| Advani with Ananth Kumar and Uma Bharti at the Sindhu Darshan festival in Leh. PTI file picture
If you think the Bharatiya Janata Party is campaigning on an exclusively bijli, sadak and pani plank in Ladakh, go take a running jump into the Sindhu river. That’s what Ladakh is still call the mighty Indus, which reminds me in these crisp northern heights of the bubbling Nilabaran in the Simultala of my childhood.
The only poster urging people to vote for the lotus on May 10 was on a culvert 10 km from Leh at a site that the pious Lal Krishna Advani is trying to impregnate with Hindu sanctity. It’s a fraud on the credulity of the masses as well as an imposition on people with a different cultural heritage.
This tranquil bend of the river has absolutely no Hindu associations whatsoever. Shey monastery crowns a peak on the left and Shey palace nearby is where Ladakh’s queens retreated to be confined before Dr Karan Singh’s ancestors sent the Dogra general, Zorowar Singh, to conquer their Tibetan kingdom. Its rulers were distant collaterals of the Chogyals of Sikkim, both descended from Tibet’s first king, Meh-Thi-Tsenpo.
The smoothly rounded mud-baked towers of Zorowar’s fort in Leh now house Indian soldiers. The ancient dynasty he dispossessed was compensated with a jagir at Stok where royal descendants still live. Stok palace rises in the distance as we drive past Shey.
All the Union government’s political, administrative and financial resources were mustered to bestow the name of Sindhu Darshan on this pleasant stretch of grass, shingle and water under the high mountains that the BJP has seized as its own. They wanted to raise a mandir to the greater glory of some Hindu deity but the natives — Tibetan Buddhists to a man — protested.
It was not the cheap politicisation of religion to which they objected. Nor did they say anything about the Hindi-Hindu imperialism that foisted them with a name and a ritual that were both alien. But they did think it sacrilege to violate nature’s serenity with a garishly painted stucco edifice symbolising the popular faith that the BJP exploits.
Thwarted, the authorities built a ghat, and some quite pleasant carved arches that look like wood.
Mr Advani arouses laughter. They tell you how, staying at the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) guesthouse when still only an Opposition MP, he asked about the stream flowing by. His eyes nearly popped out when they said it was the Indus. He had always thought of it as watering his native Sindh and confined to mlecchha Pakistan.
No longer did Hindu nationalists need to feel squeamish about their religion, nationality and country all deriving their names from a river that flows through the arch enemy’s land.
No sooner did the BJP come to power than it organised the Sindhu Darshan festival as an annual event every June, celebrating the deputy Prime Minister’s discovery of geography. Naturally, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh got into the act with Sindhu puja. Naturally, too, the BJP tried to take political advantage of a festival of song and dance that attracts hordes of Hindu pilgrims from the plains.
But, so far, the initiative has not yielded political dividend. The most memorable achievement of Sonam Paljore, the BJP candidate, is to have scaled Mount Everest without oxygen. That won him a Padma Shree but he lost his deposit in 2002.
The sitting MP is the National Conference’s Ghulam Hasan Khan who had formerly contested the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly election on a Congress ticket. A retired police officer, Khan rose to be a deputy commissioner in the ITBP.
The local favourite seems to be 56-year-old Thupstan Chhewang, a quiet grey-haired man in a maroon goncha — the garment that is called a baku or kho in the eastern Himalayas – tied round his ample waist with an emerald fabric belt, which they call a skeras. He is from Shey village but spent 10 years in New Delhi with All India Radio.
Thupstan is the consensus candidate for the Ladakh Union Territory Front, whose appeal appears to cut across all religious and ethnic borders.
One feels, however, that political parties do not belong here. Some might adopt labels of convenience but it’s local loyalty that counts for most in a part of India that is not India at all.
To be concluded