With Dalai lama’s Blessings – Besieged Tibetan Buddhists Waging War to Re-Partition Kashmir
By Yoichi Clark Shimatsu and Leeroy Betti, Pacific News Service, July 31, 2001
An isolated Buddhist community in Ladakh, part of the Indian sector of divided Kashmir, fears that its ancient faith could become a casualty in a new round of war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Contrary to the Dalai Lama’s message of non violence, indigenous Ladakhis and Tibetan refugees are warring against Muslims and shedding blood for Buddhism. Kashmir fighting engulfs Ladakh’s Buddhists. PNS associate editor Yoichi Shimatsu is a lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Center of Hong Kong University and former editor with The Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo. Leeroy Betti reports for the West Australian daily in Perth. They recently traveled to the battle zone of Kargil in Kashmir. Photos of Tsering Samphel, Maitreya statue and Shia Muslims of Kargil available from Pacific News Service.
MULBEK, LADAKH — Carved into a granite monolith over a thousand years ago, the towering image of Maitreya, Buddha of the Future, survives the whirlwinds that swept Buddhism from this northeast corner of the Indian subcontinent.
Today, the future seems more ominous than ever for the 100,000 followers of Tibetan Buddhism who are caught in a half-century of war between local Muslims and Hindus, and between Pakistan and India, for control over the disputed territory. Since the battle of Kargil two years ago, native Buddhists and Tibetan refugees have emerged as India’s most effective fighting force along the Line of Control that separates the Indian and Pakistani sectors of Kashmir.
The territorial dispute has since escalated into a full-fledged religious war, with Islamic militants focusing their gun sights on local Buddhists in retaliation for their decisive role in beating back an Islamic attack on Kargil in 1999.
“The Buddhists of Ladakh are the main target of the Kashmiri militants now that the Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus) have been ousted from the Kashmir Valley,” said Tsering Samphel, head of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, in the district capital of Leh.
Over the past decade, Islamic separatists routed some 300,000 Pandits out of the Kashmir Valley, the heartland of a once independent kingdom.
Then, in brutal mountain warfare around Kargil, the Kashmiri militants clashed with the Indian Army’s Ladakh Scouts, a 4,000-man paramilitary unit of local Buddhists and Tibetan commandos. Just as the fighting erupted at Kargil, the Dalai Lama happened to be visiting the Jivay Tsal, his palatial residence near Choklamsar, the sprawling Tibetan refugee camp outside Leh. According to Tibetan monks and schoolteachers interviewed at the camp, the Tibetan spiritual leader gave his personal blessing to the Buddhist soldiers of the Ladakh Scouts, Indian press accounts also mentioned the Dalai Lama’s supportive role.
The Ladakhi and Tibetan troopers were immediately sent to the mountains over the Indus River headwaters. After scaling the icy cliffs, the Ladakh Scouts launched the first successful counterattacks by the Indian side, killing dozens of Muslim militants and pushing the rest back into Pakistan-controlled Baltistan.
“Kargil showed the Buddhists will not flee like the Pandits,” said Tsering. “We Buddhists cannot remain as spectators, we will resist.”
Since their reversal at Kargil, Islamic militants have escalated their attacks on the Buddhists. Muslims have staged angry protests in the Buddhist stronghold of Leh. In June 2000 Islamic gunmen killed three monks with the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order in the Zanskar Mountains.
Members of the Ladakh Buddhist Association say that the destruction of the two giant Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan early this year was done in retribution for the Buddhist military victory at Kargil. After decades of combat in Afghanistan and Kashmir, militants from both regions see themselves locked in a holy war on two fronts.
“Since the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, the Ladakhis feel more insecure than ever,” Tsering added.
The Ladakhi prowess at mountain warfare is matched by their bold political strategy aimed at redrawing the Line of Control. Pointing to a colorful map in his Leh headquarters, Tsering charts a new east-west line around Ladakh. That narrow strip is for a new Pandit homeland plus ammu. His index finger excludes the Kashmir Valley.
“Not a single Kashmiri wants to remain within India, so it is better to let them go their own way,” he said. “The Islamic militants are less dangerous outside our border than inside where they can attack us at will.”
The new-found Buddhist militancy arises from modern-day national interests and not from historical conflicts with Islam, Tsering said.
Despite their conflict with Sufi-Muslim militants of the Kashmir Valley, the Buddhist community lives in harmony with the Shia Muslims of Kargil who are wary of their Sunni-dominated Pakstan neighbor.
A muezzini’s call to prayer from the Jama Mosque rattled the windowpanes of the Buddhist Association, while in the distance, artillery fire again boomed through the mountains around Kargil after the failed talks between the leaders of Pakistan and India.
“The situation is critical — Kashmir is almost completely in the hands of Islamic militants,” Tsering said.
“All our options are bad, but we must take the risk of redrawing the Line of Control because our present situation is like being locked in a cage with a tiger.”