IN A village of 55 houses and one mosque, Syed Mohammad Shah is wrapping up celebrations post his son’s wedding. Of his five sons, two were supposed to get married on September 14. However, only one of them could make it.
Murtaza Agha, his third son, and his bride have gone “underground” since the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) took exception to their marriage. Slamming Agha’s marriage to a Buddhist woman, they issued an ultimatum to Muslims from Kargil in Leh to leave town if she wasn’t “returned”. The incident has led to communal tension in Leh.
Agha and Stanzin Saldon, now Shifah, got married earlier in court, but Shah had hoped that the two could have a nikah along with his younger son on September 14. “I last spoke to Murtaza a day before Eid (September 2). He said he and his wife were safe and that we should not worry about them,” Shah says.
Agha’s elder brother Syed Sajjad asks why the decision of two individuals to marry has become a regional issue, with communal undertones.
According to him, while Saldon had converted to Islam in 2015, trouble began after the family came to know of the marriage. “Shifah called up her mother and informed her. Her relations with her family had soured after her acceptance of Islam in 2015 but she spoke to them now and then,” Sajjad says.
After Shifah’s call, he says, her family approached police in Leh and subsequently the LBA, and the matter snowballed.
While Shifah’s family has defended its actions asking why she won’t talk to them, Sajjad says she is angry at them for having gone to police.
Now Agha’s family has also lodged an FIR, stating that if any harm were to come to their son or daughter-in-law, “the LBA should be held responsible”.
Agha studied in Drass before moving to Delhi to pursue an engineering degree at Jamia Millia Islamia. According to Sajjad, Shah and Shifah first met at an adventure camp in Kargil in 2010, and later worked together for an NGO in Srinagar. After some time, Shifah, Agha and some of their friends got together to start an NGO called ‘Zampa’ to push for welfare schemes in the region, even as he continued working. “Last year they won an award for their work as well. They helped build toilets for girls in local schools,” Sajjad says.
While the Shah family says Shifah adopted Islam in 2015, when she was in Bengaluru, her relatives, who live in Saspol village, 60 km from Leh, say they had no knowledge of her conversion till they heard of the marriage. “We had no idea about her decision to renounce Buddhism and convert. She came home for festivals and met everyone like before and never disclosed her decisions, except to her mother,” her cousin Tashi Dorji says.
Slamming the LBA’s role in the controversy, Chairman of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (Kargil) Kacho Ahmed Ali Khan says a community should not be punished for individual choices. “I cannot claim to control my own family, how can I possibly claim to control an entire district?” Khan says.
Ashraf Ali, chairman of the Anjuman Imamiya in Leh who was part of the peace meeting called by the Leh district administration on Friday, says, “The Muslim organisations pressed upon the LBA to resolve the matter amicably and within the rule of law.” He adds that Ladakh has a history of inter-religious marriages and “even our kings married into other religions”.
While the Leh district administration says the situation is under control, drivers from Kargil seeking passengers continue to stand outside the municipal limits of the town. One of them, Shoaib Maqsood, says they do not fear violence, but don’t want to take chances.
However, with the end of the tourist season in the region approaching, for them, it’s already a cold summer.