Murder in Leh

Published : Jul 22, 2000 00:00 IST

The killing of four Buddhist lamas in Leh on July 12 portends a serious ethno-religious stife in Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the context of the chauvinistic mobilisations that are being attempted in the wake of the autonomy resolution.

THE monks in Rangdum gompa were woken by the incessant howl of a truck horn cutting through the quiet mountain night. Four young lamas, Tashi Motup, Zoolpa Stanzin, Lama Kunchok and Stanzin Tsering, set out from the ancient monastery to see what was goi ng on. The driver, the monks thought, could have lost his way, or passengers who had hitched a ride on it might be in trouble. They were wrong. Shots rang out a few minutes later. The monks inside Rangdum wisely waited until they were sure the truck had left before emerging. The bodies of Motup, Stanzin and Kunchok lay on the road, ripped apart by over 30 rounds fired from an automatic rifle at near point-blank range. Tsering had escaped by diving into a mountain stream, where he hid until help arrived.

The July 12 massacre, the first communal killings in Leh province through Jammu and Kashmir's 10-year insurgency, has illustrated the growing ethnic-religious conflict in the region. The massacre was preceded by a series of Buddhist-chauvinist mobilisati ons in Leh, attacking the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly's demand for greater autonomy. One leading figure in the protests, Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) vice-president Tsonam Gombu, provoked protests by Muslims after he described the Koran as "just anot her book, not one descended from the skies". Although Gombu apologised for his statement and was later arrested, the damage had been done. With Kargil and Leh now under curfew, and many people apprehensive of Buddhist retaliation for the lamas' murder, t he State appears to have been set for hate polemic to escalate into a full-blown religious war.

THE spectacular twin peaks of Nun and Kun tower over Rangdum gompa, their glaciers almost touching the road that runs from Kargil to Zanskar. Much of the road ahead of the Panzi La Pass is open for only a few months each year, and Zanskar's residents mus t use the time to stock supplies for the winter. Srinagar resident Nazir Ahmed had finished dropping one load of supplies at Zanksar and was headed back to Kargil on the evening of July 12. Shortly after crossing a police checkpoint at Padam, a three-hou r drive from Kargil, four armed men stopped his truck. Ahmed told his police interrogators that the men spoke a language similar to the Gujjar dialect, with a strong Punjabi inflection. After executing the lamas' murder, the group made Ahmed drive them t o a sheep farm near Panikhar, where they disappeared into the darkness.

Police officials in Srinagar were not sure that Ahmed had told them the entire story of what happened at Rangdum gompa. For one, the truck driver had no cogent explanation of why he did not report the crime at the police checkpoint in Panikhar, where he registered his vehicle's movement towards Kargil. The Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Operations Group (SOG) only caught up with the truck at Ganderbal, on the outskirts of Srinagar, on the morning of July 14. One explanation is that he was simply too s cared to risk trouble in the area, but Ahmed's decision not to report the crime to authorities in Kargil, Pahalgam or Ganderbal has aroused suspicion. Whatever the truth, it seems plausible that the terrorists disappeared towards the Seni monastery, and on through the mountain passes into Kishtwar, a mountain tehsil in Doda district.

Fears of terrorist attacks in the area are not new. The welter of mountain passes linking troubled Doda to the Kargil area had prompted attention as early as 1998. In his now famous preparatory note for a briefing to Chief of the Army Staff V.P. Malik on August 29, 1998, the then commander of the 121 Brigade in Kargil, Brigadier Surinder Singh, had pointed to the existence of "infilt(ration) routes available through (the) Mushkoh Valley (and) from Doda side to Panikhar, Yaldor and through nullahs". Para graph 15 of the briefing note asked for "one air OP (observation) fl(igh)t for observation, control of artillery fire and evacuating casualties to be at Kargil", full time. The same year, an improvised explosive device went off at Matayin, near Drass, ma king clear that terrorists were expanding their theatre of operations out of Kashmir and into Kargil.

Events during last summer's Kargil war underpinned the growing threat from terrorist groups to the Leh-Kargil region. At least one group of some 70 armed men was reported by Intelligence Bureau observers to have been moving towards the general area of Pa nikhar from Doda, prompting defensive deployments to prevent a pincer action targeting Indian military supply routes in Kargil. Then, in June 1999, the Leh Police arrested 17 members of a terrorist cell set up in the border villages of Turtok, including two police constables. Twenty-five Kalashnikov assault rifles, a pica machine gun, one general purpose machine gun, a sniper rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher were recovered from Turtok resident Ali Bhutto. The Turtok cell's leader, Ali Bhutt o's brother Ibrahim Sangsang, disappeared back into Pakistan shortly before the arrests.

BUT politics, not terrorist tactics, best explains the events in the Leh region. In the wake of the passing of the autonomy resolution by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, sustained protests were launched in Leh. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Coun cil (LAHDC), including three of its 30 members elected on the National Conference ticket, adopted a counter-resolution demanding that the region be made a Union Territory. The LAHDC resolution described the autonomy motion as "mischievous and aimed at gr adual secession of the State from the Union of India". Gey Lobzang Nyantak, president of the right-wing Ladakh Buddhist Association's (LBA) youth wing went further, threatening an armed struggle against the government in Srinagar. LBA chief Tsering Samph el, in turn, warned of a "mass appeal by the Buddhists of Ladakh for asylum in a Buddhist country".

LBA vice-president Gombu's pronouncements on the Koran made explicit the underlying communal politics of the anti-autonomy protests. Unsurprisingly, Muslims in Leh responded by closing down their shops. Leh Muslim organisations, notably the Shia-affiliat ed Anjuman-e-Iamamiya run by Haji Ghulam Hassan and Mohammad Shafi Lassoo's Sunni body, the Anjuman-e-Mominul Islam, gave political shape to this spontaneous outrage. Mercifully, the LBA leadership realised that Gombu's speech was unacceptable. The polit ician was forced to resign from office, after making a public apology, and was later arrested for inciting communal hatred. The matter, however, refused to die down. Rumours that Iran's clergy would shortly issue a fatwa against Gombu proliferated in Shia-dominated Kargil town, fuelling suspicion and hatred among the area's Muslims and Buddhists.

Hate politics in the area is driven by recent history. Violent protests organised by the LBA broke out in the town in 1989, targeting both the perceived neglect of Ladakh's interests by successive State governments, and the town's relatively affluent Kas hmiri-Muslim trading community. The protests drove the formation of the LAHDC, a move that was touted by the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime as an effort to give local residents control over their own destinies. In fact, the principal effect of the LAHDC's for mation was the sundering of Buddhist-dominated Ladakh from Muslim-dominated Kargil. While Union government officials claim that the reason for the exclusion of Kargil from the LAHDC was the unwillingness of the district to join the body, the fact is that no real effort was made to persuade its political leadership to join the LAHDC.

With the communal fault lines of the Ladakh province now institutionalised, things went from bad to worse. Both the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party engaged in competitive communalism to ensure control of the LAHDC. Although the positions of bo th parties was in effect indistinguishable, the BJP's rise to power in New Delhi helped expand its influence. The Sindhu Darshan festival initiated by Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and organised with Army assistance, brought Hindu religious tourist inc omes to Leh, thus providing the financial underpinning for an alliance between Buddhist chauvinist forces and the BJP. During the Kargil war, elements in the LBA campaigned against the temporary resettlement of Muslim refugees in Leh. The Lok Sabha elect ions that year in the Ladakh constituency were fought clearly along communal lines.

FOR the moment, the prospect of full-scale communal hostilities in Leh, or reprisal attacks by Buddhists against Muslims in Zanskar, has been averted by prompt administrative action. Curfew was imposed through the region, and local police officials have been instructed to use force to disperse protests. The presence of State Finance Minister A.R. Rather and Srinagar Deputy Inspector-General of Police K. Rajendra, both of whom left for Leh in the wake of Gombu's inflammatory speech, provided high-level s upport for the local firefighting operations. Leh's Muslim leaders, for their part, reacted with remarkable responsibility, issuing a joint statement condemning the Rangdum gompa massacre and initiating a peace meeting with LBA leaders on July 14.

Just how long the peace will hold, however, is far from clear. The institutional sundering of Ladakh along its communal fault lines seems certain to harden. If proposals made by the State's Regional Autonomy Committee last year go through - and it appear s they will - Kargil and Leh will be separated into two separate provinces, although each constitutes only a separate district. With Ladakh cut apart on communal lines, the National Conference would be certain to target Muslim voters in Kargil and ignore Leh's legitimate developmental demands. That this project has the blessings of the Hindu Right as well is evident from top Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader K.R. Malkani's defence, in The Indian Express, of plans first put forward by Shyama Pras ad Mookerjee, for sundering Jammu and Leh from Kashmir. U.S.-based think tanks like the Kashmir Study Group have also advocated a similar future for Kargil and Leh.

Far Right terrorist groups are certain to flourish in this political terrain. The rise of Maulana Masood Azhar's Jaish-e-Mohammadi (Army of the Prophet) in Jammu and Kashmir has already signalled that explicitly communal-fascist tendencies will dominate the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. Azhar, released in the Indian Airlines hostages-for-terrorists at Kandahar this January, is believed to have funding from Saudi fanatic Osama bin Laden. At least three-quarters of the Harkatul Mujahideen's cadre in Ja mmu and Kashmir, intelligence officials say, have joined Azhar's new group. Documents recovered from the organisation's 21-year old Kashmir Valley commander, Abdul Haseeb Khan, provide disturbing insights into the shape of violence to come. Khan, a resid ent of Sialkot in Pakistan who was eliminated by the SOG on July 14, repeatedly referred in his diaries to a war against unbelievers, and identified India as the "main source of polytheism that has to be captured".

So far, communal warfare has been restricted to Leh, but there are signs that Jammu could soon be subject to the kind of large-scale massacres seen from 1996 onwards. On July 11, SOG personnel only narrowly averted an attempt by terrorists to hijack a bu s carrying Hindu pilgrims near the Ikhala forests, near Dachan in Kishtwar. With Jammu already tense because of massive anti-autonomy protests, communal killings could easily lead to retaliatory attacks against innocent Muslims by the Hindu Right. The di splacement of the tolerant traditions of Buddhism in Ladakh with the LBA's aggressive chauvinism, and the parallel ascendancy of Shia and Sunni orthodoxy over local eclectic traditions like the Noor Baksh sect, have prepared the ground of Ladakh to witne ss the same tragic confrontations that have sundered Hindus from Muslims in Jammu.

"If we start witnessing communal massacres of the kind seen in the Jammu province, tensions could escalate to a point where they are impossible to manage," Kargil's then Senior Superintendent of Police Deepak Kumar told Frontline in June, 1999. Th e first part of Kumar's fears has already been realised. The people of Jammu and Kashmir can only hope the second half does not turn out to be true.

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