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Ladakh Buddhist Monk Leads A Campaign for Peaceful Resolution of Border Conflict

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE (IDN) – When India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow on September 10, Wang noted that it was “normal for India and China to have differences as two neighbouring major countries”.

According to India’s NDTV network, he added, as Asia’s emerging powers, India and China need to cooperate and not confront each other, and promote mutual trust, not suspicion. JAPANESE | HINDI

Himalayan mountain state of Ladakh has the biggest ratio of Buddhists of any Indian union territory, and Bhikkhu Sanghasena, a leading Buddhist monk, based in the state capital Leh has been leading a campaign for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, since the deadly clash between Indian and Chinese forces in June 2020 on the border that killed 20 Indian soldiers.

“If war breaks out, Ladakh being the border will be the first victim of war,” he told Lotus News, a partner of IDN-INPS; in a WhatsApp interview from Leh. “People of Ladakh will suffer the most. We will become another Kashmir or Afghanistan,” he added.

When Ladakh was declared a union territory last year by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Buddhists in Ladakh were happy because, for the first time in India, Buddhists would have a greater say in the running of a state in the Indian federal system. But, Bhikkhu Sanghasena – who heads the Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre in Leh, a large Buddhist organisation with a variety of social service projects for the community – has lamented that spiritual leaders in India have been silent on the brewing conflict.

“It is the duty of every spiritual leader to promote peace,” he argues. “India is a land of millions of Yogis, Rishis (Hindu sages) and Munis (ancient Indian ascetics) who always said ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’ (non-violence topmost duty). Thus non-violence has been the first slogan of Indian gurus. I’m surprised no gurus have come up to speak for a peaceful solution of the border conflict between India and China.”

On September 8, under the banner of “Work, Walk and Pray for Peace”, Bhikkhu Sanghasena led a procession of local spiritual leaders across Leh town centre that included not only Buddhists but also Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. The local spiritual leaders prayed for the elimination of so much hatred, tensions, fear and instability that has gripped the community, and the speakers from each community called for wisdom to overcome ignorance, to enable them to live in peace and harmony.

“I’m very much disappointed with most of the Indian media. They promote hate, war and violence, and mislead the public” Bhikkhu Sanghasena told Lotus News.  “It is very sad; they lack moral responsibility towards the nation”.

“Indian news media talks of peace invoking figures like Mahatma Gandhi or Gautama Buddha but their inclination is towards a jingoistic nationalism” noted Sanjay Ranade, Communication and Journalism Professor at Mumbai University in an interview with Lotus News.

“Imagining a role to play as peacemakers in international conflict is beyond the capacity of the present editorial departments of news organisations in India. They will either toe the line of the ruling dispensation or side with the political opponents of the government” he added. 

When asked why the spiritual leaders have been silent on the brewing conflict between India and China, two civilizations that have had spiritual bonds going back centuries, he argues that spiritual leaders in India do not comment on politics “although they clearly keep company with the politicians”. They also see the India-China situation as something where critical assessment and commentary should be given by political or military leaders, not spiritual leaders.

“One reason for this is that the spiritual sphere has become narrowly confined to the Hindu-Muslim duality,” argues Prof Ranade. “Although India, over the many centuries, is home to nine darshanas or philosophical visions (today’s) spiritual leadership is very narrowly focused on ritual than theosophy or philosophy.”

A timely book titled ‘The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance’ published last year by former Indian diplomat Phunchok Stobdan warned that the Himalayan mountain region that encompasses both India and China, and its neighbours Nepal and Bhutan could become a new geopolitical hotspot. It argues for India and China to come together to help empower Buddhists in the region and develop peaceful co-existence as taught by the Buddhist philosophy.

The author, who is a Buddhist himself, points out that the “Himalayas has been a theatre of competition by proxy between India and China for over half a century now”. But he notes that the region that encompasses the mountain ranges between Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh has been a hotbed of border disputes between the two Asian giants with occasional standoffs. He argues that outside powers like the US could use the Tibet issue to sow discord in the region.

At the height of the border incursions by China in June, Stobdan created controversy when he asked in a television discussion why His Holiness The Dalai Lama has been silent on the border issue. He raised a volley of questions during the program, asking, “why are Chinese coming there? Who told them it is their land? Chinese are far from there. Why Dalai Lama is not speaking? Why he is not saying this is not Tibetan territory but Indian territory?” He added: “Dalai Lama has to speak, and he cannot keep focusing on his prayers while China takes away the land.”

The Buddhist community in Leh, who have great reverence for the Tibetan spiritual leaders took offence at the comments and closed all shops and businesses for a day in protest.

“India and China have some sense of competition in recent times,” the Dalai Lama said in a magazine interview later. “Both over a billion population. Both [are] powerful nations yet neither one can destroy the other one, so you have to live side-by-side.”

Bhikkhu Sanghasena points out that when he talks about a peaceful solution, he doesn’t mean any compromise of integrity and security of his motherland. But he argues, spiritual persons “should go beyond the boundaries of nations to promote peace”.

Meanwhile, at the end of the Jaishankar-Wang meeting, brokered by the Russians, India and China have reached a five-point consensus regarding the current situation, including the disengagement of border troops and easing of tensions.

According to the joint statement, two foreign ministers agreed that border tension is not in the interest of both sides and the two countries should “expedite work to conclude new confidence-building measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 September 2020]

Photo: Bhikkhu Sanghasena, a leading Buddhist monk, based in the state capital Leh, led a procession of local spiritual leaders across the town centre. The spiritual leaders included not only Buddhists but also Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. Credit: Mahabodhi Meditation Centre.

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