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THE VERTICAL

The Artisan Labor Crisis of Ladakh

As Sino-Indian tensions rise in the new Indian Union territory of Ladakh at the Line of Actual Control, Ladakhi craftswomen like Sonam Dolma are returning to Kashmir to sell their authentic pashmina shawls.
VOL. 2
REPORTAGE

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A landscape view of Ladakh. Dolma's homeland now facing the heat of the lurking dragon. Courtesy of Masroor Khan.

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A landscape view of Ladakh. Dolma's homeland now facing the heat of the lurking dragon. Courtesy of Masroor Khan.

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3 May 2024
Reportage
Ladakh
Reportage
Ladakh
Srinagar
Kashmir
Sino-Indian Relations
China
India
Geopolitics
Indian Union
Article 370
Line of Actual Control
People’s Liberation Army
Changthang
Labor
Craftsmanship
Artisans
Indigeneity
Settler-Colonialism
Displacement
Statehood
Military Operations
Police Action
Sonam Dolma
Militarization

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In the upscale neighborhood of Rajbagh in Srinagar, Sonam Dolma awaits a high-stakes meeting at an eatery amidst Kashmiri portraits and vintage décor. Her Ladakhi tribe’s prized Pashmina shawls made of fine Kashmiri cashmere are sought after by Kashmir’s elite who eschew mass-produced replicas for craftsmanship. In the quiet corner of the café, away from the bustling streets, Dolma prepares to showcase her wares to discerning clients—wives of bureaucrats and businessmen—who value quality and authenticity above all else. Just miles away from this serene scene lies a neighborhood scarred by floods, where Dolma’s tribe finds refuge after their daily trade expeditions. Despite this contrast, these Ladakhi women navigate Kashmir’s high society with grace, armed with exquisite products and a commitment to purity in a world of imitations.


The group’s trade trips to Kashmir have become recurrent ever since Chinese troops showed up at their homeland’s hinterland in May 2020. Oblivious to the standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where Beijing has grown its military presence, the women are making their rounds of the posh localities of Srinagar with shawls in hand. This internal drive for living has come just five years after New Delhi stripped the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir. ​​Their homeland is a new spark plug in South Asia; they live in a constant state of fear. In fact, the rise of the new front—LAC—has already proven deadly. In a military standoff, Sino-India troops have suffered casualties. But beyond these border games, Beijing has forced new orders and routines compelling the Ladakhi craftswomen to return to estranged Kashmir.


These young women frequent the fraught region of the valley for sustenance. Prior to their recent visits as mobile merchants, they would mostly feel at home in Kashmir. But everything changed when New Delhi sliced Ladakh from Kashmir in a cartographic attempt to redefine the contested land in the summer of 2019. Carving a union territory out of the United Nations’ registered disputed region eventually proved costly for the government of India. It provoked China—now the ominous third party of what New Delhi calls a “bilateral issue” between India and Pakistan.


However, beyond Beijing’s belligerence, the decision to make Ladakh a federal entity has far-reaching consequences for the cashmere brand and its craftspeople. With China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occupying the winter mainstay of the Pashmina goats in Ladakh, cashmere is losing its source of thread. Ladakh’s Changthang area—the land of nomads located in the east of Leh on the Chinese border—has long been a breeding ground for the Pashmina goats. The severe temperature of the area, the experts say, makes the Pashmina thread of Changthang very thin, which in turn makes these goats the source of the finest cashmere in the world. The Chinese incursions have now made it a literal no-go zone for the nomads rearing these goats. 


Although China is showing no signs of retreat, the military occupation has created an existential crisis for the native animal and has raised serious concerns around the globe. The nomads are reporting increasing numbers of goat deaths. These deaths—due to the occupied winter habitat of Pashmina goats—have cast shadows on the global brand. 


In the main towns of Leh, the Pashmina dealers are linking the supply slump to the rise of China in Ladakh. Despite the dilemma, the cashmere craftspeople are banking on their old ties with the valley. In the larger din emanating from the LAC, their Kashmir move has become symbolic. While New Delhi has separated them from Kashmir in this territorial juggling, Beijing has reunited them. New anxieties are on the rise, however, as the processing of Pashmina may be shifted out of Kashmir to Uttar Pradesh by the Indian authorities, a move that may create an impact on the cashmere wool industry. 


Faced with diminishing income and mounting unpredictability, Dolma made the difficult decision to seek refuge in Kashmir. At noon when most of the citizenry works, she arrives to strike some profitable exchanges.


Dolma on her way to a Srinagar neighbourhood where she sells her stuff to customers. Courtesy of Mir Seeneen.

Dolma tells me how she was born into a family of weavers in a small village 260 miles from Ladakh’s capital, Leh. She learned the art of crafting Pashmina shawls from her grandmother, who in teaching her, passed down centuries-old techniques. Dolma reflects on the journey: “The foreign incursions into Ladakh forced me to confront the fragility of life, to adapt, and evolve.”


But the looming specter and uncertainty brought by a massive troop build-up, cast a dark shadow over Dolma’s once-peaceful existence.


“We spend months preparing the handicraft stuff before arriving in Srinagar for work," she says. For Dolma, these rendezvous in serene corners of the city held significance beyond mere transactions. She was not just selling shawls—she was preserving a legacy, a tradition that had been passed down through generations. In a market flooded with facsimiles, she was a purveyor of authenticity, valued for her discerning eye and commitment to quality.


Away from Ladakh, Dolma considers Kashmir the second home for Ladakhi entrepreneurs like herself. This Himalayan region is their main economic link to the rest of the world, aside from being the preferable market for their indigenous products. During the post-Covid distressed times, they counted on Kashmir’s booming domestic tourism. “Kashmir has never disappointed us,” says Tenzin, another Pashmina seller from Ladakh. “But somewhere down the line, the region’s uncertainty reminds us of our home now. It was a peaceful land before they changed its status in the summer of 2019.”


The demand for a separate entity—a union territory—was a longstanding political cry in Ladakh, mostly from the members of the ruling mainstream party. The campaign gained steam after the political party swept the regional polls. Experts feared that slicing Ladakh from Kashmir would alter the course of the disputed land. But in the run-up to August 2019, when campaigns against Article 370 became fierce, Ladakh witnessed a political wave culminating in its new territorial identity. Lately, the process in Kargil has intensified with shutdowns of demand for statehood; even the famed climate activist Sonam Wangchuk went on a 21-day hunger strike.


With the altered political reality, most of these women are now anxious about the war frenzy created by the armies in their homeland. They realize how the militarization was triggered by the summer shift—when New Delhi justified the abrogation of Article 370 as a move “to end discrimination” with Ladakh and its people. But the unilateral decision backfired when the Chinese army showed up at the LAC and clashed with Indian forces. Since then the skirmishes have stopped, but the boots remain on the ground. ​​While the border brouhaha has given Ladakh global coverage in recent times, these girls have become weary of the hyper-media attention. Like their Kashmiri counterparts, they don’t make peace with the pugnacious news debates focusing on their homeland.


The mainland television media’s so-called war bulletins have only heightened tensions. What’s further creating a false sense of alarm is New Delhi’s dithering response to the LAC situation. The region has now become a new strategic zone forcing the right-wing government to build a fair-weather highway connecting Leh with Srinagar that opened this past winter. The snowbound thoroughfare used to be cut-off for six months. But now, the Indian government’s urge to keep an unflinching eye on the PLA has put men at work during extreme conditions, including the construction of a tunnel connecting Ladakh with Kashmir.


Still, these young Ladakhi women see hope in Kashmir where their products are quite popular among the urban elites. However, if the status quo isn’t restored at the LAC anytime soon, these Pashmina girls of Ladakh fear losing cashmere to Chinese aggression. In the wake of this militarized uncertainty, some of the girls believe their visits to Kashmir, this estranged part of India, might alleviate their financial situation. “Life is tough back home,” continues Tenzin, while waiting for her client inside the cafeteria, and uncertainty has only escalated after the recent border tensions between India and China. 


Away from Ladakh, these girls share rent, rage, and respite in Srinagar before heading back home with seasonal earnings. “Most of us belong to poor families,” Tenzin continues with a thoughtful stance. “For us, our families come first. But it’s very hard to stay focused amid the changed reality now. Be it troop build-up or frontier tensions, the sense of normalcy has taken a big hit. Regardless of everything, Kashmir is the same to us as it used to be when the people of Ladakh were part of it,” she says. “Sadly, for some of us, a sense of estrangement has come to define this relationship now. And the change is there to see.”


Padma Tsering, a quintessential Ladakhi woman in her early thirties from Nyoma, has been selling Pashmina in Kashmir for the past couple of years. “We’ve cultivated our customer base in Kashmir and rely on them for our livelihood,” she says. Despite their limited political awareness, Ladakhi girls like Tsering find hope in Kashmir. “There’s a sense of security Kashmir offers despite the surrounding tensions,” says Phuntsok Wangmo, another Pashmina seller from Ladakh. “It’s our preferred market with loyal customers, even during post-Covid times.”


Dolma showcases her shawls in Srinagar during a business meeting with her client. Courtesy of Mir Seeneen.

Meanwhile, Dolma’s wait ends as Sadaf Khan, a young Kashmiri woman, arrives at the café. Khan expresses interest in buying shawls from the weaver. “My cousin recommended Dolma to me and vouched for the quality of the shawls,” says Khan. 


The café comes alive with the buzz of business, some chatter, and laughter. After bidding farewell to her client, Dolma steps out into the busy thoroughfares of the city; walking home reflectively after another successful trade. ∎

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