Leaving the main town square of Leh on the road to Kargil, as the last signs of human habitation is left behind in the roar of dust and diesel, it is hard not to notice the proliferation of migrants, many of whom are foot soldiers for the army’s development works. Buddhist Ladakhis are becoming a rarer breed though they still dominate the stunning landscape.
“My wife and I stay for four months in Leh and move to Delhi when winter sets in. The migrants who come from surrounding Kargil and Kashmir stay much longer. Migrants from Bihar & Punjab can’t take the weather for long. But Kashmiris can survive here as well as Ladakhis during the winter months. Many have settled here” said Angchuk a hotel owner in the Chungspa locality of Leh town
Angchuk may have never gone through census figures, but his harmless observations are a reflection of simmering tension in this peaceful region that has the potential to become a tinderbox waiting to explode. Buddhist groups like the Ladakh Buddhist Association have reportedly knocked on the doors of the prime minister’s office drawing attention to ‘love-jihad’ in the region. Ladakh Buddhist Association is also reported to have submitted a memorandum to Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti drawing her attention to conversion of Buddhist girls to Islam in Ladakh. The organisation’s president PT Kunzang in an interview to a news portal has claimed 97 cases of Buddhist girls being converted to Islam over four decades. Reports suggest that as many as 45 Buddhist girls married Muslim men in Ladakh since 2003.
While Kunzang’s claims on so called ‘love-jihad’ are hotly contested, the concerns of Buddhists over the influx of Muslims in the region are understandable for three reasons. For one, the district of Leh is witnessing a de-population of Buddhist men even as the population of Muslims and Hindu men is growing rapidly. Between 2001 to 2011, the Buddhist male population fell by 5 percent. Meanwhile the population of Muslim men grew 20 percent in Leh during the same period. Secondly, the fall in numbers of Buddhist men has meant that for the first time in decades Leh has more Buddhist women than men. Thirdly, the population of Buddhist women has barely grown over the last decade and a half whereas that of Muslim women has grown almost in proportion to Muslim men. The Hindu population in Leh is pre-dominantly male.
This has deep implications for Buddhists in Leh. Not only are Muslims now placed more favourably in terms of fertility, Buddhist women are less likely to find a man of their own religion to bear children with in the near future. Given the nature of this demographic shift, in every likelihood Hindu and Muslim men in Leh will fill the gap left by the de-population of Buddhist males. While this may sound alarmist, there is still a significant gap between Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims in terms of absolute population.
Census data reveals that in 1981, Buddhists comprised 81 percent of the population in Leh – one of the two districts in addition to Kargil that make up the Ladakh region. By 2011, they were down to 66 percent of the population. The Muslim population in Leh, though much smaller than Buddhists has meanwhile declined marginally during the same period. In 1981, Muslims comprised just 15 percent of Leh’s population. By 2011, the proportion of Muslims in Leh’s population declined marginally. What is even more striking being the growth of Hindu population in Leh district. In 1981, Hindus comprised just 3 percent of the population. In 2011, Hindus constituted 17 percent of the population. But the difference between the stagnation of Muslims and the increase in Hindus is the gender composition of both communities. 96 percent of the Hindus here are male. Meanwhile among Muslims both males and females have grown in the same proportion.
The growth of Muslims in Leh has less to do with ‘love-jihad’ as is being claimed by certain activists and more to do with the nature of the economy of the two districts of Ladakh – Kargil and Leh. Both Buddhists and Muslims have fallen as a proportion of the population in Kargil district. There is less work to be found in Kargil even as there is a booming seasonal tourism industry in Leh and state supported industries during the lean seasons. A part of the reason is also the influx of Hindu migrants from other parts of the country into Leh. More than 90 per cent of the Hindus in Kargil are also male; an indication that many came here looking for work leaving their families behind.
In Kargil, there are only seven small industries manufacturing wood, food and electrical products employing about 30 people. There are over 900 Khadi and village industries providing employment to 3360 workers. The mainstay of Kargil’s economy still continues to be livestock. The state government has admitted in the past that developing Kargil is a tough task. The administration in its district handbook says, “The difficult terrain and topography of the district is a big damper in the development of the district as such Kargil. The rural department here has a tough job in the development of rural areas in terms of construction of bridges, footpaths and Khjuls for small irrigation and sanitation works.”
Leh meanwhile is a more lucrative destination for workers looking to make a living in this hostile terrain. According to estimates by the assistant labour commissioner of Leh there were over 5,000 shops and commercial establishments in addition to over 700 hotels in Leh providing employment to thousands of people from Leh, Kargil and the Kashmir valley. Meanwhile the Indian army has stepped up efforts to boost agriculture production in Leh which has further attracted migrants, many of them Muslims from Kashmir to Leh. More than 45,000 square kilometers of land is under mono-crop agriculture in Leh. The army’s efforts in setting up greenhouses has allowed people to farm even in the harsh winters when outside temperatures are well below freezing. Labour intensive crops like wheat and horticulture have been developed significantly in Leh. The Leh district administration in its district handbook notes, “Horticulture is playing a major role in supplementing the income to the farmers and has assumed great importance in Leh district in recent years. The fruit produced are marketed in Leh town, other places and supplied to the defence forces stationed in the region through cooperative marketing societies.”
With the army increasingly relying on the local economy of Leh for procuring essentials like food this has boosted the incomes of those who are part of cooperative societies. The district administration has estimated that 68% of the families in Leh are under the cooperative shield and control most of the business of essential commodities, fertiliser and primary agricultural produce.
With such strong economic tailwinds in Leh, Muslim migrants from other parts of Kashmir have trickled in over the years as is evidenced by the changing religious profile. And it’s not just Muslims. The Hindu population in Leh has more than doubled over a decade till 2011. Unlike Muslims, the Hindu population is overwhelmingly male. Invariably, this has led to inter-faith marriages. Buddhist activists raising calls of forced conversions and ‘love-jihad’ could well blame this trend on economic opportunities that has been a magnet for migrants. The lure of a better life knows no religion. And Ladakh is a testament to that.