The warfare and bitterness of the Indian partition era helped foster discrimination, dissention, and communal tensions that persist to this day in the Zangskar region of Ladakh, according to one scholar.
Zangskar valley, which is 95 percent Buddhist, is in the mountains of Ladakh’s Kargil District to the southwest of the town of Leh and southeast of the town of Kargil. The easiest access to the valley is from the town of Kargil, the center of Ladakh’s Muslim Kargil District. The Buddhists in Zangskar comprise only 20 percent of the population in the District as a whole, while Leh District, the other major section of Ladakh, is primarily Buddhist with a minority of Muslims. Kim Gutschow, who teaches in the Religion Department of Williams College, explains in a recent article how tensions between these two groups in the Zangskar Valley developed out of fighting between Muslim forces and the Indian Army from 1947 to 1949.
Most of the Muslim population of the valley is descended from a few Sunni soldiers who remained after General Zorawar Singh captured the area for the Dogra rulers of Jammu and Kashmir in 1834. One household, according to local stories, is descended from a Muslim cook/butcher who had moved there in the 18th century. The story, with its implication of hereditary ritual pollution from the butchering craft, justifies, at least for some of the Buddhists, their hostile feelings for the Muslims.
Gutschow describes how, in 1947, the Himalayas helped protect the Ladakhi valleys from major army movements, but local forces fought back and forth for control. A small Muslim army known as the Gilgit Scouts, organized by the British decades earlier, allied with the interests of Pakistan and began to seize key towns in the Indus River valley. They took Gilgit, then captured Skardu, the center of the Baltistan region of Ladakh. Buddhists in Leh became alarmed and started raising local volunteer militias.
By May 1948, the Gilgit Scouts controlled Kargil and threatened Leh itself. The more remote Zangskar Valley became involved too. When the Gilgit Scouts moved up into that valley, the Muslim households there supplied them with provisions. The situation was a stalemate until November 1948 when Indian Army reinforcements arrived.
Gutschow gained the impression from her informants that the Muslim soldiers treated the Buddhist residents of Zangskar quite decently during their occupation of the valley. She shares a number of stories of soldiers inspecting remote villages and farms, the residents fleeing to higher ground as the soldiers approached, and the reasonably benign tactics of the Muslims as they entered the houses and requisitioned supplies. The Buddhist farmers tended to bury their valuables, hide their women, and send most of their people away. Some men would remain to feed the entering army, to try and prevent looting, and to handle the situation as best they could. The Gilgit Scouts were apparently trying to not alienate the people.
Older and younger people in Zangskar today have differing views of the war period. Elders who still remember the warfare of 1947-1949 of course speak of the fighting between the Buddhists and the Muslims, but they also have positive memories about the inter-community goodwill from that period.
Younger people, with no memory of the war period, emphasize the growing ill will and tensions between the two groups in recent decades. One of the issues that poisons relations is the sense of continuing pollution. Muslim soldiers in the 1940s who occupied Buddhist communities offended local deities, some Buddhists feel. Gilgit Scouts who lived in a local palace, killing sheep and smoking, so polluted the house and alienated the guardian deities of the premises that apparently ritual cures are not working. Angered deities may still be responsible for droughts, deaths, and disasters.
But relations between the two groups in Zangskar today are not completely severed. While a Buddhist and a Muslim would not marry, they do attend each other’s weddings, and they may share food with one another. But tensions are not abating. The Buddhists in Zangskar feel they are discriminated against by the majority Muslim population of the whole District of Kargil, which is controlled by the Shi’a elites of the town of Kargil.
People have described to the author the ways they are discriminated against by their local government. Both sides claim that the other is trying to increase their population at the expense of their own. Buddhists in Zangskar beef about the lack of government services to them from Kargil, just as the ones in Leh complain about discrimination by the Muslim government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir in Srinagar.
Local disputes, traditionally handled at the village level, such as livestock trampling the crops of another farmer, are not resolved as effectively as they used to be if one of the parties to the conflict is Buddhist and the other is Muslim. In the recent past, village mediators handled such infractions of customary laws, but officials who mediate disputes are no longer being appointed.
Gutschow describes a nasty incident in 2000 when some Muslim terrorists infiltrated a Buddhist community and murdered three monks next to a public road. The shock from that tragedy still roils the region.
The author concludes that the people of the Zangskar valley still view themselves as local villagers more than they do as citizens of Kargil, Ladakh, or even India. Though they recognize the political realities and maintain allegiance to the Indian nation, when they leave their own valley they feel they are going away: to the town of Kargil, or to Delhi. They have divided identities—as Buddhists, as residents of a village, as part of a district, or as citizens of the nation.
Gutschow, Kim. 2006. “The Politics of Being Buddhist in Zangskar: Partition and Today.” India Review 5(3):470-498