The Indian government’s abrogation of of the constitution – ending the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and dividing the state into two separate union territories – in 2019 has set an unexpected chain of events in motion in the Himalayan region of Ladakh.
Leh’s dominant population of Buddhists, who had cheered the UT move the loudest, have become its bitterest opponents like their Shia Muslim counterparts in Kargil. The Ladakhi people now want the government to overturn the UT status and are gathering political and religious forces to push for statehood. Their drive to build political consensus has galvanised them to a long-standing religious feud that had kept communal peace at abeyance in the high-altitude remotest regions.
For the first time, leaders of the two communities came together in a protest last month to demand for Ladakh, reinstatement of constitutional safeguards, additional parliamentary representation, and job reservations. This was the third such largely peaceful and widely observed agitation since 2020 organised by the newly formed political fronts: the Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance.
The developments by the Ladakhi people, who are thought of as friendly allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party, are emerging as the main challenge to the Modi government's politics in the strategic border region. Union home minister Amit Shah was likely to address the situation alongside other development and security matters in Ladakh in the high-level meetings yesterday.
Ladakh, which is home to three lakh people, is an ecologically sensitive zone. Photos: Shweta Desai
Reconciliation between Leh and Kargil
The alliance between Leh and Kargil is historic, given that the two communities have been divided politically and religiously for over six decades. The leaders claimed the coming together of the Buddhists and Shia Muslims leadership, religious and political, sends a strong message to New Delhi, that Ladakh is speaking in one voice.
“Kargil and Leh never met eye to eye on any common issues before. The demand for statehood for the protection of our rights has brought us on the same platform,” said Qamar Ali Akhoon, co-chairman of the KDA.
One of the main irritants between the two communities was a stalled construction of a gompa, a Buddhist monastery, in Kargil which the Muslims had opposed in 1961. The controversy had created rifts in the social relations of Buddhists and Muslims, leading to several incidents of violent clashes, a four-year long of the Muslims in the 1990s, and accusations of .
The gompa issue resurfaced again this summer after a young Buddhist monk, Chokyong Palga Rinpoche, launched a surprise campaign promising to lay the foundation of the gompa in Kargil, by whatever means. Rinpoche's meetings with top BJP leaders and ministers raised suspicions that the BJP was exploiting the gompa issue to light communal flames.
“The land belonged to the LBA but we were not even consulted by the monk about his campaign or the monastery,” said Chering Dorjay Lakrook, former BJP parliamentarian and vice president of the LBA.
The campaign was mid-way upon the central government’s intervention but Buddhist leaders sensed the dispute could be politically misused to fan religious tensions. In a momentous settlement in September, the LBA agreed to relocate the gompa to alternate land, and the Muslims through KDA have decided to build a sarai (resting place for monks) at the original site.
The recent protests were born out of this resolution that has paved the way for Buddhists and Muslims to work together on common issues.
From UT to statehood, a sharp U-turn
The LBA’s demand for statehood marks a sharp departure from the long-held position of Ladakhi Buddhists to be governed directly by the central government.
“We have been raising our voice for separation of Ladakh from the politics of Muslim-dominated Kashmir state, even before India’s independence in 1946,” recalled Dr Tsering Puntsog, general secretary of the LBA. Ladakhis claim that Kashmir valley’s secessionist politics and militancy took away attention from Ladakh, leaving the remote strategic region under-developed and alienated.
But after Ladakh was declared a UT, people realised they have lost constitutional protection on land, employment and democratic decision-making, Lakrook said. “The UT status was shallow and has made us vulnerable. It has disempowered us.”
It no longer mattered whether one was a Buddhist, a Muslim or a tribal, he added. The change of the status had equally diluted powers for everyone.
The LAB and KDA leaders complained that the new UT administration, governed by bureaucrats appointed by New Delhi, has hijacked the space for political consultation and consent. The autonomous hill council of Leh and Kargil, the primary decision-making bodies of elected representatives, has been rendered powerless, and its allocation of funds for the development of the region reduced to penury. It no longer has complete ownership of the barren land that is dotted with strategic heights and rivers, giving Indian forces the dominant position in certain areas over China and Pakistan.
The scrapping of of the constitution – that offered special rights and privileges to the permanent residents of J&K, vis-à-vis land, jobs, and education – has been the most substantive blow. The government of India’s lifting the restriction allowing any Indian citizen to buy land in the J&K union territory, without domicile or permanent residency in the region, has further raised hackles over the imposition of similar measures in Ladakh. There is a rampant fear that Ladakh’s tiny population of three lakh people – 97 percent of whom belong to the vulnerable scheduled tribes – and its distinct cultural heritage is at risk.
Such fears have brought all political parties, except the BJP in Ladakh, together with religious groups, social, educational and civil society members to endorse the appeal for statehood. The LAB and KDA have announced their intentions to intensify protests in the new year, if the central government fails to instil confidence-building measures.
“We are making our demands peacefully. There’s no stone pelting or militancy in the region,” political activist Sajjad Kargili said. “Ladakhis are nationalists and have been the eyes and ears on the border for the centre. We must be given assurance and taken in confidence.”
BJP’s dilemma vs people’s grievances
Happymon Jacob, strategic expert and associate professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the opposition to UT status by Buddhists and Shia Muslims in Ladakh, Sunni Muslims in the Kashmir valley, and sections of Hindus in Jammu depicts a politically fractured landscape.
The LAB and KDA have announced their intentions to intensify protests in the new year. Photos: Jigmat Paljor, member of the LAB.
“It unravels the argument of those who supported central rule over J&K state rule to resolve the Kashmir conflict,” Jacob said, adding that the BJP will find it complex to navigate Ladakh’s demand for political power to govern the state in the future.
Phonchuk Stobdan, India’s former envoy to Kyrgyzstan, a leading expert on national security, and a Ladakhi native himself, also foresees the Ladakh problem becoming a headache for a BJP government.
“The Ladakhis know the Indian government has no other option but to keep them happy,” he said. “Potentially, due to strategic considerations, the government has no other option but to appease them.”
Internal stability in Ladakh is paramount for the government to maintain national security and peace at the border, especially in the background of an extremely dynamic and situation along the Line of Actual Control with China. Beijing, which occupies the region of Aksai Chin, is likely to keep a close watch on the agitation movement in Ladakh. China had opposed J&K’s change of status as “invalid and illegal”.
Stobdan said the grievances of the Ladakhi people are, to some extent, genuine. Ladakh being an ecologically sensitive zone in the throes of climate change, he agreed that it needs special protection. The sparse population living in the remotest parts of the country are the main guardians of the environment and bear the maximum implications of security tensions at the border.
“If tomorrow 10 lakh non-Ladakhi communities settle in Ladakh, it will alter the demography, threaten the unique culture, and turn Ladakhis into a minority in their own land,” he said.
Stobdan is quick to point out that these demands, however “genuine” they are in reality, clash with the BJP’s political ideology of “one country, one law”.
“The BJP wants equal rights for all Indian citizens, not special privileges for certain groups,” he said. “This was the primary reason for the revocation of article 370. It will be hard for the government to easily heed to the Ladakhis’ demand. And the Ladakhis won’t back down either. They will resist the BJP’s designs.”
If the agitation intensifies, domestic instability and insecurity can fuel an added dimension to the border security crisis for the central government. Namrata Hasija, research associate with the New Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, said Ladakh’s demand for statehood is likely to create anxiety among the Chinese.
“China objected to the statehood of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh and, to date, does not recognise them as part of Indian territory,” she said. “They certainly wouldn’t want Ladakh to be turned into a state and integrated further with the Indian union.” She recalled China issuing stapled visas on a separate sheet for residents of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir less than a decade ago as it maintained territorial claims on these areas.
In the aftermath of August 2019, BJP supporters hailed the revoking of J&K’s special status as a “master stroke” which they claimed ended the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. But three years on, the protests in Ladakh have opened a new opposition front, signalling that the conundrum on the disputed China border is far from over.
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