A tale of two villages in Ladakh
19 February 2006
Bodh Karbu: A room crudely hammered together from weather-beaten wood planks, with nothing but an untidily-scrawled notice to identify it as a place of worship. The village mosque here seems as unlikely a cause for religious passion as could be imagined. Ever since February 5, though, the shack has been at the heart of a war between Ladakh's Shia Muslims and Buddhists, communities bound together by ties of language, culture and, until just a generation ago, even kinship. After torn pages of the Koran were found inside the mosque, mobs attacked Buddhist homes on the fringes of Bodh Kharbhu, sparking off violence that threatens to rip apart Ladakh's syncretic cultural traditions for ever. Few facts available Two weeks after the riots broke out, few facts are available on just what went wrong — and, more important, why. Animal Husbandry Department worker Mohammad Musa, who doubles as the mosque's caretaker, arrived there on the morning of February 5 as he had done every day for years. As he opened the door, Musa says, he noticed that the Koran was on the floor and that several pages had been ripped out. Musa ran down the steps to the nearest building, a roadside teashop run by Shravan Kumar, a Hindu migrant from Sikkim. He described what he had seen to Kumar and his sole client at the time, a Buddhist named Tashi Namgyal. Neither seemed to have any idea what had happened, but suggested going to the village authorities. 'I've had enough of all this talk,' Kumar claims Musa said, 'I'm going to deal with things my way.' News of the incident reached the adjoining Shia village of Khangral an hour or so later, even as a large religious gathering on the occasion of Muharram was under way. Protesters promptly walked the short distance from Khangral to Bodh Kharbu to voice their disquiet. This first demonstration, by all accounts, was peaceful, although some Bodh Kharbu residents claim the protesters used abusive language. Later that evening, though, as Shia residents of the larger village of Chiktan arrived in Bodh Kharbu, violence broke out. Several houses were stoned. Some damage was caused to windowpanes and furniture; a solar-heating kit outside one residence was set on fire. However, there was no loss of life, or even serious injury. Late that evening, peace was restored. In both Bodh Kharbu and Khangral, there is bewilderment about just why things got out of hand so quickly. Just two years ago, when the Dalai Lama visited Bodh Kharbu, many of those who turned out to greet him where Shia Muslims from Khangral. Chiktan's Muslim residents had even laid out a special reception for the Buddhist leader. What is clear, though, is that the area's communal peace had been under siege for some time. For example, when Bodh Kharbu residents sought permission to renovate abandoned Buddhist temples and idols in Chiktan, Shia leaders asked that they be allowed to build a proper mosque where the shack stands. Both sides ended denying each other permission to fulfil their wishes. According to Mohammad Musa, the bitterness provoked by this led to at least two attacks on the mosque. On one occasion, donations stored in a makeshift safe were burgled; on another, a teenager threw a stone, shattering a windowpane. While it is unclear if either incident was motivated by communal feeling, they did create resentment amongst the Shias. Yet, the question remains: why was it that a small incident in an obscure village snowballed into a communal war?