In Ladakh, the BJP drives Buddhists to battle

When the Centre stripped Ladakh of autonomy in 2019, making it a Union territory, Muslims of Kargil protested; Buddhists of Leh did not

Sajjad Kargili (right) with Sonam Wangchuk during the latter's 21-day fast
Sajjad Kargili (right) with Sonam Wangchuk during the latter's 21-day fast

Betwa Sharma

The Modi government stripped Ladakh of autonomy in August 2019, severing it from Jammu and Kashmir while making it a Union territory. The Shia Muslims of Kargil protested; the Buddhists of Leh welcomed it and supported the abrogation of Article 370.

After four-and-a-half years, with just one political representative in Parliament, widespread unemployment and no laws to protect their resources and ecology, the Buddhists have changed their stance. Both religious minorities are now together in the “fight for democracy”.

The population here is 97 per cent tribal — Balti, Beda, Bot, Bropka (Dropka), Dard Shin, Changpa, Garra, Mon and Purigpa. Thousands took to the streets in Kargil last week, demanding the government restore Ladakh’s statehood and include it in the Sixth Schedule. This would give the Union territory autonomy to make laws to preserve its tribal cultures and environment.

Before their abrogation on 5 August 2019, Article 370 and Article 35 gave special rights and privileges to citizens of J&K and Ladakh. They stopped outsiders from buying land, getting government jobs or settling in what was India’s only Muslim-majority state. With these protections gone and effectively no representation (there were four lawmakers from this region in the J&K Assembly before August 2019), the tribal communities feel vulnerable.

The Modi government told Parliament that Ladakh registered the sharpest increase in unemployed graduates in India from 2021 to 2023. A periodic labour force survey in 2022–23 showed highest unemployment in Andaman & Nicobar Islands (33 per cent), followed by Ladakh (26.5 per cent).

Currently, the Ladakhis only have representation in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Councils, constituted in 1995 in Leh and in Kargil in 2003. The BJP leads the one in Leh. The National Conference and the Congress lead in Kargil. In 2020, a Leh Apex Body and a Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) — including various religious bodies, political parties and trade unions — were formed to build a public movement.

“Ladakh is voiceless right now. Today, Ladakhis have no role in decisions about our identities, glaciers, environment,” says Sajjad Kargili, a key figure in the protest and a member of the six-member sub-committee in talks with home minister Amit Shah. Excerpts from a conversation with him:

The model code of conduct is in place. Why protest now?

We know the model code of conduct is in effect and the government cannot make a decision. Our main aim is to convey to the people of India and the government that talks have failed. We met on 23 February and discussed the public service commission, jobs and two parliamentary seats for Kargil. Nothing concrete emerged.

On the seats, they said delimitation will be done in 2026. Not a single Ladakhi has been recruited in a gazetted post for the past five years. Ladakh is second in the unemployment rankings. The government is not taking local stakeholders into confidence. They are making decisions on their own.

The government agreed to extend the J&K Public Service Commission to Ladakh and to give 85 per cent reservation to STs for gazetted posts. However, regarding statehood and the Sixth Schedule, Amit Shah clearly told us that [he] can give [us] neither. He also said that he made a mistake in making Ladakh a UT. Everyone was a bit shocked. He said he would empower the [Hill] Council. I said he should give us an Assembly instead. He refused.

Sajjad Kargili addresses a protest rally in Kargil to demand statehood and special protection
Sajjad Kargili addresses a protest rally in Kargil to demand statehood and special protection

After that, people got angry. Sonam Wangchuk was on hunger strike for 21 days, the KDA for three days. The government has no right to take away our representation. If J&K can become a state (Shah has said statehood will be restored at the appropriate time), why not Ladakh?

Why is the Sixth Schedule so important?

The Sixth Schedule is in force in Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam to protect their tribal population, ethnicities, cultural identities and environment; 95 per cent of our population is tribal and some ethnicities and languages are endangered.

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes recommended [in 2019] that Ladakh be included in the Sixth Schedule. It was part of the BJP’s manifesto in 2019. In the 2020 Leh council election, the BJP promised to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule. Is breaking those promises not a betrayal?

Why not Article 371 instead?

We have not accepted Article 371. To repeal the Sixth Schedule, you need a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and it is a provision specifically for tribal areas; Article 371 is [applied] in more developed states and is not that strong. We know that after 370, the Constitutional provision that can give the most protection is the Sixth Schedule.

The BJP promised this and it is what the people want.

Is the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in Ladakh and Kargil not enough?

There are no rules for the Hill Council even after four years. Functions of (Central government) secretaries and councillors have not been decided. The Act says the chairman will have the powers of a cabinet minister and four executives the powers of a state minister. But if the chairman gives an order, the secretaries reject it. The chairman is powerless.

The Hill Council only gets 6 per cent of Ladakh’s Rs 6,000 crore annual budget; everything else is with the bureaucrats.

On allotment of land, the Hill Council has all the powers; in practice, they cannot allot even two kanal (0.25 acre) of land. This is a systematic disempowerment of the people to take away the land.

What changed after the abrogation?

Before, the hill councils controlled their district’s governance. Now the secretaries have a lot of influence. The budget is in their hands. It was a non-lapsable fund. Now, the funds get lapsed [as] Ladakh has a short working season. [Earlier], they had power to transfer government employees. Now, the secretaries transfer [them] back. Our people had power to choose the chief minister. Any cabinet decision would have a representative of Ladakh. [Now] we are not part of any decision making or policymaking.

Before, our land and cultural and ethnic identities were protected. [Now] we hear that 20,000 acres of land will be given for a solar project. A company named Megha Engineering Infrastructure Ltd purchased Rs 966 crore worth of electoral bonds. That company is working on the Zojila tunnel. We don’t know how much land is going and how settlements have been reached. At a time when airports and railway stations are being sold, we are afraid Ladakh’s resources will be sold to big corporations.

What brought the Muslims of Leh and Buddhists of Kargil together?

We realised the bureaucracy had taken over Ladakh. We were not being heard. People in Leh realised they had been betrayed. The people of Kargil were protesting since August 2019. The common threat brought us together. If we don’t work together, we won’t be able to save Ladakh. We want democracy and a voice. The future of our youth is at stake.

Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14. This is an edited excerpt of the original article

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