On the Run

An interfaith marriage that stirred up trouble in Leh

01 June 2018
leo plunkett
leo plunkett

During a late-summer road trip last September, Stanzin Saldon and Murtaza Agha unexpectedly showed up at their friend’s house, overlooking Manasbal Lake near Srinagar. They could not contact him beforehand because they had abandoned their phones to conceal their exact whereabouts.

While Saldon and Agha breakfasted with his parents in the morning, the friend bolted out and ran around the neighbourhood, retrieving the daily paper from the neighbours’ doorsteps. He did not want people to see the front page, which featured his guests’ faces. That month, Saldon and Agha were breaking news.

He kept the couple’s secret for a week. Only on their way out the door did they finally reveal to his family that they were not just on a summer holiday. They were on the run from the Ladakh Buddhist Association, an organisation whose members were trying furiously to separate them. Two weeks later, they would be married for a second time.

Saldon, who is from a Buddhist family in Leh, and Agha, from a Balti Muslim family in Kargil, were briefly one of the most recognisable faces of “love jihad,” a rampant and xenophobic conspiracy theory surrounding the so-called forced conversion of non-Muslim women to Islam. The couple met on a trek in 2010 and started a nonprofit called rZamba—from the Ladakhi word for “bridge”—that organises youth leadership programmes. Their eventual marriage inadvertently stirred up communal anxieties in Ladakh, which is mainly split between Muslims, who comprise around 46 percent of the population, and Buddhists, who make up around 40 percent. But unlike several other interfaith romances that have made the news, their story has a happy ending.

After their week in Manasbal, Saldon and Agha took off, on no specific route, surprising more friends at their houses and even spending a sleepless night rowing across Dal Lake. They stopped travelling on 21 September, when they showed up as special guests at their own, second wedding at a hotel in Kargil, which friends had organised in their absence. Saldon wore a red goncha, a traditional Ladakhi dress for both Muslims and Buddhists, which she had bought preemptively in Kargil two years prior, and a silvery veil. The couple was garlanded with necklaces of rupee notes. There were officially around 40 guests, but over a hundred friends and well-wishers crashed the reception, held later at Agha’s family home in Dras, a town in the Himalayan foothills. They had a Kashmiri feast of big round flatbreads and goat curry.

Krithika Varagur is an American journalist based in Indonesia.

Keywords: Leh love jihad Kargil