Amid long standing communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Zanskar in Jammu and Kashmir, a pledge signed by representatives of both the groups in the presence of the Dalai Lama has given a ray of hope to peace initiatives in the region.

The local people have formed a “Peace Committee” having six members from both faiths, to provide a platform for conflicts to be heard and resolved amicably. After accepting the pledge taken by the two communities’ representatives, the Dalai Lama lauded them and said, “Friendship and harmony between different faiths are of fundamental importance. The followers of different faiths must follow and practise the advice of their own teachers.”

Thanking the Dalai Lama for his intervention in the matter, Gulam, the head of the Muslim Action Committee who led the delegation for Muslims, said, “We owe it completely to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s vision and compassion for enabling us to reach this milestone. We remain forever indebted.”

Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, Gulam said, “We wanted an audience with the Dalai Lama to talk about our continuous social boycott. Ending of the boycott has not yet trickled down to the ground. The sentiment has definitely diluted. The two communities are openly interacting again, but it will take some more time for the communal vibes to die down.” Zanskar has witnessed differences between Buddhists and Muslims living in the region for decades now. The latest tensions erupted in 2012 following the deaths of three monks at the hands of terrorists and several conversions undertaken by Buddhist families who accepted Islam. A former Ladakh Buddhists’ Association (LBA) senior position holder, who did not wish to be named, told The Sunday Guardian, “The hatred got bad over the years. With militancy in Kashmir, we started feeling that the Muslims in Ladakh, too, are getting affected. Obviously, conversions were not at all acceptable. People are free to follow whatever God they want to believe in, but here we have seen cases where Buddhists were lured into accepting Islam. In exchange for employment, better rent deal and for other economic conveniences, they changed their religion.”

The acute differences between Buddhists and Muslims led to a social boycott which affected the economy and both the communities suffered.  The Zanskar Buddhist Association (ZBA) had enforced the social boycott after four Buddhist families, comprising 22 members, converted to Islam in October 2012. The boycott led to migration of Muslims living in Padam town to Kargil and to the Kashmir Valley to look for jobs. The region’s two biggest occupations are running hotels and taxis, given the huge tourist appeal of Ladakh. During the social boycott, taxi drivers who were largely Muslims, were heavily fined if they entered Buddhist-dominated areas, even if they were carrying tourists.  Following the signing of the petition, Ehsan Balti, a taxi driver in Padam, told The Sunday Guardian, “I am going to test the waters before getting my hopes up. It would be good if we do not have to worry about what regions we can and cannot go to. It is business after all. We all suffer if the tourist economy is disrupted by fines and boycotts.”

In April 2014, Muslims in Ladakh had started an online petition to request the Dalai Lama to intervene and put an end to the social boycott.

Ladakh is a region in the north-eastern part of Jammu and Kashmir and constitutes of two districts—Kargil and Leh. Zanskar is a sub-district in Kargil, where Padam is a small tourist town situated at the foothills.

Kargil has always been a Muslim majority district, where Buddhists account for less than 15% of the population. In contrast, Leh has been a Buddhist majority district.

With inputs from Noor-ul-Qamrain