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Lotus peeks through divide in ‘Little Tibet’

A bitter Buddhist-Muslim divide in “Little Tibet” is haunting the Congress this general election, giving the BJP a reason to fancy its chances for the first time.

The cold desert of Ladakh, called “Little Tibet” because of its geographical and cultural proximity to Tibet, is one of the six Lok Sabha seats in Jammu and Kashmir where the Congress was expecting a cake walk.

That was because it got a firm assurance from ally National Conference (NC) that it wouldn’t support any rebel candidate this time around. The Congress is contesting in Ladakh under a seat-sharing pact with the NC.

In 2009 as well, the Congress had a pre-poll tie-up with the NC but it secretly backed rebel candidate Ghulam Hassan Khan, who ultimately won the election. This time, the NC has dissuaded Khan from contesting, bringing smiles in the Congress camp.

Another reason that perked up the Congress was the unity the Buddhists and Muslims displayed last year to fight for a separate Ladakh division — it is now a part of Kashmir division — and greater autonomy for its twin districts of Leh and Kargil. The Congress was expecting the communities to rise above all differences and vote for it.

According to the 2001 census, Muslims, at 47.4 per cent of the population, enjoy a slender majority in Ladakh against 45.9 per cent Buddhists. Hostilities between the communities have run deep for decades, at times triggering communal violence. Ladakh has an electorate of 1.59 lakh.

But the initial enthusiasm appears to have worn off. Trouble started after the Congress fielded Tsering Samphel, a Buddhist from Leh, in the face of a growing number of calls in Kargil for a candidate from that region.

The Islamic scholar, Syed Mohammad Kazim Sabri, then joined the fray as an Independent with the backing of two major religious groups — Islamia School and Anjuman-e-Sahib-uz-Zaman — that have traditionally supported the NC.

The Congress also faced a rebellion with its Kargil chief, Ghulam Raza, quitting the party to contest as an Independent. He still enjoys the support of the party in Kargil.

“We are supporting Ghulam Raza (the official Congress candidate is Samphel) as our demand to field a candidate from Kargil was ignored,” said Asghar Karbalai, Congress leader and CEO of the Kargil Hill Development Council.

No wonder, BJP candidate Thupstan Chewang, a Buddhist from Leh and a former MP, is fancying his chances.

“Till three years ago, the BJP was an insignificant force in Ladakh but it is much stronger now. Much of our support comes from our unflinching stand on Union territory status for Ladakh, which is officially supported by my party,” Chewang, who used to be in the Congress earlier, said.

The Congress unit in Leh backs the demand for Union territory status too. But the party, and Muslims in Ladakh in general, are opposed to it.

Chewang said the split in the Congress would help him. “The Congress votes will be divided and I believe the official Congress candidate and rebel candidate will come third and forth. The real contest will be between me and Sabri,” he said.

Chewang had written to the BJP top leadership, including Narendra Modi, to campaign for him. In response, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Nitin Gadkari visited Ladakh to campaign for Chewang.

Sabri expects NC cadres to support him. “If Congress loyalists in Kargil support a rebel candidate, how can NC workers support the official Congress candidate?” he asked. There are reports that ground-level NC cadres have already started supporting him.

The official Congress candidate, Samphel, however, believes his party still enjoys mass support in the region. “The votes in Kargil will be split between two (Muslim) candidates there.” he said.

A Congress leader in Leh said a rebellion in the party might help Samphel. “There will be a division in Muslim votes. So, Muslims who might otherwise have voted for Sabri will vote for the rebel Congress leader, who is a Muslim,” he said.

“That is why there has been no action against Congress leaders in Kargil for openly supporting a rebel. They may have the backing of the Congress leadership in the state.”

Ladakh votes on May 7