A news story in the Telegraph of Calcutta last week observed that the demographic trends of Ladakh are running against the Buddhists. The article indicates that the population of 236,000 Ladakhis is divided, according to the 2001 census, into 47.4 percent Muslims and 45.9 percent Buddhists.
The worrisome feature of the story—at least for the Buddhists—is that their numbers are not rising as fast as those of the Muslims. The Buddhist population grew by 29.97 percent over the ten years since the previous census, while the Muslims grew by 31.52 percent. Buddhists leaders are worried.
The president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, Sonam Dawa Lonte, told the paper that he wrote to the Centre (the national government in New Delhi) blaming the family planning activities of the state government in Srinagar for the growing disparity. “The Jammu and Kashmir government should stop its family planning programme here because its not feasible,” he said.
He thinks Buddhists are adopting family planning practices more than the Muslims do, even though their religion forbids it. He told the paper, “Our religious heads now urge people to have more than two children.” He indicated that they still have a sparse population for the huge area they inhabit.
Tsering Dorgey, the chair of the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council, also frets about the growing inequity in the population. He is less concerned about family planning policies, however, and more about basic demographic issues. Many of the Buddhist monks stay single and, in the more remote areas, polyandry is still practiced. A household of several men, usually brothers, may still live with the wife of the oldest brother. Tsering Dorgey frequently urges the Buddhist people of Ladakh to have more children.
While these two Buddhist officials are obviously worried about the numbers, the leader of the Muslim dominated Kargil Autonomous Hill Development Council, Asgar Karbalai, believes that there have always been more Muslims than Buddhists in Ladakh. He denies the accuracy of figures that show a decline in the percent of Buddhists. “Ladakh has been projected as the land of the lamas, but the fact is that Muslims were always in a majority here,” he said.
He also denies charges that the Muslims resist family planning practices. He says that the Muslims are, in fact, open to considering birth control measures. But the paper quotes other Muslims in Kargil who do not echo his words. One person said that “we have to increase our numbers not only because we want our share in development but also because Islam forbids family planning.”
None of these people addressed the obvious questions as to whether the land can really support much of an increased population—whether there is sufficient water, food, and natural resources for a lot more people. The representatives of the different groups only focused on their religious opposition to family planning and the competition between the two groups for resources, control over the region, and access to development assistance.