Whoever wins, Ladakh loses a

Here is an example of the propensity of modern war to target, with uncanny precision, the innocent
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The Independent Culture
WHAT AN Indian soldier described the other day as India's "near war" with Pakistan is happening in a place called Ladakh. It is the town of Kargil in Ladakh that has been under artillery bombardment for the past three weeks, and it is in the mountains above Kargil that hundreds of "militants", armed with Stinger missiles, have dug themselves into heavily fortified positions.

Since last Wednesday, Indian Air Force MiG fighters have been trying to flush them out, with the loss of two MiGs and one helicopter so far. And yesterday came the news that more intrusions have been discovered in the outskirts of the Ladakhi capital, Leh, where two villages have been heavily shelled.

War and spring arrived together. It's an old story: up in the high Himalayas, where even the valley floor is 3,000m above sea level and the peaks rise to 7,500m, life goes into suspended animation throughout a winter that stretches from September to May. Then the snow starts to melt, the first tender shoots poke through the iron soil, and the first artillery shells come crashing over the hills.

But this is not Ladakh's fight. What is happening now in Kargil and elsewhere is a good example of the propensity of modern war to target, with uncanny precision, the innocent. Kashmir is a big, baggy, complicated place. Ladakh is in Kashmir, but it is not of Kashmir; it does not partake of the problems the world identifies as Kashmir's. But that has not kept the war away.

At the heart of Kashmir is the valley of Kashmir, location of the state capital, Srinagar. The valley is famous for its verdant Alpine scenery, its lake lined with picturesque houseboats, its trekking trails. Even Indians who have not been within 500 miles of the valley of Kashmir know it intimately because for decades it has provided the idyllic backdrop to those bouncy, suggestive, gallumphing dance scenes no Bollywood epic can do without.

This part of Kashmir has a population that is roughly 94 per cent Muslim. For the past 10 years, the valley has been in the grip of an insurgency that has cost at least 24,000 lives. Pakistan has poured fuel on the fire by arming and training Kashmiris (and later also Afghans) and enabling them to cross into India's side of the state to carry out attacks.

The present fighting above Kargil is portrayed by Pakistan as a continuation of the Kashmiri civil war. It is far more brazen than other attacks across the border, in that the intruders have not merely set off a few bombs then melted into the undergrowth, but have dug in on the high ridges in their hundreds, with every appearance of intending to stay there, "suicidally" as Indian sources put it. And it is far more ambitious than earlier attacks. If India failed to dislodge them, the intruders would control the national highway which is Ladakh's lifeline.

But whether the conflict is seen as a continuation of the insurgency or the beginning of a new Indo-Pak war, its innocent victims are Ladakh and the Ladakhis.

Ladakh is an amazing place, a world on its own high above the tree line, which feels fantastically remote from everywhere - from Srinagar as much as from Delhi or Islamabad - even though it has, in fact, acted as a Himalayan crossroads of trade for centuries .

I remember two years ago studying photographs of Ladakh in the muggy heat of Delhi's monsoon and asking myself why on earth I wanted to go there. Ladakh's mountains looked like those of the moon: stark, bare, bone-dry, range after range, all the colours of the desert from sand to purple. Like any desert it looked inhuman, and deadly to human life.

We flew up anyway, with some trepidation because our three-year-old had flu and we were flying to the capital, Leh, which is 3,521m, and everyone warned us about the importance of getting acclimatised. We flew for what seemed ages just above those awesome ranges. My next memory is sitting on a lawn in Leh, under a flowering willow tree, in a gentle breeze, under a pale blue sky, drinking tea, immensely relieved to be out of the heat of the plains, and immediately enchanted.

Everyone who goes there falls under Ladakh's spell. It has not been an independent kingdom since 1834, when a Sikh general conquered it for the Maharaja of Kashmir. But its remoteness and inaccessibility (and its long frozen winters) have given it an integrity and sense of its own identity which have proved very resilient.

The first discovery you make about Ladakh is that the mountains, so forbidding and lifeless in photographs, have a beauty of their own, their colours changing from moment to moment. But Ladakh is not all arid mountains, or it could never have flourished as it has done. At the foot of the mountains, trickles of meltwater are captured in superbly engineered and maintained irrigation systems. Every valley in the lee of the bare, frowning mountains is a miracle of fertility, with fields of barley, grazing cattle, trees full of fruit. Each painstakingly cultivated valley has its villages of sturdy stone houses, and every village has its gonpa, its Buddhist monastery. Buddhism is very deep in the grain of most of Ladakh, where it arrived from India around 200 BC and stuck.

But the single most striking thing about Ladakh is how happy people are. Living in one of the coldest places on earth, subsisting meagrely on what their tiny fields produce, they are extraordinarily warm, open, cheerful, pleasure-loving. Their weddings and festivals go on for days and days. They are crazy about polo. They love to dance - slow, solemn, minimalistic rotations - and hold archery contests and drink chang, home brewed barley beer. It is perhaps the only place in the Indian subcontinent where women are the true equals of men, and completely free of the coyness and sense of inferiority that besets most Indian and Pakistani women. And nowhere in the world seems less bullied and brutalised by the clock.

Yet as last week's Indian air strikes brought home, the modern world has arrived in Ladakh in the ugliest possible way. It was in 1962 that the real disaster occurred, when India and China went to war and India was routed, and China seized a huge area of high desert plateau in Ladakh known as Aksai Chin. Ever since, Ladakh's capital, Leh, and much of the rest of the region has been a vast Indian armed camp. The roads are clogged with army lorries, Indian soldiers - looking exotically foreign - are everywhere. Ladakh has recently gained limited political autonomy within Jammu and Kashmir state, but it has the appearance of a place under enemy occupation.

Down in the valley of Kashmir, in Srinagar and elsewhere, much of the Muslim population resonates sympathetically when Pakistan attacks across the border. India's air strikes last week were greeted by a large-scale shutdown of the city in protest.

But Ladakh has no bone to pick with either India or Pakistan. Whichever state ruled it, it would remain totally, proudly distinctive, as distant from the rantings of the Hindu nationalists as from crazy edicts of the Taliban's mullahs. Even Kargil, which is not Buddhist but predominantly Shia Muslim, is emotionally above the fray: Shias get a notoriously rough deal in Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

But Kargil has been cowering under Pakistani artillery bombardment for weeks; Leh has had to subsist on hard tack for nearly a month, as shelling on the highway from Srinagar has prevented food from getting through. Now villages around Leh, we hear, are being shelled. If the "near war" turned into the real thing, Ladakh's situation could get very much worse.

But the voice of Ladakh is not heard, because its people have no part to play, no argument to prosecute, no end in view. They merely suffer.