Communal Tensions High in Ladakh After Opposition to Inter-Faith Marriage

The Ladakh Buddhist Association issued an ultimatum asking all those from Kargil working in Ladakh to leave by Thursday.

A lunar new year celebration organised by the Ladakh Buddhist Organisation in 2014.

New Delhi:
An inter-faith marriage in Ladakh has given rise to communal tensions, with the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) issuing an ultimatum asking all people from Kargil to leave the area. The “deadline” the group had given was Thursday (September 14).

According to the Indian Express, the LBA is a self-styled “welfare group” that works towards “safeguarding the interests” of what they call a “religious micro-minority” in the Ladakh region of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir. Communal tensions have built up in the area over the last week after news broke of a woman, who had converted from Buddhism to Islam in 2015, marrying a Muslim man from Kargil.

The marriage took place last year, but tensions around it are much more recent. On September 7, the LBA wrote to chief minister Mehbooba Mufti asking that the marriage between 30-year-old Shifah (formerly Stanzin Saldon) and 32-year-old Murtaza Aga be annulled. “Young girls are being lured by Muslim boys to marry and finally convert them to Muslim… we have repeatedly asked the Muslim community leaders… to sensitise their communities to stay away from such wicked and depraved act which otherwise will lead to communal unrest, and the district administration will be solely responsible,” Hindustan Times quotes the letter as saying.

Around the same time, Indian Express reported, the LBA held a public rally in which they asked people from Kargil working in the area to “leave town by September 14 and tell their leaders in Kargil to arrange employment for them”. “We have a floating population of about 50,000 people in Leh. No one has ever been harassed here, but a strong message had to be sent to the religious leaders in Leh because they cannot find jobs and livelihood here and also snatch our girls,” LBA vice president P.T. Kunzang told the newspaper. One of the LBA’s demands is that the region be granted union territory status, saying that the area has been historically discriminated against and received little funds.

When asked about the marriage, Kunzang asked Indian Express,“Why has the girl not been allowed to talk to her parents? I agree that she is an adult and she has the right to choose her religion and partner, but why the secrecy about her whereabouts?”

Shifah, however, has also written to Mehbooba saying that the LBA’s claims are false. According to the Hindustan Times, she has said in her letter:

“The statement of LBA is false and concocted, an effort to suppress and threaten the rights of individual… I appeal not to let hatred and fear to win over love and compassion.”
Shifah has also filed two previous affidavits with the court, Hindustan Times reported, on both her conversion and her marriage. On April 28, 2016, she said, “I am affirming my new Islamic faith in healthy and sound mind without any threat, force or compulsion or coercion from any person or person, whatsoever.” Then on July 7, 2016, she said she married Aga of her “own free will and consent”.

With tensions rising, the couple approached the Jammu and Kashmir high court, which said in an order dated July 28 that the “petitioners shall not be harassed”.

Uday Bhaskar B., senior superintendent of police, Leh, told Indian Express that Shifah’s family had approached them and filed a missing person’s report. “The police investigated and the woman was traced in Jammu. We sent a team there along with her brother. However, we received a court order on September 8, instructing police not to harass the couple. So, the team came back,” he said. A woman police officer apparently met Shifah, who said she didn’t want to speak to her family.

The state women’s commission has also said that the state government must intervene to ensure Shifah isn’t hounded. “I, in fact, got in touch with the girl and she told me that she had converted before her marriage out of her own free will. She said she is an adult and educated enough to take decisions for herself,” Nayeema Mehjoor, the commission’s chairperson, told Hindustan Times.

The LBA then issued its ultimatum. According to the Indian Express, at least three incidents of violence have been reported in the week since then. One incident involved a meat-shop owner who allegedly kept his outlet open on the day of the full moon, when Buddhists do not eat meat, the newspaper reported. On Thursday, a police van and several plainclothes policemen were patrolling the streets and the main market was deserted.

According to the Indian Express, the district administration has planned a peace meeting on Friday (September 15) involving three groups – LBA, Anjuman Imamiya (a Shia Muslim group), and Anjuman Moin-Ul-Islam (a Sunni group). The meeting has officially been called an introduction meeting for the new district commissioner, who started on Thursday.

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