Asia-Pacific

Kashmir's Elections

Kashmir: Separatism With a Twist

The crackle of gunfire is never heard here [in Ladakh], and grenades aren’t tossed into crowded markets. Unlike the rest of Kashmir—dubbed the most dangerous place on Earth—there are no troops with Kevlar vests and automatic weapons securing the streets. Instead of foot patrols, saffron-clad monks circumambulate Buddhist temples in the pre-dawn light, armed only with prayer beads.

Yet beneath the veneer of security and serenity, the residents of this Buddhist enclave are bitter. From their remote Himalayan perch in eastern Kashmir, bordering on Tibet, they complain of mistreatment at the hands of the state’s Muslim majority concentrated in the Valley below. Now, after trying for half a century to get along with the Muslims, the Buddhists want to separate from Kashmir—before Kashmir separates from India.

It is separatism with a twist: Ladakhis want to leave Kashmir in order to get closer to Mother India, becoming a “union territory” governed directly by New Delhi. Their demands have thrown a spanner into the closely watched elections for Kashmir’s state legislature: Local parties launched the elections by dissolving themselves and joining forces to create the Ladakh Union Territory Front—a coalition aiming to sever ties with Srinagar, the state’s bloodstained capital, and forge links with New Delhi. It wasn’t quite a declaration of war, but it did send shock waves across Kashmir—rattling the separatists in Srinagar, and flummoxing the secularists in Delhi who can’t countenance a communal divide.

The center of an ancient Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, Leh is barely 250 kilometers [155 miles] east of Srinagar. Yet it remains a world apart—divided by geography, language, culture, and politics. Ever since partition in 1947, the Ladakhis have bristled over Srinagar’s rule. After 1989, they recoiled over a brutal insurgency that has claimed some 60,000 lives and torn the state apart—pitting Pakistan-backed Islamist militants against 600,000 Indian army troops.

In the unique political lexicon of Indian English, they want to “trifurcate” Jammu and Kashmir state, as it is formally known, into three parts: Ladakh to the east, which makes up 70 percent of Indian-held Kashmir, but barely 2.3 percent of its 10 million people; the Hindu south, better known as Jammu; and the Kashmir Valley, which has a restive Muslim majority and is the source of most strife. Overall, about two-thirds of Kashmiris are Muslims, but they are a majority only in the Valley, which has lost many of its minority Sikhs and Hindus to the threat of violence since 1989.

But the Indian government is loath to divide an already divided state any further. Ladakh provides ballast for the sinking ship of state that is Kashmir: If a referendum were ever held, India would need the votes from loyal Ladakhis to buttress their cause (similarly, Pakistan has bulked up Azad Kashmir’s boundaries next door by lumping it together with all its northern territories). Of greatest concern is the threat to India’s identity: If the Buddhists broke away, it would destroy the ideal of a secular Kashmir in a pluralist India.

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