Ladakh is rife with conflicts since a few months, even more so in recent days. Quite a diversion from its culture, which is a pinnacle of peace and tranquility. Peace and tranquility. These words were also emphasized in Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s recent speech on the issue in Parliament.
India’s political fate on the global stage for the coming decade is deeply tied to this jewel of our crown, much like its politically popular twin Jammu & Kashmir (‘J&K’). Because this is the first battleground where the mythical Chinese Dragon, aspiring to rule the world, is going to fight the Great Indian Elephant, its closest challenger in the region. Mind you, the Elephant never aspires to be the King of the Jungle, but even the King of the Jungle does not mess with it. The Elephant’s policy is simple – give no shit, take no shit.
As the Elephant, it is most important, now more than ever, for Indians to know this region more intimately. Most of us have known or seen Ladakh with a touristy eye for its aesthetic value, in our visits, social media or movies. This land, of highest motorable road and many such titles, is not just a visual treat but also a divine experience. One line that defines the Ladakh experience of many a tourist, including yours truly is:
If you are an atheist you should go to Ladakh, you will start believing in God. If you believe in God you should definitely go to Ladakh, you will meet Him there.
No doubt, its aesthetics are at the heart of Ladakh’s identity, because these are determined by its unique topography and geography. This very geography has been central to its mythology, culture, history and politics over the course of time. In Amish’s Shiva Trilogy, it was this very region from where Shiva and his tribe came to Srinagar, the then crown of the Meluhan Empire, much like today’s India. The hostility of their terrain was a key reason Shiva chose to leave it in search of a better life for his tribe.
Well, for the realists that’s just mythology, but its relevance to the present realities is what makes mythology so special. Not much changed over time in terms of human society’s motivations, choices and actions vis-à-vis this region. We can see many parallels. But first, let’s get back to the present.
Ladakh’s identity, aspirations and the Namgyals
Since 2019, one name has become prominently associated with Ladakh – Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the sitting MP of Ladakh, from the present ruling party of India. He carved his own place in history not just by being elected to represent Ladakh, but also with his fiery parliament speech in 2019 after the recognition of Ladakh’s independent identity. Independent India finally gave wings to Ladakhi aspiration by acceding to its long-standing demand of separation from the erstwhile J&K. He spoke from the bottom of his heart not merely as an office-bearer. He spoke more so as a voice – the voice of Ladakh, understated in the national discourse and stifled by its more powerful twin J&K until recently.
It’s only serendipity that a Namgyal (meaning ‘victorious’) is at its helm at this watershed moment for Ladakh. This is the first connection between the present and the past Ladakh. Ladakh was ruled by the Namgyal dynasty for the longest time i.e. almost 400 years from the 1460s to 1840s, after which Maharaj Ranjit Singh made it a part of the Kashmir Kingdom. Namgyals took Ladakh to its glory, some of the highlights being – preventing central Asian invaders, building some of its greatest structures and forts, even extending the kingdom till Nepal for a brief period and most importantly giving a stable regime to its people for a long period of time.
From the Past: China and India’s Tibet connection
They are also credited to have compiled the original ‘Ladakh Chronicles‘ (loosely translated from Tibetan) whose translations continue to be the main source of Ladakh’s History to this day. Before the Namgyals, Ladakh was part of a larger Tibetan Empire at its peak between the 4-6 century AD. Post this, there was an Era of Fragmentation and the western kingdom of Maryul evolved into the modern-day Ladakh. This is the reason Ladakh shares its languages, cultural and religious heritage with the modern-day Tibet.
Tibet as we know is occupied by China in as recent past as the 1950s. So China does not accept the land boundaries as agreed by the Tibetan and British empires claiming that Tibet had no authority to sign any land treaty. That India welcomed Dalai Lama and his people with open arms, after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, further irked China, is no secret either. All this has led to the perpetual case for conflict and disagreements between modern-day India and China. Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet is pretty similar to Shiva’s as narrated in Shiva trilogy.
Ladakh’s difficult terrain and its edgy relationship with Delhi
But that’s not all. Let us come to the second and very crucial parallel. The topography and its effect on mainland India’s relationship with Ladakh.
We know that China laid claims to the Aksai Chin region of eastern Ladakh, by secretly constructing highways through the 1950s. The funny part is this region was not a part of even the official Chinese maps until the 1920s. This eventually built up to the 1962 Sino-Indian war where India was defeated. Underprepared and taken by surprise attack after the “Hindu-Chini Bhai Bhai” rhetoric, this was Independent India’s only major defeat. After the loss of Aksai Chin, Nehru is reported to have infamously said in Parliament “not a single blade of grass grows there.” Mahavir Tyagi, a senior Congress leader, responded pointing to his bald head: “Nothing grows here…should it be given away to somebody else?”
Nehru’s statement appeared to casually belittle the issue: “There is a large area in eastern and north-eastern Ladakh which is practically uninhabited. It is mountainous, and even the valleys are at an altitude generally exceeding 13,000 feet. To some extent, shepherds use it during the summer months for grazing…” Naturally this downplaying of Ladakh and its importance to the mainland India by the PM did not go well with the Ladakhis. This was also an important part of MP Namgyal’s parliament speech staunchly contemptuous of the handling of the issue by PM Nehru.
But PM Nehru was not the first ruler sitting in Delhi to avoid investing too many resources in controlling Ladakh. Mughals won the Jammu and Kashmir lands and could head to Ladakh with all their power. Yet they decided to just be friends with Ladakh region instead of occupying it. This is mainly because they too regarded it as a hostile and not so fertile region, which offered little benefits to reap for their treasury or glory. In contrast, the Chinese Rulers always knew its peripheral importance to the ancient silk route – their gateway to the far off lands of Central Asia and Europe.
Towards an uncertain future
Present Indian dispensation has taken a strong exception to Delhi’s usual reticence on Ladakh. Partly this is also because it can afford it far better than its predecessors. Remember Home Minister Amit Shah’s famous 2019 parliament speech on Article 370 abrogation and recognition of independent Ladakh? India’s strong stand on Aksai Chin being an integral part of the Union of India is indeed refreshing. But it calls for equal caution as it’s a direct dare to the Chinese.
The Chinese are certainly rattled by India’s focus on and vision for Ladakh. Of course, that’s not the only reason for instigating conflicts and there are multiple theories around it. But India’s iron hand over J&K and Ladakh after 2019 is definitely a key reason there. Now the world, including India, is struggling with Covid-19, the China-originated virus, and the impending grave economic conditions. As far as China is concerned, what could be a better time to strike?
We are in the midst of history like we have always been. Trust the Great Elephant’s resistance to be stronger than the mythical Dragon’s deception. May the Great Elephant prevail!