KARGIL, INDIA — At first you think, "I know that face." And then you wonder what he's doing so far from home.
Here in the northernmost part of India, in a Himalayan bus stop of a town 1,000 miles from the nearest Iranian border, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini presides over vegetable stalls, hardware shops, and roadside eateries. Portraits of the unsmiling one - that late, great Islamic revolutionary, condemner of Salman Rushdie, and bane of America - are everywhere.
"He's our boss," says Abdul Said, who hangs pictures of Khomeini and another Iranian cleric in his tea stall. "We obey these two personalities, and we respect them also," adds Mohammed Ibrahim, a customer and business student.
The ayatollah's popularity in Kargil, an outpost of perhaps 20,000 people in the Ladakh region of Kashmir, is testament to the strength of the Shia strain of Islam in this mountainous and inaccessible tidbit of South Asia. More important, it suggests why India faces a long struggle in bringing peace to Kashmir: As the government in New Delhi uses force to suppress a 10-year-old Muslim-oriented separatist movement here, Islamic institutions backed by other countries are winning the hearts and minds of the people, particularly the young.
Syed Hasan Mustafa, a Shia leader in the provincial capital of Srinagar, confirms that individuals and institutions in Iran fund activities in Kashmir. "This is not Iran's money," he adds. "It's religious money distributed for religious purposes." And a senior Indian officer in Kargil says his government believes the town's Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust is funded by Iran, despite denials from the organization.
The longer there is turmoil in Kashmir, the longer the United States, China, and other governments will be concerned about the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over the territory and who exploded nuclear devices last month.
Since 1948 the Islamic state of Pakistan has controlled one-third of India's Jammu and Kashmir Province, and the "line of actual control" separating Indian and Pakistani forces runs close to Kargil. Every few days, despite professed restraint by both sides, their armies shell each other along this dividing line.
The two governments say the nuclear explosions they both conducted will actually prevent all-out conflict, citing the cold-war standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. But at a national level, the gradual Islamicization of Kashmir - as evidenced by Khomeini's portraits in Kargil and Muslim schools in other parts of the province - jeopardizes the very idea of India.
Founded as a secular state when the British left South Asia in 1947, India is home to a profusion of ethnic groups, languages, and systems of belief. Most Indians are Hindu, but the country also has the world's second-largest population of Muslims after Indonesia. "Communalism," the Indian term for tensions between those of different religions, is a constant concern, since tension sometimes begets bloodletting.
Jammu and Kashmir is India's only predominantly Muslim province, and the central government in New Delhi has gone to great lengths - putting down insurgency with ruthless intensity and, as a carrot, offering Kashmiris extensive financial support - to show that it can keep the country together.
But the government doesn't seem concerned about the cultural and religious shift taking place in the province.
"If you believe that India is more than a forced union, that it's a democratic and secular experiment unique in the third world, it would seem that its success would rely in some measure on whether the people of Jammu and Kashmir have some faith in that idea," argues Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a Hindu raised in Kashmir.
Referring to a new private Muslim school on the outskirts of Srinagar, the flight of Hindus from the province, and the profusion of Khomeini supporters in the largely Buddhist Ladakh region, he adds: "The real tragedy of Kashmir is the change in the cultural heritage."
Girish Saxena, the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, a position appointed by the Indian government, dismisses suggestions that India is winning battles while it loses the war. Citing an "underlying civilizational unity" in India, he says he "won't lose a wink of sleep" over Professor Mattoo's concerns. These shocks India can absorb, the governor concludes.
But at a recent ceremony honoring the anniversary of Khomeini's death, Kargil residents of all ages sat under rain-soaked tents to hear preachers call for Islamic revolution. Asgar Karbilaie, secretary of the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust, says in an interview that "we want to develop our culture in relation to Islam, to use what Islam accepts and reject what Islam rejects."
Unlike most other parts of India, Kargil already feels Islamic: Women, almost without exception, wear head coverings; liquor is only available under the table; and there is no movie theater.
As for the Kashmiri separatists, Mr. Karbilaie adds, "We support them in every way," although he declines to say whether his group backs their militancy.
The presence of the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust in Kargil has created some local problems. A rival and more established Shia group says the trust's leader has used a doctrinal difference to split the Shia community, occasionally leading to near violent confrontations.
"When the name of Iran and of Imam Khomeini is used," complains Mohammad Hussein Muqadas, president of the Islamia Seminary, "the people are mesmerized. They don't know who to believe."
The Trust is also exercising political power, and Mr. Karbilaie proudly notes that his organization's support has helped three politicians, including one member of India's parliament, win their seats.
The senior Indian military officer in Kargil says Iran may be promoting its version of Shia Islam in South Asia as a counterweight against Pakistan, where most people follow the faith's Sunni strain. He dismisses the suggestion that India may be looking the other way, pleased to see increasing numbers of Muslims who might one day differ from Pakistan.
"It's a truly democratic society," he says of India. Regarding the rising Shia influence in Kargil, he adds: "How do you stop it?"