Friday, 28 July 2006

Dispatches from Ladakh – a religious festival with guns

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Leh viewed from the mountains to the north

I’m writing from Leh, the largest city in the Ladakh region of the Indian Himalaya. Today is the occasion of a Presidential visit and public gathering to celebrate the (heavily debated) 2550th anniversary of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama – India’s most famous historical figure and religious leader - The Buddha.

Ladakh is among the most Buddhist regions of India. Culturally, genetically, religiously and geographically this region has more in common with Tibet than with Delhi. The Dalai Llama is treated as the supreme spiritual leader here, and his official residence is a few hundred kilometers down the road in McCleod Ganj. It therefore makes good sense for this to be chosen for Dr Abdul Kalam’s public celebration.

President Dr Abdul Kalam - "India's missile man"

This piece is intended to discuss the military presence that this visit has led to. Leh is the largest secure city near to two major border disputes. To the north there is the border with China, the result of the ‘62 war, which led to a several hundred square kilometer region of India being annexed to Chinese administration. This occupation remains internationally unrecognised. To the west there is Kashmir, the bleeding sore that has caused India endless trouble since Partition in ’47. For these reasons, Leh has been home to a significant military presence for the last half century.

Take into account the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and the fact that Dr Abdul Kalam is most famous for his role as a scientist in developing the Indian Military's missile and nuclear weapons programs, and it is pretty understandable that the government would pull out the stops for this visit.

I have seen civil wars that resulted in fewer troops on the ground than this - the 8th of July in London last year was nothing by comparison. Yesterday there was a “public military festival” at an army base approximately 50 km from the city, a blatant display of sheer military might involving air shows, cannon fire that could be heard echoing off the mountains for vast distances, and a demonstration of formation tank movements that would have pleased the Soviet Kremlin. Today, all major roads into and out of the city centre are filtered by large numbers of armed soldiers and regular movements of troop carriers. I managed to hitchhike to this terminal with a bunch of cheerful Ladakhi teenagers singing along to The Best Of The Backstreet Boys, I have no idea how they managed to get past the troop filters.

I suppose this is all understandable from the Indian Government perspective – it is only when you come here that you realize how large a role the military plays in Indian society. As is always the case with social/military interactions, these displays are fascinating to watch - here we see a mixture of Russian equipment and armaments, mixed with a hangover of British Raj style uniforms and rituals. It is not unusual to see troops in this country square marching, gun in hand, lifting their knees up to waist height. Today will in all likelihood go off without hitch – If I were Pakistani militants or the Chinese military this would certainly scare the hell out of me, but it is worth remembering that the emerging state everyone is hoping will counterbalance China may be every bit as militaristic as its northern neighbour.

Little Man What Now wishes to celebrate the life of history’s most eminent pacifist thinker, and honours the Indian government for taking his birthday seriously.


Charles Pooter said...


I just wish we could pay you to be our foreign correspondent on a regular basis. More please! have you see a yeti yet?

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Sorry, No Yetis in Ladakh... This place is best described as a desert in the sky, so no hope of maintaining a large primate here off the ecology... Will try to post a couple more while I'm out here.