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Why Kushok Bakula is a hero of Indian independence

In the 75th year of Indian independence, the country must remember a Buddhist monk who fought for its territorial integrity and was an exemplary patriot.

A photograph of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche.

It is the time of the year when India remembers its patriots. Independence Day, when the country broke away from British colonial rule, was on August 15, and it is particularly special this year because it is the 75th year of Indian independence.

Among the names of nationalists that few remember is a Buddhist monk from Ladakh whose role in resisting the attack from Pakistani tribesmen and armed forces in 1948 in the Himalayan heights of Jammu and Kashmir has been mostly forgotten. His name is Kushok Bakula Rinpoche.

Born in a royal family in Ladakh, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche traced his roots to Skyide Nyima-Gon, the first king of Ladakh. He was born in a palace in the Matho region on the outskirts of the capital Leh. As his biographer, and lifelong secretary, Sonam Wangchuk has written in Kushok Bakula: The Architect of Modern Ladakh, the young boy was recognised according to the traditions of Mahayana Buddhism as a reincarnation (the 19th such rebirth) of Arhat Bakula, one of the sixteen original disciples of the Buddha.

Sent to the highest-ranking theological schools in Tibet, Kushok Bakula excelled in every subject, and emerged as a fully ordained monk who could have chosen to stay on in Tibet and reach for the highest positions in its hallowed institutes. Instead, he chose to return to Ladakh to serve its people; and by the time the Pakistani invasions started he was a well-known figure in Ladakh, revered as a scholar, a monk, and a spiritual figure loved and respected by everyone in Ladakh.

When the invasion began from Skardu in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of northern Ladakh, word reached the Rinpoche that the marauders were looking for him too. Instead of fleeing like hundreds of others, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche rallied his people, teaching ordinary people to band together and resist the invasion. In the summer of 1948, on the urging of Kushok Bakula, scores of Ladakhi youth signed on as volunteers to help the Indian army oust the intruders and defend their homeland.

From this volunteer force was born the Nubra Guards (which later became the Ladakh Scouts regiment), an elite mountaineering unit of the Indian army which became the frontline against the attacking forces from Pakistan.

In his book, Wangchuk writes, “These volunteers joined the Indian army and with the assistance of air strikes by the Indian Air Force on Pakistani positions and supply lines, they pushed the raiders back out of the Indus and the Nubra valleys. But it was not easy. There were many casualties, and the medical facilities were minimal. When the situation became particularly desperate, Bakula Rinpoche offered the army a portion of the Pethub monastery to use as a makeshift medical centre for the injured soldiers and civilians. The army accepted the offer with gratitude.”

When the Indian army struggled during this time to find an airstrip to land troops and weapons to fight back, again it was a sandy strip most suitable happened to be land of Kushok Bakula’s Pethub monastery. This, the Rinpoche gave without a second thought – and this is where the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche airport in Leh stands today. It is on this airstrip that military supplies and soldiers of the Gorkha regiment landed to defend Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir against the infiltration. When the first plane landed with soldiers and supplies on the airstrip, it was received by hundreds of ordinary Ladakhis led by Kushok Bakula. Most of these people had never seen an aeroplane before.

After the war, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche was invited to New Delhi and thanked personally for his efforts in saving Ladakh by General K. M. Cariappa, the first commander-in-chief of the Indian army.

It is important to highlight what happened after the war with the volunteers who had answered the call of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche. One of them, Chewang Rinchen, who was the leader of the Nubra Guards, was twice awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, the second highest military award for bravery in India. He rose to become a major and then a colonel in the Ladakh Scouts.

The contribution of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche is rarely remembered in this, the first major war that independent India fought and won. But without the patriotism of this Buddhist monk, India’s northern frontiers may have looked very different.

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