Tensions rise in Ladakh thanks to India's moves in Kashmir
Nearly two months after the Indian government changed the status of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, new tensions are brewing in Ladakh, a remote and picturesque part of that territory that borders China.
India and Pakistan both claim predominantly Muslim Kashmir and the territory is divided between them, with insurgents battling Indian forces for three decades. Since the move eight weeks ago by India's Hindu-led government, it has flooded the region with additional troops that enforced a security crackdown and communication blockade.
Tensions also have existed for years in the Ladakh region in north-eastern Kashmir, which is further divided administratively into the Leh district, which is predominantly Buddhist and the Kargil district, which is mostly Muslim. There also have been occasional border skirmishes between India and China.
On 31 October, New Delhi will formally take direct control of Ladakh, which is famous for its sparsely populated and stunning landscapes, Buddhist monks in mountaintop monasteries and elusive snow leopards prowling rugged terrain.
The real Kashmir
Poets call it one of the most beautiful places on earth. Analysts consider it to be one of the most dangerous areas in the world. But what is Kashmir in reality? By Onkar Singh Janoti
Multicultural: Kashmir is well-known for its cultural and linguistic diversity. The Kashmir Valley has a Muslim majority. Hindus are predominant in Jammu while Ladakh is primarily Buddhist. But interminable violence has damaged the very fabric of society
Saffron: Kashmir is also famous for its saffron. India is the third largest exporter of saffron following Iran and Spain
'Switzerland of the East': Kashmir boasts some of the world's most beautiful flowering meadows and snow-capped peaks. Many people call it "The Switzerland of the East". On average, Jammu and Kashmir have welcomed over 1 million tourists in recent years
Under a blanket of snow: Kashmir wears pure white in winter. Many areas are perfect for winter sports but lack infrastructure. Islamist violence remains the biggest challenge
Rivers: the Himalayan part of Kashmir is the source of fresh water for more than 20 rivers, among which the Indus, Neelum and Ravi are the biggest. All these rivers flow from India into Pakistan
Wood: Kashmir is also famous for its wood, the Kashmir willow. Experts believe that it is the best wood for making a cricket bat. Kashmiri wood is also used for building boats
Sufism: Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, reached Kashmir in the 16th century. The Sufi tradition is associated with religious harmony. Many of the saints held dear by Kashmiris were Sufi monks. Sufi singers such as Abida Parveen are popular to this day
Kashmir on the silver screen: Kashmir used to be the most popular location of the Indian film industry during the 1980s. It was a golden era for Kashmir. However, the valley has witnessed violence on an almost daily basis ever since. These days, only one or two films are shot on location in Kashmir every year
Fighting in the clouds: the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan has been going on 1948 and experts see little hope of a solution in the foreseeable future. Both countries spend lots of resources on their half of the divided territory, with their respective armies squared off on what some view as the highest battlefield in the world, the Siachen glacier (5,753m)
That move is raising fears about the future in both the Buddhist and Muslim communities, although so far the tension has been confined to cultural and political differences, without violence.
When the change in governmental status was announced for Ladakh, there were celebrations by its Buddhist population, which has been demanding separation from Kashmir since shortly after India achieved independence from British rule in 1947.
For decades, Buddhist leaders complained that Muslims controlled funds and jobs allotted by the central government. Those demands gathered momentum in the late 1980s when an insurgency against Indian rule broke out in Kashmir.
But the Buddhists' joy in August has given way to fears of land grabs, a loss of trade and damage to the fragile ecosystem of the region's high-altitude deserts.
Buddhist leaders in Leh also are wary of demographic change, as residents from elsewhere in majority-Hindu India seek to put down stakes in the sublime mountain landscape. In both districts, the Indian army maintains dozens of bases along the Pakistan and China frontiers.
"We celebrated for this, true. But we realise that with good things some bad things also come," said Sonam Dawa, general secretary of Ladakh Buddhist Association, which spearheaded a campaign for the territory to be directly controlled by New Delhi.
He vowed that the community would "not sell even an inch of land to any outsider."
"We want guarantees that our land, people and businesses are safe. We trust that central government will take measures to protect us on these accounts," Dawa said.
Their concerns spread beyond political and religious issues. About 370,000 foreign and domestic tourists visited Leh last year. By the end of this year's peak season in August, however, the region recorded fewer than 200,000 tourists.
Days before the Kashmir reorganisation plan was presented in Parliament, tens of thousands of additional troops were deployed to the restive region - already one of the most militarised in the world - and authorities ordered tourists, Hindu pilgrims and students to leave.
Tsetan Angchuk, who heads the All Ladakh Tour Operators Association, said its members worry about their future.
"So far, we have had about 45% downfall in tourism. We don't want direct investment by outsiders in the tourism sector. We should be our own masters," he said.
The region is also home to world's highest battlefield: the icy expanse of the Siachen Glacier, where thousands of troops from India and Pakistan are stationed at elevations of up to 6,700 metres. More soldiers have died there from the harsh weather than combat.
Portions of the Indian-Chinese border also are disputed, with Beijing controlling a part of the territory's Aksai Chin area. Both countries fought a bitter war in 1962 that spilled into Ladakh. Skirmishes between soldiers from the two countries have occurred as recently as last month.
Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer who runs the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, hopes the Ladakh region can become a model for ecotourism.
"We need to have protection for our people, land and ecology. We need to have safeguards to protect not just Ladakh from outsiders but also from Ladhakis," he said at his institute outside Leh that is still under construction.
Wangchuk, who is influential among local civil society and policy circles, said his group sent five teams to parts of India that already enjoy protected status to study successful administrative models.
"We're not alien to the fact that many times these (decisions) are good on paper but disastrous on the ground," he said. "I'm not afraid of tourism. I'm afraid of lacking management for it."
The approaching 31 October change in administrative rule from New Delhi is largely unwelcome in Ladakh's Kargil district, where Muslims want to remain tied to the Kashmir valley. Residents of the area, which is famous for its apricot orchards, initially greeted the news with protests and by shutting down their businesses in August to express their desire to stay linked to the Kashmir valley.
After a few days, the protests ended in the town of Kargil, which has seen unprecedented militarisation after India and Pakistan came close to a fourth war when troops from the two nuclear-armed neighbours fought for months along the Kargil Himalayan heights in 1999. India said Pakistani soldiers disguised as Kashmiri rebels had taken over some heights in the region, but Pakistan denied this and said the intruders were local insurgents.
About a dozen people interviewed by journalists said officials had threatened local politicians, religious leaders and activists with being charged under the Public Safety Act that could mean imprisonment for up to two years without trial.
Kargil's district administrator, Baseer-ul-Haque Chowdhary, insisted there was no coercion involved in ending the demonstrations and that authorities "persuaded the public to return to their businesses."
Asgar Ali Karbalai, a political and social leader in Kargil, said the population has an "unbreakable cultural, political, religious, geographical and historical relationship" with the Kashmir valley, where many of the region's 7 million people support a 30-year armed insurgency demanding an independent Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan.
Posters and banners demanding Kashmir's independence from India dotted several mosques and religious sites where the area's mainly Shia Muslims recently commemorated Muharram, marking the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein in the battle of Karbala.
On a recent chilly night at a religious centre in the village of Hardaas, where a preacher narrated the tale of the battle, chest-beating worshippers burst into pro-Kashmir slogans and called for an end to India's crackdown.
"India made the decision against our will. We will rise and rise we will against this oppression like our leader Imam Hussein," said apricot farmer Akhoon Mohammed Ali as the crowd dispersed around midnight.
"Our market is Kashmir, not Leh," he said. "The lockdown is destroying our livelihood."
Muslims in Kargil say the India's administrative changes in the region won't alter any of the territorial disputes with either Pakistan or China.
"Even if they carve out 10 union territories out of our land, it'll remain part of the Kashmir dispute," said activist Mohammed Rizwan, pointing to a remote barren mountaintop where a Pakistani military post overlooked the town. (AP)