The same day that the news of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s assassination reached India, a protest against his killing by the United States erupted in a remote and often unnoticed corner of this vast country. Ladakh is a territory high up in the mountain ranges and disputed between India, China, and Pakistan. A part of its local Shia Muslim population unsurprisingly took Iran’s side in the recent bout of Washington-Tehran tensions, taking to the streets upon hearing of Soleimani’s death. Later on, anti-American demonstrations by Indian Shias flashed through some other parts of Kashmir, and a few days later even in Delhi.
I do not mean to describe the current state of Indo-Iranian relations here. Nor do I want to address New Delhi’s reaction to Soleimani’s killing. I will instead focus on the growing Iranian influence in Ladakh. This aspect, to be sure, is unrelated to the main dynamics of Tehran’s relations with New Delhi (at least so far). If the U.S.-Iran conflict keeps growing, however, the presence of pro-Tehran entities in a part of Ladakh could hypothetically emerge as an irritant one day.
The mountainous territory of Ladakh has been separated from the territory of Jammu and Kashmir since August 2019, becoming a separate administrative unit of the Republic of India, a union territory. Ladakh is largely a historical part of Tibet in the cultural, religious, and linguistic sense, and hence has a sizeable population of Tibetan Buddhists. But an another huge chunk of its population are Muslim Shias, accounting for around 46 percent of residents and thus overtaking the total population of Buddhists. They are mostly concentrated in the region of Kargil. This is where demonstrations after Soleimani’s death erupted first.
For the outside world, Kargil is mostly known for the Indo-Pakistani armed conflict that took place in 1999 over the control of this territory. While Iran has no military presence or territorial ambitions in this region, it may as well turn out that by now it is Tehran that enjoys more influence and well-wishers in Kargil than in Pakistan.
An organization called the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT) has functioned in Kargil since 1979; it was established the same year the Iranian Revolution took place. Apart from being active in such areas as charity work and education, the trust is clear in its goal of propagating the ideas of the Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei’s thought. It also celebrates Khomeini’s death anniversary (moreover, even the Quds Day is celebrated by some of the Kargil Shias). The trust does not remain aloof from local politics either. For instance, Haji Asgar Ali Karbalai is both a recognized regional politician and a member of the IKMT. As early as in 1990s, Indian officials accused the IKMT of being funded by Tehran, although the trust rejected this charge. It was this influential body that organized the protests after Soleimani’s death.
The demonstrations were also reportedly carried out by a religious organization called Anjuman e Jamiat-Ul-Ulema Isna Ashriya Kargil (often referred to as Islamia School). While it is rival to the IMKT, in the political sense, both institutions share their faith in Shia traditions. As summarized by Radhika Gupta in her study of Shia networks in Kargil, the Islamia School remains more tied to the Shia religious centers in Iraq, and the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust to those of Iran. In the past, some of the religious teachers associated to the Islamia School had been educated in an important Shia learning center in Najaf (Iraq). Yet, a delegation from the Iranian embassy in New Delhi was seen visiting the Islamia School a few years ago.
“The year of 1979 proved to be year of special blessings [for Kargil] from the Almighty Allah,” the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust declares. “Firstly […] it was given a status of [a] full-fledged district by the state government […]. Secondly, the success of Islamic Revolution in Iran under the leadership of Imam Khomeini(RA) awakened the people. The hitherto skeptical thinking changed all together and exposure to Islamic awakening started showing results in various developmental fields.”
Kargil is indeed under the immense influence of Islamic conservatism, but its spread is accompanied by a growing “Iranization.” It reveals itself not only through cultural aspects (such as the promotion of the nastaliq script at the expense of the Tibetan one or the functioning of a ban of the sale of liquor in Kargil) and the symbolic ones (Khomeini’s posters), but also political ones, such as raising the of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel slogans by some of the region’s Tehran-influenced Shias.
India did its best to remain distanced from the Iran-U.S. tussle that began last month. New Delhi gains from bilateral cooperation from both countries and will benefit if the countries reach a form of reconciliation. Conversely, the growing tensions between Washington and Tehran weakened the latter’s cooperation with India: New Delhi yielded to American pressure by halting its imports of oil from Iran. Moreover, the uncertainty surrounding Iran as a result of this tensions has hurt the prospects of the Chabahar port, which Afghanistan, India, and Iran are jointly developing.
But at the same time, India remained mostly untouched by the tensions between the United States and Israel on one side, and Iran on the other. The one time in recent history that the proxy war spilled over to Indian territory was in 2012, when an Israeli diplomat was attacked in Delhi by what seems were Iranian elements with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This was more of an exception to the rule, however.
So far, there is very little to suggest that Kargil may become another such irritant. First of all, the whole of Ladakh is not only remote but also scarcely populated – the inhospitable region is home to approximately 274,000 people. Secondly, there is so far no evidence that the Iran-influenced organizations in Kargil have any traits of being paramilitary proxies that can be used in a hostile way (as it is often the case with Tehran-affiliated groups in the Middle East). Still, in the case of the Washington-Tehran tensions rising to another level and of their conflict pilling beyond the region, the Iranian influences in Kargil should be watched, at least with one eye.