The fault line in Ladakh: The unspoken identity crisis in Kargil

Contrary to popular perception, Muslims have a slender majority in Ladakh and most of them have been living here for centuries. They are also mostly Shias unlike the Sunni majority in Kashmir valley

Pangong Lake, 1984, Ladakh, India   
Pangong Lake, 1984, Ladakh, India   
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Rahul Mukherji

It was a fairly uneventful flight from Delhi to Leh. The snowcapped peaks of the mighty Himalayas gave way to the stark, brownish-grey mountain deserts of Ladakh, as the plane glided into the idyllic Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport. The quaint airport greets visitors with Buddhist motifs and the almost ubiquitous “Don’t be a Gama in the land of Lama” signs.

As one enters Leh, the impressive statue of Sengge Namgyal, the 17th century Namgyal dynasty King of Ladakh, unveiled in November 2019, further imposes Tibet’s cultural imprint on the Union Territory. One could be lulled into believing that he or she was in a different country till “Sharma Ji ka Dhaba” pops up on the horizon. Then another. Followed by Vaishno Dhaba and so on. Many of them look pretty recent.

“For the tourists from Gujarat”, dismisses Dorjay casually, the owner cum driver of my tourist vehicle. He asks for my itinerary. He is fine with Nubra and Pangong. And visibly less enthusiastic about my onward journey to Kargil and then Srinagar. While his reservations about travelling to Srinagar makes sense, both economically and psychologically, the same about Kargil appeared inexplicable. More of that later.

The evening stroll in the central square of the main market of Leh was a pleasant, if slightly claustrophobic, affair. Leh was teeming with tourists, who seemed to be out with a vengeance, trying to make up for the last two years lost to the pandemic. And then it hits you, that Ladakh is more than just the Land of the Lama. Ladakh is more diverse than what we are given to believe. Often by design. The Ladakh administration’s purported move to showcase Buddhist culture and be oblivious to the culture of the majority Muslim population during the fledgeling UT's debut Republic Day parade in the national capital had caused a lot of anguish to the other district that makes up the Union Territory, with the elected head of Kargil writing to the Lt. Governor to express his outrage.

Kargil CEO Feroz Ahmad Khan hit out at the Ladakh administration for allegedly ignoring the region’s rich diversity in the first ever tableau from the UT to be showcased in New Delhi.

Muslims have been in Ladakh for centuries. They control a substantial part of businesses here. And they have not migrated to Ladakh from other parts of the country. The Ladakhi Muslim has been a part of the social and cultural landscape for a very long time. Ladakh comprises of Muslim-majority Kargil and Buddhistmajority Leh districts but Muslims have a slender majority in the region as a whole.

The two communities have been at each other for long but the 2019 decision to scrap J&K's special status and carve out a separate Union Territory of Ladakh has deepened the divide. Muslims opposed the move while the Buddhists celebrated it.

If one were to ask if the creation of the Union Territory had been a good move, you were bound to get three types of answers. First would be from Dorjay and his section. They are happy. The roads are good. New, snazzy hotels are coming up. Which means more tourists.

And there’s a construction boom in Ladakh. So, there are visible signs of development and better days. Besides, Muslim Kargil is being pushed further to the background. That's an added bonus, is the unspoken message.

The second type of answer that you get is that this is not sustainable development. It is coming at a huge price, both environmental and demographic. The tourist boom does generate employment. But rarely for the locals. Seven out of 10 members of staff in any mid-sized or big hotel would be an outsider; more likely from neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. Not only hotels, even eateries, general stores and small kiosks are manned and owned by Himachalis. The drive from Manali to Leh has become easier, bringing in hordes of bikers. But also migrant workers and business owners.

The third answer would be a long sigh. The simmering tension between Leh and Kargil, Buddhists and Muslims does not sit comfortably with many. Neither does the change in demography. While the local Buddhist associations would pin it on “Love Jihad”, what they conveniently ignore is the fact that Hindus have grown at a pace, faster than either Buddhists or Muslims.

In 1981, Hindus comprised just 3% of the population. In 2011, they constituted 17% of the population, which has probably grown closer to 20% over the last decade. But the difference between the stagnation of Muslims and the increase of Hindus lies in the gender composition of both communities. 96% of the Hindus are male. It is almost a mirror image in Kargil, with Buddhists and Muslims swapping places.

As one leaves Leh for Kargil, there's a disturbing thought that lingers on. The Ladakhi Buddhist can bear with the small Shia Balti community around Turtuk in Nubra valley, the same way the Thais bear with the longneck Kayan tribe of Northern Thailand, as an exotic item of display, that brings in tourists and money. But Kargil is just too Muslim for them. So much that they would rather give up their business to a driver from the Kashmir Valley. That's how I met Aarif bhai, who was happy that he did not have to return to Srinagar with an empty vehicle.

Leh to Kargil is one of the best drives, anywhere in the world. As we crossed Lamayuru, the high passes of Photu La and Namika La and Mulbeck, things began to change. For one, Aarif became visibly more relaxed.


The Tibetan style stone and mud architecture gave way to something more common in the neighbouring valley of Kashmir. Skullcaps and headscarves became more common. And I got to see posters of Ayatollah Khomeini, in such numbers, for the first time anywhere in India.

As we approached Kargil, broad roads were replaced by decidedly narrower ones. We often miss out on the fact that Kargil is the joint headquarters of the Union Territory of Ladakh, along with Leh. Kargil is also a world away from Leh. While the flavour of Leh is decidedly Tibetan, Kargil is more Central Asian. Muslims with oriental features. People in Kargil speak Purigi, a language that belongs to the same archaic Western Tibetan language family, which is also the origin of Ladakhi. But apart from linguistic similarities and a shared history, there's very little that holds Kargil in the same bracket as Leh.

Kargil has very little pvt enterprise. While tourism is its main source of income, it is peanuts compared to what Leh makes from the sector. While a tourist on an average spends three to four nights in Leh, it would be hard to find anyone who spends more than 15 hours in Kargil. Kargil is a transit point in every sense of the word.

If Zanskar Valley is developed the same way Nubra has been done for Leh, Kargil, as the base, could actually see more tourists coming in. But there's a catch. Zanskar is overwhelmingly Buddhist and are demanding a separate district. And that leaves Kargil in a no man's land.

The average Kargili had never really identified with the Sunni Kashmiris across the Zoji La. Nor with the Kashmiri cause. When Jammu and Kashmir used to be a state, they were dominated by Sunnis in the valley and Buddhists in Leh.

As I crossed the Zoji La into the Kashmir Valley, Sadiq sahab’s words keep ringing. He owns a hotel and a restaurant, Ladakh Darbar. The name is an effort to establish the Ladakhi identity while the menu, serving Gushtaba, Kanti kababs and other Kashmiri delicacies is an attempt to reach out to the Valley. Also symbolic of an identity crisis, caught between religion and ethnicity.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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