While the news has focused on worldwide protests against Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Mohammed, serious violence erupted last week in Ladakh over an act of vandalism that also angered Muslims.
Accounts in the Indian press vary in some of the details, but on Sunday night, February 5, someone tore pages out of a Quran in a mosque in the Ladakhi village of Khangral Badkharboo and threw them in the streets. (Other news source call the town in the Kargil District of Ladakh Bodh Kharboo or Budh Kharubu.) Discovering the vandalism on Monday, the Muslims accused the Ladakhi Buddhists of desecrating the book, so they began to protest in the Ladakhi capital, Leh. Buddhists in Leh mounted counter demonstrations.
The government soon imposed a curfew in Leh to quell the growing violence, but it was relaxed temporarily on Thursday, February 9, to allow a Muslim procession celebrating the festival of Muharram. However, during the procession, Buddhist rioters threw stones at the official vehicle of the Station House Officer in Leh, Padma Dorje, injuring him and his three guards. Four houses and three vehicles in Leh were set on fire in the rioting. The government moved the army into town and arrested more than thirty-one people before order was restored.
Rioting also broke out in Kargil on Friday, February 10, after worship services in the mosque. Five police officers and five others were injured as protesters hurled stones at buildings, torched cars and houses, sacked a government building, and burned the official residence of the Deputy Superintendent of Police. The rioting became quite violent: thousands of Muslim rioters stoned the police, who responded with teargas charges. The government imposed a curfew on Kargil as well as on Leh, where incidents of stone throwing continued. Another area of Ladakh, Nubra, also reported growing tensions.
Some Muslims in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, of which Ladakh is a part, began linking the desecration of the Quran in Ladakh with the Danish cartoons that were being reprinted in the Western media: all were seen as examples of anti-Islamic acts. The Bar Association in Srinagar, the capital of the state, protested the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed as well as the desecration of the Quran in Ladakh, though it appealed to Muslims to refrain from violence. Elsewhere in Srinagar, a Muslim religious leader, addressing a protest demonstration about the Danish cartoons, also denounced the way the Quran had been desecrated in Ladakh.
News over the weekend indicated that the indefinite, total curfew in Leh and Kargil was working. People were running out of milk, bread, and other food items as all shops were closed, but since no one was allowed on the streets, the violence had ceased. On February 12, with no incidents reported, the curfew was relaxed for two hours, from 11 to 1 pm in the town of Leh, though the curfew remained fully in force in Kargil town.
By Monday, the press was reporting that the curfew in Leh had been further relaxed to allow people on the streets for eight hours, and the Kargil curfew also had been relaxed a bit. The Muslim and Buddhist communities in Leh held peace marches in which the marchers offered sweets to each other. Leaders of the Muslim and Buddhist associations participated in the marches and promised to visit Muslim villages the next day.
Both communities took initiatives to break the ice and foster peace. A major factor was a written appeal from the Dalai Lama. He wrote, in part, “both communities should understand that their religious sentiments could be misused by anti-religious elements.” Both sides took heart from his appeal, and the leader of the Ladakh Muslim Association replied, “we will take this as an order and not merely an appeal because we see His Highness Dalai Lama as not only a religious leader but as a messenger of peace.”
A Muslim leader on Monday gave assurances that there will be no more attacks on Buddhists, and the spiritual leader of the Buddhists indicated that the centuries-old harmony between the two communities must be maintained.
By Tuesday, February 14th, the Muslims and Buddhists in Leh were walking openly hand-in-hand, shaking hands, and embracing one another. But tensions simmered below the surface, as both sides continue to wonder how it all got started. The government of the state of Jammu and Kashmir has launched a probe of the violence, though the background sectarian differences, which are constantly in danger of being inflamed by the even larger issue of Kashmir, will not be solved by another government investigation.