All Is Not Well in Ladakh

The demands for statehood and inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution have reached a new pitch—this was promised by the BJP and recommended by a parliamentary committee

All Is Not Well in Ladakh

Daanish Bin Nabi

A direct appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 25 January followed by a five-day fast from the next day and a large public meeting, attended apparently by the largest gathering ever in Leh, culminated in a dharna at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on 15 February. The people of Ladakh have escalated their demand for inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution meant for areas with 50 per cent tribal population. In Ladakh, it is around 95-97 per cent. But New Delhi has gone back on its promise.

The Sixth Schedule deals with autonomous districts and regions. In regions covered under this Schedule, the district and regional councils are allowed to frame laws on land management, among other things.

Not just the Prime Minister but the Union home minister Amit Shah had held out the promise. The Bharatiya Janata Party in its manifesto in 2019 promised inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule. The next year the party repeated the pledge in its manifesto at the Ladakh Hill Council election. The Union minister for tribal affairs, Arjun Munda, wrote a personal letter to Sonam Wangchuk reiterating the commitment.

But in 2020 it was informally communicated that inclusion in the Sixth Schedule was not possible. When protests erupted in Ladakh, a special BSF plane was sent to fly the leaders to Delhi to meet the Union home minister. It was finally agreed that a committee would be formed to look into the issue. But the committee, announced in 2021, was not even constituted till last month; and when it was formed, the Sixth Schedule did not find any mention in its brief.

The government clearly does not want to allow these elected bodies to take investment decisions.

People in Ladakh are worried about the power plants being planned. They suspect outsiders would swarm the cold desert for mining and for other projects, consuming far more water than the five litres per day that the inhabitants are used to since ages. With the influx of 400,000 tourists in 2021-22, Ladakh, with a total population of three lakh, is reeling under the impact. The average annual rainfall in the region is 80 mm and people depend on the glaciers for their need. They would like to control tourist footfall and also the power plants.

Seven hydropower plants, a geothermal power plant to tap the hot spring in Puga valley and a green hydrogen plant are some of the projects on the anvil; and in this year’s Budget, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has set aside Rs 8,000 crore for electricity transmission lines from Ladakh to Haryana.

In a video appeal to the Prime Minister, engineer-turned-innovator Sonam Wangchuk, who is believed to have inspired the character of Phunsukh Wangdu, played by Aamir Khan in the film Three Idiots, says that people in several villages in the region have already become ‘climate refugees’. He also claimed that influence of business lobbies is more pronounced in Ladakh now than earlier. Save Ladakh, PM, he pleaded.

Ladakhis, the people of Kargil and Leh, have been protesting since last year. These protests are led by the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) consisting mainly of Kargil Muslims and the umbrella organisation Leh Apex Body, consisting mostly of Buddhists and representing employees and trade unions besides social, political and religious groups. “Our roots are the same, and so also our aspirations,” a Leh resident said.

Protests have intensified over the past few weeks forcing the Union government to change the Ladakh’s first Lt. Governor Radha Krishna Mathur. On 12 February, Brig. B.D. Mishra (retd) was shifted as the second LG of Ladakh. His appointment comes in the wake of renewed protests demanding either statehood or inclusion in the Sixth Schedule.

The protests are also pressing for reservation in jobs, a public service commission for Ladakh and a regional recruitment board. They claim that no recruitment has taken place since 2018 and especially after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. “We feel we have been disempowered and deceived. We feel our identity is at stake. We feel our land and jobs are in the wrong hands. We need safeguards (Sixth Schedule) and we need political empowerment (statehood); these are our two main demands,” says Akhtar Hussain, a resident of Kargil.

Activist Sajjad Kargili feels the Lt. Governor has little say in this matter. While over 80 per cent of the people in Kargil happen to be Muslims and the rest Buddhists, they prefer to hitch their fortune with Leh which has 86 per cent Buddhists, four per cent Christians and only 10 per cent Muslims. Nor does Kargil want anything to do with the Muslims in the Kashmir valley.

“One needs to take a pragmatic view of the demographic situation of Ladakh as a whole. Our topography, geography, culture, traditions and language are similar to the people in Leh. Also, there is a 10 per cent Muslim population in Leh. We need to take care of them,” explains Sajjad Kargili.

“Before 2019, we had more say in the democratic process. There used to be two Members of the Legislative Assembly from Leh and two more from Kargil, besides two each in the Legislative Council. But we have been completely disenfranchised now,” a resident of Leh asserted on phone.

While some of the people in Leh did celebrate the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, people in Kargil opposed the move from the beginning. Now residents in Leh too have realised what they have lost, say Kargilis. “Didn’t think I’d say this, but we were better off with J&K than in today’s UT,” said Wangchuk in an interview.

People in Leh have other grievances too. Member of Parliament from Leh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, drew attention to the exorbitant air fare between Delhi and Leh during winter months. With roads blocked for six months in winter, air connectivity is the only alternative for students, pilgrims and patients from the region, he pointed out.

But in the winter months not only are flights cancelled regularly but airlines jack up the New Delhi-Leh air fare sky high, sometimes as much as 40-50 thousand Rupees. This is of course the time when few tourists visit Leh. Namgyal demanded resumption of special flights by the army.

Wangchuk, who attended the protest at Jantar Mantar on 15 February, had a similar experience. Stranded in Delhi after his flight was cancelled, he tweeted: ‘Should I walk the Zojila pass with all passengers, defying death! Or should I charter a flight collectively and take them all along! It should cost one-third the air fare’, attaching a screenshot that put the fare at Rs 30,000 each.

On Thursday, February 16, Wangchuk again took to social media and said that air fare in these difficult winter months had gone up to as much as Rs 80,000. He had persuaded Vistara Airlines to charter flights for 150 passengers with the cost per passenger coming to a far more reasonable Rs 12,000 per head.

“I have invited all the passengers, some from Jammu and Chandigarh, to assemble at Delhi today. We request the Airport Authority of India and the civil aviation ministry to give us the required permission and clearance for the landing bay at Leh”.

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