Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ladakh: Closed Crossroads of High Asia

Oxford University Press has republished for the third time, the ‘bible’ on Ladakh, Janet Rizvi’s book: Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia.
What is remarkable with this book is that it covers almost all aspects of life of what Rizvi describes in the first edition (1983) as ‘a little known corner of the Buddhist world, existing in isolation in India”.
In the early days after Independence, very few knew where Ladakh was located; even the Prime Minister during a public meeting in Delhi on July 1, 1952 declared: “Ladakh and Kashmir lie on the borders of Tibet and Turkey and other countries.” No comment!
What makes Rizvi’s book so comprehensive is that the author dwells upon everything that is Ladakhi and she does it with love for the people and the surrounding mountains. She speaks of the life of the people, the history of a Kingdom with its Buddhist dynasties, the awesome geography of region and the rich religious heritage (though predominantly Buddhist, a tolerant Islam played an important role in Kargil district). Rizvi also touches upon the culture of the remote villages and the changing life of the Ladakhis.
One often forgets that Ladakh is part and parcel of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1947, the area of the state was about 222,000 sq km, out of which Ladakh occupies 86,000 sq km (unfortunately 37,000 sq km were grabbed by China in the early 1950s and 5,300 sq km were ‘offered’ by Pakistan to China in 1963). Comparatively, the Valley which often makes headlines for the wrong reasons, occupies a little more than 15,000 sq km.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Rizvi’s book is that the author has closely followed the ‘evolution’ of the mountainous region over a period of 30 years (and three enlarged reprints of her book).
In 1983, Rizvi wrote: “I have tried to place on record some of the important facts about a part of the world which has been little studied up till now, and which has often been regarded as no more than an undifferentiated appendage of old Tibet. …Ladakh has its own vigorous social and cultural identity, of which the Tibetan tradition is only one component”.
Her husband was then posted as an IAS officer in Leh.
The first Dakota landed in Leh in May 1948
In October 1947, when ‘raiders’ from Pakistan began pouring into the Valley, looting and burning villages in their way, the leaders in Karachi used as a pretext, the 'two nations' theory, according to which the Muslim dominated areas of the subcontinent were to become part of Pakistan. But Karachi soon decided to also 'liberate' their Buddhist brothers in Ladakh. The objectives of Operation Sledge, supposed to occupy the vast Ladakh plateau, were not ideological: they were strategic and economic, the treasures of the Buddhist gompas (monasteries) were a great lure for finance-starved Pakistan (Rizvi’s book has an excellent chapter on the gompas of Ladakh, a great ‘bonus’ for the readers and a useful guide for spiritual tourists interested in this aspect of the region).
In February 1948, when SP Sen, the Brigade Commander in Srinagar got wind of the fact that more than 800 tribal Pathans were ready to enter Ladakh, he was in a fix. The formidable Zoji-la pass was an uncrossable barrier between the Valley and Ladakh and there was no way to airlift reinforcements to Leh. Wheels other than the prayers wheels were unknown in Ladakh.
It was then that Captain Prithvi Chand, a young Buddhist officer from Lahaul, the Himalayan region beyond Manali and the Rothang Pass, offered his services; he told Sen that he was ready to cross Zoji-la with a small caravan of men and mules carrying arms and ammunitions. Though Buddhists and believers in ahimsa, these men were ready to risk their lives and fight their way through the bitterly cold weather, the altitude and the raiders to defend their co-religionists in Ladakh. Nobody thought the mission feasible, but there was no other solution.
So, without the knowledge of army headquarters — which was reluctant to permit such a risky operation — the young captain crossed the pass with about 60 volunteers and reached Leh safely to prepare a ‘surprise’ for the raiders.
It was the first of a long saga of heroic acts by many of the region’s young officers who since then, have bravely defended Indian territory. One should also mention Colonel Chewwang Rinchen, who was twice awarded the Mahavir Chakra — for having stopped the advance of raiders in the Nubra Valley in June 1948 and for the bravery displayed in the Turtuk sector during the 1971 War.
The Land of the Caravans
Rizvi’s book is divided into chapters touching enthralling issues such as geographical approach, history, culture, present day Ladakh and most interestingly, the current ‘changes’ of the society.
Though many scholarly books have been written on Ladakh, the Crossroads of High Asia is more accessible to the general public and more encompassing in its approach. This is the great quality of the author: she has been able to convey in simple language all the aspects of the life of this remote part of India with vivid depth. Her love for Ladakh makes the difference.
Though living at the periphery of India, the Ladakhis are some of the most patriotic Indians. Already in 1949, a delegation of the Young Men's Buddhist Association of Ladakh led by Kalon Chhewang Rigzin met Nehru in Delhi and presented him a memorandum: “We seek the bosom of that gracious Mother India to receive more nutriment for growth to our full stature in every way. She has given us what we prize above all things — our religion and culture.”
The Ladakhis glowed with pride on seeing the Asoka wheel on the Indian flag; for them, it is the symbol of 'goodwill for all humanity and her concern for her cultural children’.
Unfortunately, for decades India's leaders did not respond to Ladakh's appeal. In 1989, faced with Delhi's decade-long apathy, the Ladakhis had no alternative but to resort to an 'agitation’, a concept alien to Buddhism.
In 1995, after many frustrating years, Ladakh was finally offered as a compromise an Autonomous Hill Development Council. Though the chairman and his Executive Councilors (ministers) have vast executive powers on paper, they still often face a frustrating situation with Srinagar which can block vital projects.
One of the most fascinating chapters of Rizvi’s book is 'Hazardous Trails'. We often don’t realize enough today that Ladakh has for centuries been a ‘crossroad’ for caravans going to Kashmir, Tibet, Sinkiang and Central Asia. Interestingly the maps on the first and last pages of the book show hardly any borders. One first sees the mountains, the rivers, the contours, but the frontiers remain discreet. After all they hardly existed during centuries when man and goods used to be exchanged freely across the high natural barriers. It was when Ladakh still had decent neighbours.
The tragedy of Ladakh is that due to its geographical location, it has to face two enemies — the Chinese 'Liberation Army' in the north and west and Pakistan in the east. The region is also the scene of battle for the strategic Siachen glacier, which connects the old caravan route to Kashgar through the Karakoram pass.
Can we dream of the 'Hazardous Trails' reopening some day?
The two ‘all-weather friends’ at India’s borders (China and Pakistan) are not interested to have roads between Ladakh and Baltistan on Pakistan’s side and Western Tibet on the Chinese side, but history shows that nothing is permanent in this world, even stupidity and short-sightedness.
Why not dream of a road Kargil-Skardu, another Leh-Yarkand-Kashgar, and yet another Leh-Demchok-Manasarovar?
Ladakh would become the Land of the Trails again.

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