Conversions In Zanskar: A Nascent Concern – Analysis


By Zainab Akhter

The Buddhists in Ladakh (a region of Jammu and Kashmir) practice certain discrimination against sections of the society that they consider are low castes. Among them are Mon, who play musical instruments on various ceremonies, Garba, who work as smiths and Beda who do a mix of both. More than two dozen from the garba caste embraced Islam on 24 September 2012 in Zanskar of Kargil District. What is the socio-economic condition of this group? What are the latest developments and can it lead to a communal tension between the Buddhist and Muslim minority?

Socio-economic condition

Out of a population of 13,849 (approximately) 95% follow Buddhism and the other 5% are Sunni Muslims. Among the main Buddhist community 5% of the population are categorised as low castes. Although they do practice Buddhism, they are labelled as impure and untouchables since long by the Buddhist community. They work as black smiths, play musical instruments in marriages and other occasions and mostly live a life of ignorance.

In most of the cases, they are deprived of becoming the head of the village Goba and head of the monastery Lobon irrespective of their proficiency due to their caste identity. Atrocities against them basically arise in the context of ‘keeping them in their place’ within the social hierarchy, mediated by caste and untouchability .These people are not allowed to eat or drink from the utensils or cups of others as they fear that in doing so, they will pollute them. In few villages like Zangla, the houses of these low castes are segregated from the rest of the village.

The Conversions and recent developments

The low castes in Zanskar share a good relation with the Muslims of the valley. They get better treatment from them than their fellow main Buddhist community who consider them as untouchables. Even the children of the low castes are not encouraged to go for studies or take up some other job other than as smiths and musicians.

There are few cases in the past of the Garba girls getting married to Muslim men in the region but they never faced stiff opposition from their own community as well as the main Buddhist community in the region. This time, more than dozens of people from this community decided to accept Islam on voluntary basis and chose to be a part of it to live a life of dignity.

The Muslim community was warned by ZBA (Zanskar Buddhist Association) not to accept the convertees into their community but the Muslims who are in minority extended their hands and happily accepted them. This came as a shock to the Buddhists and the ZBA added fuel to the issue by forcibly shutting down shops, schools and other institutions. There was a visible communal tension and additional police forces were called from the district headquarters to keep a check.

A monk from Karsha Buddhist Monetary, on condition of anonymity said that Buddhists in the region have forgotten the teachings of Lord Buddha.” They (Buddhists) prefer wine than visiting monasteries. Their source of income is wheat which they cultivate but instead of selling it they spend it to prepare ‘Chhung’ (desi wine). Look at Muslims of the region. They never spend money on wine and they are educated. Such things will happen till we (Buddhists) don’t change ourselves,” he said.

Communal clash

There is a visible tension between Buddhists and Muslims as they have boycotted each other. Recently a few Muslim youth were beaten up by Buddhists when they went fishing in a distant village Sani of Zansakr.The Buddhist, in the valley fear that the remaining percentage may follow suit so as a preventive measure the ZBA is trying to win the confidence of the remaining by offering them to cook food for them and other such activities.

When the newly converted tried to enter their own homes after spending a couple of days in the Muslim homes, the ZBA prevented their entry. In support of the newly converted the Muslims of the valley locked their homes and in thousands marched towards Kargil on 20 October 2012 amidst slogans. Although the administration in Zanskar and Kargil were able to stop the march, it added more fuel to the already existing tension.

In all the tensions, the remaining community of low castes has put forward four recommendations or demands before the ZBA.Firstly they have demanded they should have dignity in the society which include no discrimination in sitting arrangements during marriages and festivals, secondly, to eat and share food cooked by them, to give the right to participate in archery and lastly, to give up the practice of not sharing their utensils.

There is a need to put a full stop to this discrimination and bring them in the main stream. The tension between Buddhists and Muslims needs to be resolved or otherwise it will take a bad turn. For the peace and tranquillity of the land locked region, both the communities should come forward to find an amicable solution.

Zainab Akhter
Research Officer, IReS, IPCS
e-mail: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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