August 2002 News

India''s Ladakhis seek independence from Kashmir

29 August 2002
Myra MacDonald

LEH: Kashmir may have been grabbing all the attention with its separatist revolt against Indian rule, but the remote northern desert region of Ladakh has its own concerns - it wants independence from Kashmir. Up here on the Himalayan plateau, the rebellion which has claimed at least 35,000 lives in the lush Kashmir Valley down below wins little sympathy from the fiercely pro-India Ladakhis. And though their population of Buddhists and Muslims make up just 2.3 percent of Jammu and Kashmir state, they are determined to assert the authority that goes with having more than three-fifths of its territory, albeit much of it uninhabitable. They want to be given their own status as a Union Territory within India, leaving Kashmiri separatists to pursue their revolt aimed at reversing a decision to give the region to India rather than Pakistan at independence in 1947. ''We cry. We have been crying right from 1947,'' says Tsering Samphel, president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association which is leading the campaign to break away from Kashmir. ''We are at the mercy of the Kashmiri Muslims,'' he adds. ''We want more integration with India. They want separatism. We are for India. The majority of them are for Pakistan.'' Ladakh, a vast high-altitude desert overlooked by snow-capped Himalayan peaks, has long been used to living in the shadow of its bigger neighbours - China, Pakistan and India. In its heyday, its capital Leh attracted traders from Yarkand in China, Tibet and Kashmir, before wars with Pakistan and China left its borders firmly closed to the north and west and turned the attention of the Ladakhis south to New Delhi. Now it depends on tourists who throng through the streets of Leh - transformed into a prosperous town of hotels, handicraft shops and trekking agencies - mixing incongruously with Buddhist monks in purple robes and Indian soldiers in jeeps and trucks. For years Ladakhis complained about being looked down up by by the refined Kashmiris in their capital Srinagar, which dominates the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir state. ''I think they figured that we were a bunch of tribals sitting in the mountains,'' quipped historian Siddiq Wahid, currently principal of Leh''s Islamia Public School. HOPES AND DREAMS But with intense international pressure to end the Kashmir revolt - which brought nuclear-armed Pakistan and India to the brink of war in June - Ladakhis are hoping their dream of breaking away may come true. ''Ladakh must get Union Territory status because it will improve everything,'' says Skarma Choskit, one of dozens queuing up at the magistrate''s office in Leh to get identity cards for state elections due in September and October. ''I feel sorry for the Kashmiri people. They are fighting all the time. People are dying there every day,'' she said. In the tradition of Indian politics, where people will never use a short simple word when a longer one is available, the new buzzword for fulfilling the Ladakhi separatist ambition is ''trifurcation'' - splitting the state into three. Under this plan, Jammu and Kashmir state would be carved up into mostly-Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir and Ladakh, whose population of 233,000 is divided roughly equally between Muslims and Buddhists. Though Ladakh has been mostly insulated from the separatist revolt - it is cut off from Kashmir by snow for eight months of the year - it says its economic development has suffered, its tourist trade badly hit this year by the India-Pakistan crisis. Its western border has also been the scene of heavy fighting between the Indian and Pakistani armies massed on the military Line of Control that cuts down through Jammu and Kashmir state. ''We are not a part of that turmoil, but we suffer and we have suffered for 12 years,'' says Pinto Narboo, a former state government minister. ''Trifurcate this whole wretched region.'' ANCHORING DOWN KASHMIR Like everything to do with Kashmir, it is not that simple. No mainstream political party is keen to carve up the state, fearing this could be an implicit acknowledgement that Muslim Kashmir should have gone to Islamic Pakistan when it split from mostly Hindu but secular India in 1947. ''They feel Ladakh and Jammu must anchor Kashmir,'' complained Rigzin Jora, spokesman of the Hill Council, a development body set up in 1995 to give Ladakhis more say in their affairs. And Ladakh''s Muslims, while keen for more autonomy, oppose trifurcation - ironically they feel put upon by the more prosperous Buddhists of Leh, just as the Buddhists of Leh resent the Kashmiris, and the Kashmiris resent the power of New Delhi. But with state assembly elections coming up in Jammu and Kashmir, the whole question of trifurcation is gaining fresh impetus. It has even gained support from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a nationwide network of Hindu nationalists and the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which runs the coalition government in New Delhi. Though the RSS is fiercely opposed to ceding Kashmir to Pakistan, it has long championed the cause of Jammu''s Hindus, often victims of the militant revolt spilling over from Kashmir. Supporters of trifurcation say that after the elections, India will have to give greater autonomy to Kashmir to try to end the revolt which some fear could ultimately trigger the world''s first nuclear war between India and Pakistan. ''How else are we going to find a solution to Kashmir? They will have to be given something,'' said Jora. ''If they get more autonomy, the people of Ladakh and Jammu will oppose it. We will be a stumbling block in their way.'' The BJP has so far ruled out splitting up Jammu and Kashmir into three but is seen as sympathetic to setting up three regional councils in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Narboo, who is now campaigning for the BJP, said he saw it as the party most sympathetic to trifurcation. ''The BJP might be somewhat ambiguous on this issue, but it is the only party which is at least prepared to consider it. ''This ambiguity is perhaps based on the consideration that if things do not improve in the (Kashmir) Valley there is no option but to reorganise the state into three regions.''


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