Autonomy for Ladakh, or what Sonam Wangchuk is fasting for

The initial euphoria over the abrogation of Article 370 has given way to despair among Ladakhis, who now feel cheated—and refuse to be quiet about it

Sonam Wangchuk (right) and other Ladakhis protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, demanding full statehood in 2023 (photo: Getty Images)
Sonam Wangchuk (right) and other Ladakhis protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, demanding full statehood in 2023 (photo: Getty Images)

Rashme Sehgal

Climate activist, innovator, and education reformist Sonam Wangchuk has undertaken a fast unto death. He will observe it “in cycles of 21 days”, an idea, says Wangchuk, he has borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi. The location is the NDS stadium in Leh.

The intention is not only to refocus attention on the BJP’s 2019 poll promise of implementing the Sixth Schedule (as has been done in the border states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram) but also to safeguard local culture from mining corporations.

Hundreds of Ladakhis are participating in this hunger strike, some for one day, others for more. And as Wangchuk himself underscored today, 27 March, from his hospital bed—after taking his 21-day break—this is a fight with a plan, and with the general public arrayed in ranks to take it forward.

Today, 27 March, women's groups will take over, he said. And then come youth bodies, monks and nuns, senior citizens...

Wangchuk and his ilk are hardly outliers or a particularly disaffected faction.

Two years ago, Konchok Stanzin, a councillor with the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, resigned from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to protest the Centre’s failure to keep its word.

Stanzin pointed out that Ladakh has a 95 per cent tribal population with a unique culture. He said, “We had welcomed the revocation of Article 370 because we were given the assurance that the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council would be empowered to take decisions but this was not the case. Not only were we given no autonomy, power today rests entirely with the lieutenant governor and his team of bureaucrats.”

What is ironic is that initially, it was the BJP had supported the Ladakhi demand for inclusion in the Sixth Schedule, but later they distanced themselves from it.

“We want constitutional safeguards to protect our land, employment and cultural identity. Today, it is the bureaucrats who are ruling the (union territories). The local people have no voice and can no longer protect their land. Over the last four years, the maximum amount of land has been bought by outsiders to set up their own business here,” Stanzin said.

Wangchuk’s fast is an attempt to underscore these concerns.

“Initially, the BJP was very enthusiastic about the Sixth Schedule. The central ministries concerned with its implementation—the home ministry and the tribal affairs ministry—had assured us of its quick implementation. The BJP made it a top priority in its election manifesto, so we were convinced they would deliver on it. Four years have passed, and it has not been introduced. Today, the situation is such that it has become a crime to utter ‘Sixth Schedule’. Those who raise this issue are arrested, and FIRs are lodged against them,” he said.

The popular perception in Ladakh is that industrial houses that want to exploit the region’s resources are presently influencing government decision making. Ladakhis are emphatic that their region cannot sustain increased industrial activity. Being a cold desert, they are already facing acute water shortage which would become worse if the landscape was opened up to more people.

It is worth remembering that the glaciers of Ladakh and the rest of the Himalayas feed 2 billion people, half on the Indian subcontinent and half on the Chinese side. This area is called the Third Pole, as the Himalayas are the largest reserve of frozen fresh water outside the polar regions.

As Wangchuk put it in an interview with this correspondent following his five-day ‘climate fast’ last year, “It is imperative to safeguard our mountains and glaciers, our distinct ethnicity and Ladakhi culture. This culture has been finely tuned over millennia to adapt and live in harmony with the region’s harsh climate. People from outside cannot understand this. In cities, people are used to consuming up to 600 litres of water a day. We have adapted to survive in just 5 litres.”

The demand, he clarified, has and will always be about democracy, “about having your voice heard to ensure your mountains are developed in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner”.

He went on to explain that initially Ladakhis were happy about being granted union territory status, presuming it would be given along with a legislature. But what happened is that “the government made us a union territory without a legislature. At present, we have a system where the voices of the people cannot be heard. It’s like a suspended democracy... bad enough for a few months, but now it has become a permanent situation”, he said.

“Why are we being punished?” he asked. “Is it because of our loyalty, or is it because we have a small population?

"When Sikkim became a state, it had a population of 2 lakh people, whereas we are at 3.5 lakh. Without democracy, one person (the lieutenant governor) is deciding everything for us.

"The allocation for Ladakh is Rs 6,000 crore. More than half this money goes back because they [the administration] are unable to utilise it. A sensitive, fragile place like this, so different from the mainland, cannot be developed with one person taking all the decisions.

"We have regressed. When we were in the [erstwhile] state of Jammu and Kashmir, we had four MLAs who would raise their voices in the Assembly. Now we have zero,” he added.

Wangchuk also shared other apprehensions about this ecologically and geopolitically sensitive zone with local journalists.

The morale of the Indian soldiers facing both Chinese and Pakistani armed forces is at an all-time low, as the three battle-hardy components of the army—Ladakhis, Sikhs and Gurkhas—were unhappy with the present government’s insensitive handling of the political situation.

The Ladakhi Scouts are demoralised by the lack of democracy within the union territory, whereas the Sikh soldiers are disgruntled by the brutal suppression of the farmers’ protests.

The fearless Gurkhas, regarded as the fighting arm of the army, are no longer willing to join the Indian army after the imposition of the Agnipath scheme (which recruits soldiers on four-year contracts). They are presently being recruited by the Chinese which, Wangchuk warned, will have dangerous consequences for the nation as a whole.

Stanzin, whose erstwhile constituency Chushul is located on the Line of Actual Control, points out, “Our traditional grazing areas have become buffer zones. Till a few years ago, our villagers used to go up to Finger 4 and Finger 6, but today the Chinese are there.”

While villagers have lost access to vast swathes of grazing land near Gogra due to increased Chinese presence, the residents of Leh and Kargil have joined hands with Sonam Wangchuk in the hope of reclaiming the right to make decisions that impact their identity, autonomy and development.

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