As Radha Krishna Mathur, the first Lieutenant-Governor of the newly formed Union Territory of Ladakh took oath here on Thursday (October 31), the deepening divisions between the people of its two districts, Leh and Kargil, once again came to the fore.
Leh, where a majority are Mahayana Buddhists, wore a festive look and people on the streets seemed excited by the new Lt. Governor’s investiture ceremony. Life, however, remained out of gear 200-kilometers away in Shia-tribal majority Kargil for the third consecutive day because of a general strike called by the Kargil Joint Action Committee (JAC).
“The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Delhi is trying to break the centuries-old ties of love and brotherhood between the Buddhists of Leh and the Muslims of Kargil,” said JAC president Nasir Munshi.
Munshi alleged that ever since the bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two UTs, the union government has focussed all its resources on Leh, where the BJP enjoys widespread support.
Since the bifurcation in August, the government has announced a medical college, a 20-bed Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) hospital, a cluster university and a cricket academy in Leh, which has a population of 1.3 lakh. The administrative headquarters of Ladakh will also be located in Leh.
“Kargil has a population of 1.4 lakh people and nearly 90% of its people belong to extremely marginalized Shia Muslim Scheduled Tribes such as the Baltis and the Gujjar-Bakerwals. We have been completely left out of the development plans for the new UT,” he told The Federal.
He said the demand that the administrative headquarters be shifted every six months has been completely ignored. “We have to travel 200 kilometers for the smallest work with the government, for healthcare, for education, even to play cricket. Imagine making this journey in the height of the Himalayan winter,” he said.
The agitation in Kargil broke out after the failure of talks between leaders of the JAC and the recently relieved interim governor of Jammu and Kashmir Satya Pal Malik. The JAC had presented a charter of 14 demands during the talks which collapsed after Malik was abruptly replaced with two Lt. Governors, one for J&K and the other for Ladakh.
One of the prime demands of the JAC is that the legislative powers of the hill development council of Kargil be restored. The council, which had the power to legislate on local issues under the previous state government, was reduced to a lame-duck body when the new UT was inaugurated on Thursday.
“Our only elected representative with some nominal power will now be the Member of Parliament from Ladakh. The people’s right to local self-governance has been completely suppressed by the BJP government,” said Hanifa Jaan, JAC member and president of the Kargil unit of the National Conference party.
The Buddhists of Leh have been in favor of a Union Territory of Ladakh since 1947. They had launched a massive agitation lasting more than 100 days in 1989 to press for UT status. The people of Kargil, on the other hand, have traditionally been in favor of a united Jammu and Kashmir. Importantly, Kargil’s Shias have maintained a studied distance from the separatist movement in Kashmir and have been Indian loyalists.
Youth activist and scholar Zakir Zaidi said that to understand the unrest in Kargil over the UT it is important to understand the political history of its people since 1947. “We have always been pro-India, unlike Kashmiris. We believed in Indian secularism and the Indian Constitution. We not just supported but fought alongside the Indian army in all three wars against Pakistan.”
He said that the union government’s snub is all the more surprising given nothing in the 14-point manifesto of the JAC is anti-India. “What this shows is that the BJP wants to strengthen its support base in Leh by polarizing the electorate. It is using the same divide-and-rule tactics that have paid it dividends in the rest of India,” he said.
He told The Federal that the tragedy of the people of Kargil is that they have been traditionally discriminated by both Indian nationalists and Kashmiri nationalists. “The Sunni Kashmiris can’t look beyond our Shia and tribal identity and for the Hindus of mainland India we are merely Muslims,” he said.
A major worry for the tribal people of Kargil is that the creation of the UT will drastically reduce their job and educational opportunities under the ST category. Nasir Munshi explained that now the STs of Kargil would only be able to apply for central government jobs as the state government of J&K has ceased to exist.
“Our only chance of getting a government job now is through the UPSC selection process. All the government jobs in Ladakh UT have now become central government jobs. Meaning, we cannot apply for local jobs. We will be competing with STs all over the country for the 7.2% that’s reserved for STs in central government jobs,” Munshi said.
The JAC has threatened to intensify the agitation if their demands for political representation, local self-governance and equal treatment on par with Leh are ignored by the center.
Meanwhile, the hill development council of Leh is charting out a year-long calendar of celebrations which will kick-off with the ‘Dpal-nam-Tuston’ or day-of-pride festival on November 1.
The festival was started in 2016 by the council to celebrate the Buddhist history and culture of the region. A 14-foot bronze statue of Sengge Namgyal, the most famous king of the 17th century Namgyal dynasty of Ladakh, will also be unveiled on the day.
Sengge Namgyal was the last autonomous Buddhist monarch of Ladakh before the Mughals reduced the Namgyal dynasty to a confederacy. In local epics, he is revered as the ‘Lion King’ who revived Buddhism in the Himalayas and is a major symbol of the emerging political movement around the idea of Buddhist pride. Interestingly, the Lion King’s mother, empress Gyal Khatoon was a Shia Muslim belonging to the Balti tribe.