How much longer can Sonam Wangchuk last?

The man who supposedly inspired the character of Phunsukh Wangdu in the film '3 Idiots' is on a fast unto death for his beloved Ladakh

Sonam Wangchuk in his natural habitat (photo: @Wangchuk66/X)
Sonam Wangchuk in his natural habitat (photo: @Wangchuk66/X)

Abhijit Chatterjee

"Today (17 March) is a big day for us. We are expecting thousands of people to join us for a one-day climate fast to express solidarity in support of Ladakh and the Himalayas and its fragile ecology," engineer-educator-inventor-environmentalist Sonam Wangchuk wrote in a post on X.

But what is important to note in the post is that 'today' also marks day 12 of the 58-year-old Wangchuk's "fast unto death", which he began when talks between Ladakh's civil society leaders and the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) regarding Constitutional safeguards for Ladakh came to a dead end.

Sleeping in the open air under sub-zero temperatures and without food, how much longer will he last?

This is a very valid question if one recalls the fate of Gurudas Agrawal, also known as Sant Swami Sanand and Sant Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, once again an engineer turned environmentalist who became the patron of Ganga Mahasabha, founded by Madan Mohan Malviya in 1905.

Notable for several fasts undertaken to stop many projects on the river Ganga, his fast in 2009 led to the scrapping of a plan to build a dam on the river. However, Agrawal died on 11 October 2018, after fasting since 22 June, demanding the government act on its promises to clean and save the Ganga.

Wangchuk, the man who supposedly inspired the character of Phunsukh 'Rancho' Wangdu in the smash hit Bollywood film 3 Idiots (though he himself doesn't think so) is currently fighting for his future and that of his beloved Ladakh, primarily using social media to reach as many people as he can with his plea to support his cause and stop the Himalayas from being "sold off".

In one of his posts, Wangchuk urged citizens across the country to come forward and stop the government from "selling off their sacred Himalayas to corporates and industries. The governments will get election funds, corporates will make profits, but when the disaster strikes, it will be the local people like us who will suffer and the tax payers' money will be used then to repair the damages".

In a video posted online, sitting under a clear sky and shivering in the cold, the environmentalist urges people in a feeble voice to join hands and defend truth, the environment, and democracy since the "elected representatives and the government we chose are not standing by us".

At the heart of his struggle lies the issue of statehood for Ladakh, and its inclusion under the Sixth Schedule of Article 244 of the Constitution, which protects tribal populations, allowing for the creation of autonomous development councils which can frame laws on land, public health, agriculture. As of now, 10 autonomous councils exist in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.

Speaking to The Hindu in February, Wangchuk said the government under the “influence of industrial lobby” does not want to provide Constitutional safeguards for Ladakh. "These lobbies want to exploit Ladakh, like what they have done in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where the locals are now paying a price,” he said.

Come 24 March, and Wangchuk may urge people from across the country to hold another day-long fast in support of Ladakh’s demands. In an X post on Friday, the climate activist also attacked the Central government, asking questions that may be seen as taboo under the current dispensation.

“END OF DAY 10 OF #CLIMATEFAST. Does India only understand the language of the gun...! Well Ladakh wants to prove it wrong,” Wangchuk wrote.

In his video message, he even asked whether there was any "space for peace" in India. "Around 125 people from different villages in Ladakh have come forward to participate in the peaceful protest with me on Friday night under the open sky at -15°C," Wangchuk wrote. “I don’t understand why the government is not listening to this peaceful agitation, a cry to Mother India.”

Meanwhile, mainstream media, which had by and large ignored Wangchuk's battle, the scenario improved somewhat when YouTuber Dhruv Rathee expressed shock over the lack of media attention to Wangchuk.

As reported in the media earlier this month, a recent study showed that 90 per cent of the Himalayas may face year-long drought if global average temperatures increase by 3 degrees Celsius as compared to the pre-industrial period (1850-90).

The 'People for Himalaya' campaign, comprising about 50 environmental groups, issued a declaration which argued that "top-down, market-dependent solutions and poorly designed climate finance projects have replaced local resilience with detrimental consequences for Himalayan societies".

It also noted that post-disaster support from the Centre has been insufficient and focuses on relief without adequate attention to prevention and rehabilitation.

Wangchuk and others like him feel Ladakh's inclusion the sixth schedule will be able to prevent the fate that has overtaken other Himalayan states. As a commenter wrote on one of his posts: "The GoI must not be so arrogant in saying that we are protecting the Himalayas, rather the Himalayas saves us by providing us with life-giving clean water, air, soil and stability. Himalayas is the true source of our spirituality and our science."

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines