‘We Can’t Stay Silent’: New Delhi’s Ladakh Policies Fan Flames of Discontent

In February, thousands of protesters rallied in Ladakh demanding sixth schedule/Twitter photo: Sajjad Kargili

Zaid Bin Shabir, TwoCircles.net

Ladakh: For decades, Buddhists and other non-Muslim communities in Ladakh had desired for the day when they would be constituted as a territory separate from the predominantly Muslim region of Jammu and Kashmir. Among them was 75-year-old Chering Dorjay who had been eagerly waiting for the day.

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However, when the special status and partial autonomy of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated, effectively dividing the region into two union territories — Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh — on August 5, 2019, Dorjay’s reaction was not one of jubilation. Instead, he expressed resentment over the Centre’s decision.

“We had hoped for Ladakh to become a union territory with its own legislature, but we ended up with one without a legislature,” the veteran politician, Dorjay, told TwoCircles.net, adding, “I knew this would strip Ladakh of its democracy, how could I have celebrated such a decision?”

The northmost point of India, Ladakh is a high altitude desert that is home to a small population of three lakh people living in its twin districts — Buddhist-concentrated Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil.

When the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led federal government abrogated Article 370 and 35-A of the Indian constitution, which granted J&K a special status, Leh had cheered the move while Kargil voiced opposition to the Center’s decision.

Nearly four years later, the people of Leh and Kargil find themselves united by a common fear: the potential loss of land, employment opportunities and cultural identity and environmental degradation.

‘A movement for Ladakh’

Over the past four years, Ladakh has experienced multiple shutdowns, marked by massive street protests and demonstrations after the region was carved out of Jammu and Kashmir as a separate union territory, leading to concerns among locals about loss of identity, resources and bureaucratic overreach.

The people of both the districts have joined hands under the banner of Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) — an alliance of civil society, religious, political and student organizations — to protest against the Modi government.

There are four main demands, which the leaders of Leh and Kargil reiterate as a four-point agenda: statehood for Ladakh, safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, two Lok Sabha seats for the union territory and employment opportunities for the youth.

The Sixth Schedule is a constitutional provision that protects tribal populations and allows them to set up autonomous organizations to frame laws on land, health and agriculture. Ninety-seven percent of the population in Ladakh is tribal.

According to Dorjay, without a legislature, Ladakh’s governance is said to have no say of the local population. “Today, Ladakh is a federally-governed region where all decisions are made at the behest of the Lieutenant Governor and bureaucracy,” said the former Ladakh Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) president.

Even though the BJP-led government appointed a committee to address Ladakh’s demand, the same failed to cool down the temper in the cold desert. In December 2023, the first round of talks between representative leaders from Ladakh and center took place. However, after four months and four rounds of negotiations, the talks failed.

“There is widespread fear among the people that they no longer have land, jobs and cultural protection,” said Feroz Ahmed Khan, former chief executive officer (CEO) of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) of Kargil.

“As a part of J&K state, Ladakh had these safeguards under Article 370. Now that it has been repealed, people have realized that the government is unwilling to provide safeguards to the people of the twin districts. This has led people to believe that the government, along with large corporations, has its eyes set on their land,” he said.

Echoing similar views, Padma Stanzin, coordinator of the Apex Body Leh (ABL), said there is a sense of insecurity and a feeling of being unsafe in the region.

“Before 2019, our lands and jobs were safe from outside influence. Now, we are exposed to it.” he said, adding, “In the past five years, the BJP has done nothing but cause harm to Ladakh.”

‘Besieged with challenges’

Before abrogation of the J&Ks special status, Ladakh had been represented by four members in the J&K Assembly and two in the Legislative Council.

After abrogation, alleged lack of jobs and political representation in Ladakh has sparked concerns of economic disempowerment as people feel that Delhi lacks an understanding of the region’s needs and vulnerabilities.

“We no longer have a legislature, our voices have been silenced, our land rights have been snatched and reservation in government jobs have been done away,” said Asgar Ali Karbalai, former member of the J&K Legislative Assembly, adding that the Central government has no willingness to address the demands of the people of Ladakh. “There’s absolutely no representation of Ladakh today.”

The agitating leaders believe that the powers of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDC) of Leh and Kargil, formed to administer the region, have been curtailed following abrogation of Article 370.

“Both the councils have been rendered powerless by the government,” said Dorjay, also the former of the Ladakh unit of the BJP.

‘Fragile ecosystem’

In February, thousands of people hit the streets in Leh and Kargil in sub-zero temperatures to reiterate their demand for statehood and constitutional safeguards. A month later, an innovator and noted environmentalist from Ladakh, Sonam Wangchuk, began a 21-day fast to press the BJP government to fulfill Ladakh’s demands. This was his third climate fast in two years.

Wangchuk said Ladakh was losing prime pastureland “left, right and centre” to industrialists on one hand and the Chinese army on the other, necessitating protection of the “fragile land, culture and people” of the region.

“As an environmentalist, I am very concerned about the fragile and sensitive ecosystem of Ladakh,” he said and added, “If mining industries are brought here, not only will the local communities suffer, but the entire northern Indian plains will face water shortages. Therefore, it is crucial that we safeguard these fragile regions as sacred zones of water.”

Even a Kargil Democratic Alliance(KDA) member said that Ladakh’s ecosystem is already impacted by the daily activities of the local population. “So, how can the government expect Ladakh’s environment to remain unscathed if it is opened up to corporate activities?” he asked.

“We cannot stay silent,” he said, adding, “This is a movement to safeguard our home.”