Sindhu Flows Through Leh's Religious Rift

FROM CHANDAN NANDY, Telegraph, June 10

They have begun to shun the middle path and are slowly drifting to the right.

In a new twist to the politico-religious tangle in north Kashmir, Buddhists are turning more and more hostile towards their traditional neighbours - Muslims - who constitute a minority in this town nestling in the lower reaches of the Karakoram range, but are in a majority in adjoining Kargil.

The Sangh parivar is encashing on this religious divide and making a steady penetration into Ladakh. The Hindu Mahasabha has built a temple in the heart of Leh. Jumborees like the Sindhu Darshan festival of Wednesday, officially sponsored by the Centre and Jammu and Kashmir government but spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are coming in handy for weaning away chunks of the Buddhist population.

Home minister L.K. Advani admitted yesterday that when he first organised - and solemnised - the Sindhu Darshan festival in 1997, the "locals (Buddhists) were apprehensive", but "as word spread, people with emotional links to the Indus and those involved in the country's cultural resurgence began to flock here".

Elaborating on the theme of national integration, Advani said: "We have the ability to bring together all those who constitute India's cultural fabric. And it is precisely with that objective in mind that the Sindhu Darshan is being organised."

But there is no doubt that the BJP-led government is wooing Buddhists. Yesterday, tourism and culture minister Ananth Kumar announced the government's plans to accord deemed-university status to the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, a step that will bring it on a par with Buddhist centres of learning at Sarnath and Nalanda.

Helping the process along, the RSS has already made known that "trifurcation" of the state into Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh on religious lines is an alternative solution to the Kashmir problem and could answer demands for autonomy in the three regions.

Buddhists have suddenly discovered that it is the BJP which could fulfil its "aspirations" in Ladakh and are even prepared to "come under the larger umbrella of Hindiusm".

Buddhist leaders have turned vocal against Muslims, with whom they have lived cheek-by-jowl for centuries, as the gangrene of religious intolerance spreads to all regions of this wounded state in a fallout of militant conflict.

Ladakh Buddhist Association president Tsering Samphel said: "We are open to the Hindus to the extent that we would be able to counter the Muslims."

Samphel is convinced that Muslims are becoming more and more fundamentalist in Leh and Kargil which, he says, is part of the "larger conspiracy" to Islamise Ladakh. "Earlier, they would sound the bell in the mosques before reading out their prayers. Now they have switched to loud-speakers. Muslims are converting Buddhists to Islam. As many as 72 boys and girls have been converted. Five new mosques have been constructed at Leh during 1989-99 around Buddhist habitations," alleged Samphel.

"The percentage of Muslims in Leh district increased from 15.32 per cent in 1981 to 18.37 per cent in the projected figures for 1991 wh-en no census was held," he said.

Sheikh Mirza Hussein, till recently president of the Anjuman Imamia, a Shia organisation, admitted that there was a deep divide between Muslims and Buddhists. However, he attributed this more to the "baseless apprehensions" of Buddhists who are being "used as convenient tools" to widen the hiatus. He is yet to forget the en masse boycott of Muslims by the majority community a few years ago.

Hussein suspected that "some hidden hand" was engineering the divide. He did not say as much, but asked what impact Sindhu Darshan would have on Buddhists and Muslims, Hussein was apprehensive: "If it is misused, it might give rise to mazhabi (religious) differences. Muslims will then have to protect their interests. Believe me, Buddhists are more apprehensive of a likely penetration by Hindutva forces."

The association blamed the Farooq Abdullah government for the "continuing victimisation of and discrimination" against the Buddhist community. One of the reasons for the Buddhist "xenophobia" is that, for the first time, a candidate from Farooq's National Conference was elected MP from Ladakh. Samphel claimed that the nomination of two Buddhist monks in Farooq's Cabinet was another ploy to divide Buddhists.

It is apparent that Buddhists are a divided house, a situation which, observers here feel, might be capitalised on for political purposes.

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