Over the past few weeks, six people have died, with hundreds injured, during the worst sectarian rioting in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in decades. While the rioting did not directly involve the Ladakhi people, the continuing sectarian clashes in the state foster a climate of strife and violence that affects everyone in the region.
The trouble began in late June when the J – K government decided to deed 99 acres of land in the Kashmir Valley, the Muslim section of the state, to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board, a trust that administers an important Hindu religious site. The shrine consists of a cave with a large ice stalagmite, which Hindus consider to be an incarnation of the god Siva. Hundreds of thousands of pious people make pilgrimages to the site at this time each year. Thousands of troops are deployed to guard their route, since the pilgrims might make tempting targets for Muslim extremists in the region.
The state government indicated it wanted to transfer the tract of land to the shrine so that it could build huts and toilets for the thousands of visiting pilgrims. The Muslim majority in the city of Srinagar and the surrounding Kashmir Valley took to the streets to protest the land transfer proposal. They feared that the plan was simply a plot to settle more Hindus in their section of the state, which could tip the balance of population against them.
On July 1, after nine days of protests and rioting, the state government relented and scrapped the proposal. At a huge rally, Muslims who had gathered to protest could instead celebrate their victory—by shouting “Freedom, Freedom.” The issue had been politicized by their leaders to focus on the larger context of independence from India. While the Muslims in Srinagar celebrated their victory, Hindus in Jammu rallied to protest the decision. The BJP, a Hindu-focused national opposition party, vowed in New Delhi to make the cause of the Hindu pilgrims a major issue in national elections coming up next year.
The agitation produced immediate political fallout. The People’s Democratic Party, part of the ruling coalition in the state, withdrew from the government during the chaotic first week of July. The government soon fell. On Friday, July 11, the national government imposed direct federal rule over the state.
Complex sectarian strife has plagued the state for most of the past century—the events of the past three weeks are not unprecedented. In the 1930s, a Muslim Kashmiri uprising against the Dogra Hindu rulers in Jammu led, in 1947, to political power being transferred to the Muslim majority in the state.
Since 1947, a variety of political parties and factions have formed to advance their different causes, such as the Jammu Mukti Morcha, which proposes a three-way split in the state—the formation of separate states of Jammu and Kashmir, and the designation of Ladakh as a Union Territory. The latter idea has strong support among the Buddhists in Ladakh, but the central government of India rejects these kinds of sectarian political divisions. It is determined to continue building a nation based on secular political processes.
According to Ravina Aggarwal’s book Beyond Lines of Control, the sectarian problems in the state of Jammu and Kashmir exacerbate the political, religious, cultural and social divisions in Ladakh, a section of the state. The international, national, regional, and local tensions throughout the state threaten the peace in many ways, but peace-building may yet be possible. In her book, Aggarwal concludes that, in order for “the process of healing to commence [in Kashmir], concerted efforts must be made at various government and community levels to perform in ways that regain the trust of the people, safeguard interests of marginalized groups, decentralize power, and restructure ineffective political, economic, and social systems (p.234).”