Situated in the midst of The Himalayas and the Karakorum Ladakh “the land of high passes” holds a history well beyond its geography. The now remote region of Ladakh was once a passageway to greatest dynasties. Not more than a century ago Ladakh was a central way to the subcontinent, Turkistan, Tibet, China, and central Asia. For traders, tourists to spies and soldiers it provided a strategic ground stretching all the way to the Silk Road, as a result, it became a focal point of cultural exchange enabling the transfer of commodities, languages, and customs further enriching the rich heritage of the landscape. The uniqueness of Ladakh also lies in its terrain, the ecologically diverse topography of Ladakh is home to a fragile ecosystem comprising of vast mineral reserves, frozen lakes, unnamed mountain peaks, and plateaus all bearing the past stories of numerous invasions, conquests, and the quest for economic pursuit.
History dates the region all the way back to the 3rd century BC, with Dards and Indo-Aryan groups among its earliest settlers. Towards the end of the 7th century, Tibetan influence started to grow in Ladakh and with it the spread of Buddhism in the region which still persists. In between, there were numerous conquests and reign of different rulers that connected Ladakh with all the encompassing regions to such an extent that Turkish was considered as its second language. A 10th-century Persian document Hudud al-‘Alam gives an account of Ladakh describing it as a resting point for Muslims of Central Asia on their way towards the Holy Pilgrim. It was in 1947 that Ladakh was occupied by the Indian forces along with IoJ&K. This was not to mark the end of political turmoil in Ladakh but to mark the start of a bigger one. Shortly afterward in 1962, China went on to take control of one part of the region known as the Aksai Chin. Ever since then the region has been a source of political agitation for both the countries.
The region of Ladakh has always been prone to political turbulence, gripped in the game of regional powers it has been a victim of wars and conflicts. First with the Mughals using it as a buffer to control territorial ground then later at the start of the 19th and the 20th century was a battleground for Britain China and Russia. A century later it still acting as a mere proxy for international powers, on one side it stands in a faceoff between China and India, on the other hand, it lies in the territory of Kashmir making it a causality of the Indo-Pak Kashmir conflict. In 1950 when China annexed Tibet, it closed off the arches of The Karakorum sealing with it the trade routes that connected Ladakh with the world, however, the final nail in the coffin came in 1947 with Kashmir being declared as a disputed territory and the countless clashes that came after that further isolating the region.
The high altitude plateau of Ladakh came under the territory of Jammu and Kashmir until last year when on August 5th India carved it out form the state of Jammu and Kashmir and illegally declared it as the Union territory of Ladakh. It is divided into two districts of Kargil and Leh, while the area of Akai Chin falls under Chinese administration. The 2011 census revealed the population of Ladakh to be 46% Muslim dominant, followed by 40% that of Buddhists. Until the 90’s Muslims and Buddhist of the region had a well-established system based on the mutual corporation and harmony. The city of Leh had at one end a Buddhist temple Namgyal Tesmo Monastery and a little further form it was the Grand Muslim mosque. Two centuries prior in 1841 there was some discord among the two groups when Buddhists tried to separate the region from Kashmir which resulted in opposition from Muslims. In return Buddhist organization called for a Muslim social boycott that lasted till 1994. Now the seeds of resentment are once again starting to bloom when Indian politics is once again taken an active role in Ladakh.
The current scenario which has brought Ladakh at the forefront of another conflict this time between China and India over border dispute has again turned the region into a mere proxy between two regional powers. India’s issues with both China and Pakistan have turned the once prosperous land affluent in culture and lineage into a land of poverty, cut off from its historical roots and isolated from the rest of the world. The countries included in the game of power realize the importance of Ladakh but do not see it as anything more than a strategic ground for their military advances. Ladakh has been a battleground for longer than most nations have existed; it has been through invasions, conquests, and wars, its people have suffered fate at the hands of external powers. A permanent solution is needed that brings Ladakh back towards civilization and ends the cycle of conflict. The fate of both Kashmir and Ladakh is intervened, if Ladakh is to experience stability and peace the Kashmir issue must be resolved once and for all.
Dua Sohail is a student of Social Sciences at IoBM. Her interests are Social Change, Modern Philosophy and Politics.