whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. It is only their greed that delayed them long enough to allow the Indian army to save Srinagar and repulse the raiders beyond Baramulla. During these first months after Independence, Jinnah and his colleagues' motto was: 'Let us liberate our Muslim brothers from the yoke of the Dogras (which term was later replaced by Indians).' The raiders entered the valley under this pretext.

But the Pakistanis leaders' greed had no limit. Their 'two nations' theory, according to which the Muslim dominated areas of the subcontinent were to become part of Pakistan and the Hindus, Sikhs and others were to remain with India, was thrown into the wind when Karachi decided to 'liberate' their Buddhist brothers in Ladakh. The motivation for Operation Sledge, which aimed to take over the vast Ladakh plateau, was not ideological: the treasures of the Buddhist gompas (monasteries) were a great lure for finance-starved Pakistan.

In February 1948, when the brigade commander in Srinagar (Brigadier 'Bogey' Sen) got wind of these plans (the raiders were to comprise of more than 800 of tribal Pathans mixed with a few Gilgit Scouts), he was in a fix. The formidable Zoji-la pass was an uncrossable barrier between the valley and Ladakh and there was no way to airlift reinforcements to Leh. Wheels other than the dharma chakras were unknown in Ladakh.

It was then that Captain Prithvi Chand, a young Buddhist officer from Lahaul, the Himalayan region beyond Manali and the Rotang Pass, offered his services; he told the brigadier he was ready to cross Zoji-la in winter with a small caravan of men and mules carrying arms and ammunitions. Though Buddhists and believers in ahimsa, these men were ready to risk their lives and fight their way through the weather, the altitude and the raiders to defend their co-religionists in Ladakh. Nobody thought the mission feasible, but there was no other solution.

So without the knowledge of army headquarters -- which was reluctant to permit such a risky operation -- the young captain crossed the pass with about 60 volunteers and reached safely Leh to prepare a surprise for the raiders.

It was first of a long saga of heroic acts by the young officers of these mountainous regions who, since then, have bravely defended Indian territory. One should mention Colonel Chewwang Rinchen, who was twice awarded the Mahavir Chakra -- first for having stopped the advance of raiders in the Nubra Valley in June 1948 and the second for the bravery he displayed in the Turtuk sector in December 1971.

More recently, Major Sonam Wangchuk (another Buddhist soldier to be awarded the MVC) and his Ladakh Scouts recaptured some of the crucial peaks occupied by Pakistan during the Kargil war in 1999. One still has the image of Wangchuk, praying to the Dalai Lama, the incarnated Bodhisattva of Compassion, to give him the strength to save his nation, India.

These Buddhist heroes had to first fight their own non-violent Buddhist principles before they could take on the invaders; they knew the survival of their dharma was at stake. They had heard tales of the fall of Gilgit, where the scouts led by Major Brown, a British officer, had revolted against the Dogra garrison and invited Pakistan to take over the administration. In the days that followed, Hindus and Sikhs were given a few minutes to decide if they wanted to adopt the Islamic faith or die.

Immediately after the Accession, the Ladakhis took the stand that their future was linked with India, though culturally, racially and linguistically they were closer to Tibet, the source of their inspiration and religion.

Ladakh finally became a part of India when General Thimmaya won the most extraordinary battle of modern warfare, taking his tanks to the top of Zoji-la to the utter surprise and disbelief of the raiders who immediately fled.

Though these heroes had rescued more than half of the maharaja's territory, the Ladakhis were still very unhappy. They had saved their dharma, but were getting entangled in the Kashmir problem. They had no interest in Sheikh Abdullah's political games which were aimed at getting the valley an independent status. (In December 1947, the Sheikh even asked Hari Singh to continue to be maharaja of Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur while he would be the ruler of an independent Islamic republic. The fate of Ladakh, Baltistan, Gilgit was not mentioned in the Sheikh's proposal.)

In May 1949, the first delegation of the Young Men's Buddhist Association of Ladakh led by Kalon Chhewang Rigzin met Nehru in Delhi and presented him a memorandum: 'We seek the bosom of that gracious Mother India to receive more nutriment for growth to our full stature in every way. She has given us what we prize above all things -- our religion and culture.'

It is interesting to note that Abdullah was fighting for a separate flag for the state, even as the Ladakhis glowed with pride on seeing the Asoka wheel on the Indian flag. Ladakh saw in it the symbol of 'goodwill for all humanity and her concern for her cultural children.' They prayed to Nehru: 'Will the Great Mother refuse to take into her arms one of her weakest and most forlorn and depressed children -- a child whom filial love impels to respond to the call?'

Unfortunately, India's leaders, beginning with the Kashmiri Pandit, Nehru, did not respond to Ladakh's appeal. An eyewitness to this first meeting told me Nehru smiled and explained he was sympathetic with their views but 'Kashmir was now an international problem and India could not afford to take any hasty actions which could spoil the good Indian case in the UN.'

Of course, 53 years later, the reference to the good case seems laughable, but the attitude of most Indian leaders continues to remain unchanged. 'We cannot afford to antagonise Srinagar' remains the motto.

We can see today where this policy of appeasement has led us!

This is the shocking contrast -- on one side, some self-styled leaders refused to go through the recognised democratic system of elections and daily asked for more autonomy from the Indian state and, on the other side, the peaceful people Ladakh begging for more integration with India. In Leh, one understands the frustration of the ordinary Ladakhi who asks: "But what have they [the Kashmiris] done to deserve so much attention and advantages?"

In 1989, faced with Delhi's decade-long apathy and the 'larger issue of Kashmir', the Ladakhis had no alternative but to resort to an 'agitation,' an concept alien to Buddhism. When Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the head Lama of Ladakh and long-time minister in Srinagar (he recently retired as India's ambassador to Mongolia), began to defend the interests of Ladakh in the early fifties, he probably knew about the fate of the Jammu agitation and the tragic end of its leader Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, who had dared to object to the Sheikh; Mookerjee, who believed India should have 'one flag, one constitution, one President,' lost his life in the process.

As a Buddhist teacher, Bakula did not choose the path of confrontation; he tried to get more autonomy for his region by working with the system. But this method also failed.

A greater autonomy and closer links with India were not granted till the Ladakh Buddhist Association organised their non-violent movement in 1989, soon after the elections were rigged in the state and Pakistan began its proxy war in the valley. Due to the 'insurgency,' the region wanting to join Pakistan was pampered and appeased with more and more incentives, while Ladakh, crying to be one with India, was told to wait because their demand for Union territory status could not be granted at this point of time.

One of the main hurdles was the existence of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution: the concurrence of the state assembly where the valley has the majority is required for any change, however minor.

When I recently interviewed Ladakhi leaders in Leh, most of them, including the chairman of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Thupstan Chhewang felt Article 370 should be abrogated. The autonomy they demand is not an autonomy from India, but an autonomy from Srinagar with whom they do not share common problems and aspirations. Many of my informants consider 1947 not as the independence of Ladakh but its enslavement to the leaders of the Kashmir valley.

This went to such an extent that, in 1952, when Sheikh Abdullah presented the state's budget to the constituent assembly, he forgot Ladakh. When Bakula protested in a strongly worded speech, Abdullah asked his speech to be expunged from the records under the pretext that it was in English and not in Urdu.

After many frustrating decades, Ladakh was finally offered an Autonomous Hill Development Council as a compromise in 1995. Though the chairman and his executives councillors (ministers) have vast executive powers on paper, they often face a frustrating situation with Srinagar, which is not really interested in their problems and has the ability to block the system.

This strange situation is compounded by the fact that the Hill Council has been elected on the ticket of the Congress party, which is against the trifurcation of the state and not presently in power at the Centre.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the aspirations of the Ladakhis can be fulfilled in the near future. Though they will be returning four MLAs in the forthcoming assembly election in the state, it is doubtful if the situation of the most strategic region of India will substantially improve.

Some people in Leh have pinned their hope on the younger Abdullah (Omar), feeling he will be more sympathetic to their plight because of his modern education and outlook. But, ultimately, the situation of the three regions can change only when each side is able to decide about its own needs and development priorities. For the ordinary Ladakhi, it is difficult to understand why the Centre, while continually appeasing the valley, has refused to allow the population of Ladakh and Jammu choose their own destiny and come closer to India.

The abrogation of Article 370 should certainly be the first step towards the integration of these regions. One flag and one Constitution is enough for the Ladakhis.

Some other actions could help reduce the frustration of the gentle people of Ladakh. One is the opening of an all-weather road from Spiti valley to Leh via Tsomiriri lake. Today, the two main highways are closed for more than seven months in a year. The opening of the old trade and pilgrimage route to Kailash in Tibet will also help; this would render Leh only three days away from Mansarovar and boost the local economy.

The creation of a local party that could ally directly with the Centre and lend force to the demands of the Ladakhis could also go a long towards helping their voice to be heard in Delhi. It should not be too difficult since the new deputy prime minister, L K Advani, recently rediscovered his roots on the banks of the Sindhu (Indus) river flowing through Ladakh.

But it is imperative not to forget Ladakh's special location: it is the only region in India facing two enemies -- the Chinese 'Liberation Army' on the high plateau of Aksai Chin and Linzinthang in the north, with Tibet in the west and Pakistan in the east. The region is also the scene of battle for the strategic Siachen glacier, which connects the old caravan route to Kashgar through the Karakoram pass.

And one should also not forget that, in times of difficulty, the Ladakhis have always cast their lot with India.

Design: Uttam Ghosh

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