Lok Sabha polls: Sonam Wangchuk for MP, says Ladakh

The educationist and climate activist is fast emerging as a popular choice as the combined Opposition’s candidate against the BJP

Sonam Wangchuk ended his fast on 26 March which aimed to restore 'democracy' and pressure the BJP to fulfill promises (photo: PTI)
Sonam Wangchuk ended his fast on 26 March which aimed to restore 'democracy' and pressure the BJP to fulfill promises (photo: PTI)

A.J. Prabal

Climate activist Sonam Wangchuk is emerging as a popular choice as the opposition’s candidate for the Lok Sabha from Ladakh, in what will be its first elections since it was separated from Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 and made into a union territory.

The Ladakh Lok Sabha seat, spread across the Kargil and Leh districts, is expected to have approximately 300,000 voters. For the polling scheduled in Ladakh in the fifth phase (20 May), notification is to be issued on 26 April. The last date for filing nominations is 3 May.

Wangchuk this week concluded a 21-day fast in Leh demanding the restoration of ‘democracy’ in Ladakh. In the daily appeals that he issued on social media, he urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi, union home minister Amit Shah and the Bharatiya Janata Party to honour their commitment to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which confers special rights to areas with a predominantly tribal population.

The BJP, as Wangchuk has been reminding people, had promised as much in its manifesto before the 2019 general elections and ahead of the election in 2020 for the Ladakh Hill Area Development Council. His fast was meant to remind the BJP of its commitment and stood as a plea to honour it.

With all powers concentrated in the hands of the lieutenant governor of the union territory, the voice of the local people is not being heard, Wangchuk has long been saying.

Accusing industrial lobbies of exploring Ladakh to exploit mineral deposits, Wangchuk has been warning that the result of such exploitation would be disastrous not just for the people in Ladakh but also millions of people in the northern plains.

The Himalayas constituting a particularly delicate eco-sensitive zone, reckless exploration and exploitation would hasten the adverse effects of climate change and melting of glaciers, he has been warning.

Wangchuk’s climate fast was preceded by prolonged negotiations between a delegation from Ladakh and a high-powered committee set up by the MHA (ministry of home affairs) to find a solution. Members of the committee, however, were hostile and passed snide remarks that it was a mistake to even confer the union territory status on Ladakh. The committee also tried to stonewall the delegation by showing them Powerpoint presentations on the 'development' that has taken place in Ladakh since 2019.

In the second round of the meetings, on 4 March, the Ladakh delegation brought along a Supreme Court lawyer to discuss how easily the Sixth Schedule could be extended to Ladakh; but the MHA's high-powered committee was not interested in discussing the issue.

“They first bought time by asking for written submissions on each demand," Wangchuk says, "and then kept dragging their feet till the announcement of the election dates, coinciding with the Model Code of Conduct kicking in."

Of course, this tactic allows the government to ignore the demand again for now under the pretext of compliance with the Model Code.

The delegation, however, insisted on a meeting with union home minister Amit Shah, and they were finally taken to the minister’s residence in New Delhi.

The home minister now turned down the demands and sternly told the delegation that even if Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised him to consider the demand for Sixth Schedule favourably, he would not.

Recalling the meeting with the high-powered committee, Congress member and Leader of the Opposition in the Ladakh Hill Council (Leh) Tsering Namgyal told the Frontline in an interview, “They were like statues. Instead of deliberating on the Sixth Schedule and statehood, they were giving a Powerpoint presentation on the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act.

"When our leaders intervened and asked them to talk about key agenda points, they blatantly said they did not have anything to tell them.”

While Sonam Wangchuk has evinced no interest in fighting the election and the various political parties too are tight-lipped, activists sympathetic to Wangchuk’s cause strongly feel that he would be an important voice in the Lok Sabha.

“He is a hero and we need people like him in Parliament,” said an activist who wanted to remain anonymous.

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