A tribute to the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche on his 103rd birth anniversary

By Nawang Tsering Shakspo Leh, May 19, 2020
19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche (19th of May 1917- 4th of November 2004)
Leh :

Soon after Ladakh was granted the UT status, Dr. Karan Singh, the former Sadr-i-Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir, and a close associate of the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche said: “All empires invariably come to an end, J&K is no exception.” On the other hand, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche had forecast long ago that “Ladakh would attain the UT status, though there could be some delay, adding that the destiny lies in its separation from the Jammu and Kashmir State". 

Padma Bhushan 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche (1917-2003), a saint and scholar from Ladakh, remained a pre-eminent religious and political figure in Ladakh for over half a century, marked by great social and political changes. More than any other person, he influenced events and public opinion through his religious, cultural, educational, and political leadership. He was the 19th incarnation of Arhat Bakula, and he obtained the highest degree in Buddhist metaphysics.

Until 1947, his life was that of a Buddhist monk, occupied by religious studies and spiritual and monastic affairs. But with the coming of independence and the tragic aftermath of the Pakistani attack on the region in 1947- 48, isolated Ladakh and its peace-loving people were drawn into the vortex of history, and Kushok Bakula felt impelled to extend his influence beyond the realm of religion. Urged to do so by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then first Prime Minister of India, he played an active part in public life and emerged as the undisputed political, religious and social leader of Ladakh. 

Kushok Bakula was the founder of the Buddhist Philosophy School, today known as the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh, a deemed university under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. He was also a member of the Syndicate of Kashmir University,

Srinagar, and a board member of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, in Gangtok, Sikkim. He was also a founding member of the prestigious Tibet House, a cultural and literary institution of HH the Dalai Lama, Chokhang Vihara, the Headquarter of Ladakh Buddhist Association and the prestigious Ladakh Buddhist Vihara, Kashmiri Gate ISBT, New Delhi.

In the year 1949, Kushok Bakula joined the mainstream of Indian politics and became a legislator in the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly, and later a minister and then was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Ladakh Parliamentary Constituency. He boldly spoke out against the discriminatory policies of the State government towards Ladakh on December 12, 1952, in the Legislative Assembly of the state, and in the presence of Sheikh Abdullah, the then Wazir-e-Azam (Prime Minister) of the state. While delivering the speech, Sheikh Sahib interrupted Kushok Bakula and wanted him to sit and keep quiet, but the Speaker of the House, Ghulam Mohammed Saddiq, declined to stop him from speaking. Later, Sheikh Abdullah acknowledged the issue in a formal meeting with Kushok Bakula. Kushok Bakula quickly emerged as the undisputed leader of Ladakh, as well as an important Buddhist leader of the country.

With this event, as well as his charismatic personality, he left a lasting impression on Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. On seeing the two coming closer, Kashmiri leaders like Sheikh Abdullah became increasingly frustrated and tried their best to undermine Kushok Bakula’s creditability. On the other hand, Kushok Bakula dared Sheikh Abdullah to take on the Ladakh issue and never hesitated to place his views on the affairs related to Ladakh for the consideration of the Prime Minister of India. The amount of pressure he put on the leaders of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir could be judged from the conversation held between Pandit Nehru and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, who later became the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in the aftermath of the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah from the post. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad proposed to Nehru that the “Centre should take over the administration of Ladakh as it was impossible for any government in Srinagar to do full justice to the cause of the Ladakhis.”

With that, Prime Minister Bakshi inducted Kushok Bakula into his ministry and accordingly, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche became Deputy Minister with the portfolio of Ladakh Affairs. According to reliable sources, it was none other than Nehru himself who directed Bakshi Sahib to create the Ladakh Affairs post in the government. As the celebration of the 2500 Buddha Jayanti was drawing near, the Indian Government was looking for a Buddhist religious leader who could influence the Buddhist community of India. In 1955, the Indian Government sent Kushok Bakula to Tibet to assess the situation there, on account of the massive Chinese build-up in Tibet and the Red Army intrusion in that country. The Government of India also nominated Kushok Bakula as a member of the National Committee for the Buddha Jayanti celebration in the year 1956, headed by the then Vice-President of India, Dr. Sarva Pali Radhakrishanan.

With the 1962 India-China war, Ladakh became a sensitive border region. Nehru visited Leh, and flew with Kushok Bakula to Chushul, in Ladakh, to meet the soldiers, landing on an airstrip built on barren land in a region which is considered inaccessible in Ladakh even today. Kushok Bakula Rinpoche propagated the meaning of modern education in the region at a time when the people of Ladakh were carrying on an isolated way of life, far from the reaches of scientific discoveries, mass communication, and transport. Before he stepped into politics, only a few schools were functioning in the region. Those that did exist had a small number of enrolled students. He toured every corner of Ladakh to teach the people about the importance of education in the democratic setup of the country. He linked the well-being of the population of the region with modern education.

Apart from his parliamentary and political activities, Kushok Bakula took a keen interest in the affairs of international Buddhism and contributed to strengthening India’s relationship with the rest of the Buddhist world. He was a pioneer and a tall Buddhist figure who strived hard for inter-faith dialogue, the peace movement, and issues concerning ecology and the environment. Due to the long struggle under the dynamic leadership of Kushok Bakula, Ladakhis obtained Schedule Tribe status, which helped the students of Ladakh in gaining admission and scholarship in various universities across the country. Again, thanks to the hard struggle undertaken by the
people under the leadership of Kushok Bakula, two Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, one each at Leh and Kargil, were formed with 30 Councilors each.

Kushok Bakula’s vision for Ladakhis was much beyond the ST and LAHDC status. He wanted to see that Ladakh is separated from the State of Jammu and Kashmir and obtain Union Territory status. Though Kushok Bakula passed away in 2003, his prediction for Ladakh started coming true. First, in a significant political as well as administrative development, on February 8th,2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Governor, Satya Pal Malik, granted the Divisional Status to Ladakh region, separating it from the Kashmir Division. Soon after that, on August 5, 2019, the Government of India revoked the special status or autonomy of the J&K State granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, declared Ladakh as a Union Territory, completely separating it from the administrative bullying of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir Government.

Kushok Bakula was thus a great visionary leader and a statesman of Ladakh. In fact, he has been described as the ‘Architect of Modern Ladakh’. When he passed away on 4th Nov 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while offering his condolences, wrote: “In the passing away of the most Venerable Kushok Bakula, an eminent Buddhist scholar, a saint, a guide and a source of inspiration for all, is lost. It is difficult to imagine Ladakh without Kushok Bakulaji.”

The then Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, had visited Leh on 10th of June, 2005 to rename the Leh airport in honour of Bakula Rinpoche. Speaking on the occasion, he said: “In doing so [dedicating this airport], we pay tribute to the memory of the most Venerable Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the architect of modern Ladakh. Venerable Kushok Bakula was a noble saint, a teacher, a patriot, a beloved leader, a true Buddhist, and, above all, a great Indian. It is only appropriate that we name this airport, the link between the high Himalayas and the world below, after this son of Ladakh and this man of God.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the Mongolian Parliament in June 2015, said most appropriately: “The relation between Mongolia and India lives through the work of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, India’s ambassador here from 1990 to 2000. The Pethub Monastery he established here will be an enduring symbol of our links.”

In 1986, in recognition of his services to the nation, the President of India conferred the prestigious Padma Bhushan award on him.

The grateful people of Ladakh, and Buddhists all over the world, will fondly remember and pay tributes to Kushok Bakula, on May 19, 2020, his 117th birth anniversary.

The writer Nawang Tsering Shakspo is the Director of Centre for Research on Ladakh, Leh-Ladakh.