Shridhar Kaul and Ladakh’s UT discourse

Recently, the first anniversary of granting Union Territory (UT) status to Ladakh with the bifurcation of J&K state was marked on 5 August, 2020. This historical change has been greeted with joy and apprehension by the people of Ladakh. The sense of confusion remains even a year later. Over the last year, in addition to green signalling various developmental projects in Ladakh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been paying tribute to various people who have been instrumental in the struggle for UT status. The dominant narrative is that UT for Ladakh is the result of the efforts of a whole generation of Ladakhi society. In this regard, protests and public resentment in Kargil in the aftermath of the declaration of UT reveals a very different story. The divergence in aspiration of the people of Leh and Kargil has its genesis in the pre-Partition communal politics of J&K. In this period, the politics in the Indian Subcontinent was divided along communal lines. Many a time when Leh-Kargil relations are discussed, this historical phase and its reverberation in contemporary political discourse in Ladakh are omitted. One name that needs special mention for his role in shaping Ladakh’s political discourse is Pt. Shridhar Kaul.

Pt. Shridhar Kaul is popularly known as Pt. Dulloo or Master-ji. He was posted as Education Officer for Ladakh under Dogra rule. The current regime in Ladakh and J&K seems to have forgotten the contribution of Pt. Dulloo but that is unlikely. It is possible that the omission has been intentional for fear of belittling the contributions of Bakula Rinpoche and senior leaders such as Thupstan Tsewang and Tsering Dorjee Lakruk. However, this article does not dwell on why Pt. Dulloo has been excluded from the UT discourse. Instead, it explores his contribution in shaping the formation of the UT discourse in its early stages. Bakula Rinpoche has credited Pt. Dulloo for awakening the political consciousness of Ladakh and regarded him as a friend who used to guide him on important political issues pertaining to Ladakh.

The discourse of Ladakh, which later become entrenched in national and international imagination, as a Buddhist territory starts with the delegation of Pt. Shridhar Kaul and other Neo-Buddhist members of Kashmir Raj Bodhi Maha Sabha before the Glancy Commission in 1931. The Glancy Commission was meant to recommend ways to create a more democratic political framework for the state in the backdrop of mounting problems faced by the Dogra king. Ladakh was surely going to be affected by the outcomes of this commission. While the representation highlighted the plight of Ladakhi Buddhists before the commission, it overshadowed the entire Ladakhi Muslim population and their aspirations. The representation did not mention the socio-political conditions of Ladakhi Muslim community but clubbed them with the larger Muslim discourse of Jammu and Kashmir. However, the Glancy Commission rejected their proposal as the representation did not include any Ladakhi Buddhist leaders and moreover none of the member had ever been to Ladakh. Thereafter, Pt Dulloo started exploring other ways to reach out to Ladakhi Buddhists.

This became possible when he was posted in Ladakh as Education Officer, After assuming his responsibilities in Ladakh, Pt. Dulloo worked on a key objective of his Neo-Buddhist members, which was to strengthen the Ladakhi Buddhist community. As part of this group, he started the Ladakh Buddhist Education Society to improve education standards in Ladakh. They put forward many important issues pertaining to the Buddhist community including the appointment of a Bodhi teacher, special scholarships for Buddhist students and making Urdu an optional subject. It is important to acknowledge the contribution of Pt Dulloo and his associates in introducing the spark of modern education among the Buddhist community in Ladakh. In the religious and socio-political realms, the greatest achievement of Pt. Shridhar Kaul was the formation of Young Buddhist Men Association, which later became the Ladakh Buddhist Association. It remains the largest association of Buddhists in Ladakh.

Pt. Shridhar Kaul mentions in his book, Ladakh Through the Ages: Towards A New Identity that he was a member of various delegations to the J&K government and Government of India to demand autonomy, which later became a demand for UT. Similarly, he mentions the historic speech of Bakula Rinpoche in the J&K Assembly in 1952 that stirred a debate on Ladakh without mentioning that he had drafted that speech. The writings of Nawang Tsering Shakspo only mention that Bakula Rinpoche was very sad when Ladakh was not even mentioned once in the maiden budget session of the J&K Assembly in 1952. He discussed this with his mentor Pt. Shridhar Kaul to chart out a plan to protest against the J&K government for their step-motherly treatment of Ladakh. Tashi Rabgais, a veteran historian of Ladakh, has mentioned that he translated the speech that was originally written by Pt. Shridhar Kaul in English. He mentioned this during an interaction that was published in Heritage Himalaya (2011) under the title Khhaspa yang Zhunu (Scholars and Youth).Tashi Rabgais was a final year student in Kashmir at the time. This particular incident is significant in that it reveals that in this book, Pt. Kaul does not mention the ideas and policies that he had suggested to Ladakhi leaders. The writings of Kristoffer Brix Bertelsen, Martijn van Beek, Tashi Rabgias and Nawang Tsering Shakspo document the role of Pt. Shridhar Kaul in the demand for autonomy that later transformed into a demand for UT.

If we try to locate the role of Pt. Dulloo in Ladakh in the larger politics of J&K, it gives us a peek into his mind-set beyond him representing the Buddhists of the state. This needs to be seen in the context of the growing stature of Kashmiri Muslims at the cost of Kashmiri Pandits who were historically the ruling class in the state through the course of the 20th Century. This could have led Pt Dulloo and his associates to focus on ‘protecting’ this Buddhist belt from Muslim oppression. This would help unite all non-Muslim communities in the state, especially the Hindus and Buddhists as a counterweight to the Muslims of Kashmir valley especially in the post-independence era.

The book Ladakh Through the Ages: Towards A New Identity provides a coherent history of ancient Ladakh but its narration of Ladakh from 1930s to around 1950s seems rather biased. It reads like propaganda that paints Ladakhi Buddhists as illiterate and oppressed with no leadership while the Muslims of Ladakh are portrayed as recipients of opportunities and patronage from the Kashmir-centric regime. Moreover, he also writes that Muslims had a soft corner for the Pakistani army and initially rejected the proposal of joining the voluntary force of the National Guards unlike the Buddhist who were always ready to fight for India.

Just as he described the Buddhist community of Ladakh as illiterate and oppressed, he also expressed his emotional attachment and assumed his karmic duty to intervene in their welfare. There is no doubt on the immense contribution of Pt. Dulloo in saving Ladakh from the invading forces in 1947-48. Ladakh may well have been captured by Pakistani forces but for the intervention of people like Pt Dulloo who helped raise a voluntary force of local residents while also opening communication channels with Delhi. However, we must also not forget his role in the propagation of communal politics. The ideology of Muslim as outsider or the sympathiser of Pakistan or the enemy of Buddhist faith on the pretext of the political discourse in J&K and mainland India has shaped, and continues to shape, the political discourse of Ladakh. Unfortunately, the only window we have into the life of Pt. Dulloo is his book and research texts on Ladakh that touch on his contribution. We need more research into his life and how the politics of India and Kashmir influenced his outlook. This would help us understand his work and policies in Ladakh better in the light of these influences. These findings would help fill the void he has left in his book.

By Jamphel Sheyan

Jamphel Sheyan is a research scholar at Central University of Jammu