Buddhist monks and Muslims rally for statehood and cultural protection

This photograph taken on May 17, 2024 shows a man walking past a campaign poster of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) picturing their leader and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi outside the party office in Leh, summer capital of the country's union territory of Ladakh, during the nation's ongoing general election. - Buddhist monks and Muslims in the Indian Himalayan territory of Ladakh turned out to vote on May 20, demanding statehood and that their local culture be protected in the overwhelmingly Hindu nation. (Photo by Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)

In the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh, residents from diverse backgrounds, including Buddhist monks and Muslims, passionately exercised their voting rights on Monday in a call for statehood and safeguarding their unique culture within an overwhelmingly Hindu nation.

“Almost half the people in the sparsely populated, cold desert region bordering China and Pakistan are Muslim, with around 40 percent Buddhist, putting it among the least Hindu places in the country,” sources revealed.

Despite persistent appeals from Ladakhis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, rooted in Hindu nationalism, has yet to address their demands for autonomy and cultural preservation.

On the voting day, Buddhist monks clad in ochre robes stood alongside other voters in line at polling stations in Leh, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the distance, contrasting the scorching heatwaves engulfing much of India.

The region, marked by Buddhist gompas and war memorials from clashes with neighboring countries, reflects its highly militarized status since the 2020 border conflict with China.

Formerly a part of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh has been vocal about its aspirations, seeking legislative independence, cultural defense, and environmental conservation.

“We need protection,” emphasized 74-year-old Stanzin Norphel, a retired local official. “This government has destroyed Ladakh,” he lamented, underscoring the sentiment of many residents yearning for change.

Following its separation from Indian-administered Kashmir in 2019, the region awaits inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of India’s constitution, a crucial step to empower indigenous communities to shape their laws and policies.

As the election unfolds, all three candidates vying for office, aligned with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, vow to prioritize the region’s cultural and environmental concerns.

Umila Bano, a 59-year-old Muslim voter, expressed her hopes for the future, stating, “Ladakh needs it,” emphasizing the urgency for tangible progress towards safeguarding local interests and heritage.