Himalayan maelstrom: Why is Ladakh feeling betrayed by the BJP
On December 20, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi moved an adjournment motion in Lok Sabha demanding statehood for Ladakh and inclusion of the Union Territory in the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule. Gandhi’s request was denied. He hit out at the Centre for “not allowing us to raise the issue of the struggle that my brothers and sisters in Ladakh are going through”.
To many, Gandhi’s sudden intervention on the question of Ladakh’s statehood, amid the Opposition’s joint onslaught against the Centre on a litany of other issues, may have appeared odd; a reminder of sorts of the indiscernible and staccato pattern of issues the Congress leader often chooses to hammer the BJP-led government. Indeed, to many who see Ladakh purely as a charmed land of picturesque vistas, the tranquil high-altitude lakes of Pangong Tso, Tso Kar or Tso Moriri, exotic fauna and sparsely scattered flora, Gandhi’s adjournment motion may have seemed out of place.
However, with the average Ladakhi, waking up from the shattered dream of a promised land that the Centre’s decision to read down Article 370 and bifurcate Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir had spun two years ago, the Congress leader’s words struck a chord.
For the BJP, which over the past decade has progressively consolidated its electoral clout in this arid, cold desert territory, there were enough reasons to scuttle any discussion on Ladakh’s demand for statehood or its inclusion under the Sixth Schedule other than one occasionally raised by the saffron party’s eloquent, young Lok Sabha MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal.
A week before Gandhi sought permission to move his adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha, Ladakh had observed a widely successful bandh across its two districts, the Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-dominated Kargil. The bandh was called by People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh (PMSL) and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) and was supported by the Leh Apex Body (LAB), an umbrella organisation of Ladakh’s social, economic and political groups.
The demands of the protesters were many but principal among them were statehood for Ladakh, constitutional safeguards as mandated under the Sixth Schedule, carving of separate Lok Sabha seats for Leh and Kargil (Ladakh presently sends one MP to the Lok Sabha) and a Rajya Sabha berth from the Union Territory and a speedy recruitment drive to fill the over 10,000 vacancies in the UT administration.
Interestingly, a day after the bandh, during Zero Hour in Lok Sabha, Namgyal sought amendments to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill District Council (LAHDC) Act, 1997, to provide constitutional safeguards that would “clarify the role and responsibilities of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Lieutenant Governor, urban and rural panchayats” vis-à-vis the two councils of Leh and Kargil. He also demanded that limited issues pertaining to Ladakh’s land, employment and cultural identity be brought under the Sixth Schedule.
For the uninitiated, the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule envisages setting up of autonomous district and regional councils endowed with executive, legislative, judicial and financial powers. Presently, 10 of these exist in the north-eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
At first glance, Namgyal and Gandhi may have been demanding the same thing. In reality though, there’s a fine distinction but one that explains why Namgyal’s intervention was brusquely snubbed by his constituents – and much to the BJP’s worry, several of the party’s former and current leading members in Ladakh – while Gandhi’s comments, though generic and lacking nuance, found resonance.
The LAB rejected Namgyal’s statement and accused the MP of “diluting” their demand and creating “confusion”.
“The LAHDC was created under an Act when J&K was under President’s Rule; it doesn’t have constitutional status. We are demanding constitutional status under Sixth Schedule under which tribal areas can have legislative powers to protect their interests. The BJP is mistaken if it believes it can fool us,” Chering Dorjay, a member of the Leh Apex Body told The Federal.
Dorjay, who quit the BJP last year, had served as a BJP minister in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir government that had preceded the reading down of Article 370, scrapping of Article 35A and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into separate Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.
To explain the difference between what Namgyal was proposing and what LAB and other Ladakhi outfits were demanding, Dorjay used the analogy of the powers exercised by two separate national commissions – one for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and the other for minorities. “The National Commission for SC/ST has wide ranging powers as it has a constitutional status while powers of the National Minority Commission are limited as it was constituted under an Act of Parliament,” Dorjay said, adding that Ladakh would benefit more if it was awarded statehood and placed under the Sixth Schedule.
Namgyal’s Zero Hour mention, however, wasn’t the only instance that had left his voters irked, even if outside Ladakh the MP had gathered a fan base for his passionate and well-articulated speeches in Parliament.
On August 5 this year, at a function to mark the second anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, Namgyal had accused the LAB leadership of “constantly changing their demands” from Sixth Schedule rights to granting Ladakh status of a Union territory with a legislature and then demanding statehood.
Namgyal’s allegation has, since, been repeated often by senior BJP functionaries in Ladakh. The party’s Ladakh unit chief, Tashi Khachutse told The Federal, “The Leh Apex Body has changed its stand after joining with KDA. Earlier it was demanding constitutional safeguards on the line lines of Sixth Schedule, which our MP also said in Parliament… now they are demanding Statehood. We are not opposed to it but it can’t happen overnight.”
This demand for granting a Sixth Schedule state tag to Ladakh had begun to gain traction in both Leh and Kargil months ago. In the immediate aftermath of the Centre’s abrogation of Article 370, the Buddhist-majority Leh had largely been buoyant about its separation from Jammu and Kashmir as the region’s people believed that they had, historically, got a raw deal from the politically and administratively dominating leaders of Muslim-majority Kashmir who ruled the erstwhile state. The BJP’s promise of a better future for Ladakh and the rosy image it painted of Ladakhis finally getting a say in scripting their destiny had been lapped up by people of the district. In contrast, Muslim-dominated Kargil, had been vocal in its criticism of the abrogation and many outfits had demanded that the district remain with the newly carved union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
Over the past two years, with petitions challenging the abrogation gathering dust in the Supreme Court and an apathetic bureaucracy paying little heed to the aspirations of the average Ladakhi, people of Leh and Kargil have strategically buried their political differences and united on a common agenda. Outfits from Kargil have given up their demand to merge the district back into J&K and have joined their counterparts from Leh to demand statehood and greater autonomy for Ladakh instead.
The BJP, which controls the UT’s administration through the centrally-appointed Lieutenant Governor, finds itself in a corner. While bifurcating J&K and instituting Ladakh as a UT which will not have an elected Assembly of its own (in the abolished J&K assembly, four MLAs were elected from Ladakh), the BJP had clearly not bargained for this uncharacteristic firmness of conviction among Ladakhis for their promised rights.
Over the past year, anti-BJP protests in Ladakh have only grown more frequent. Last September, the region had witnessed a stir against Ashok Koul, Jammu and Kashmir BJP unit’s general secretary (organisation), after he termed a resolution passed by LAB demanding Sixth Schedule rights and a boycott of LAHDC Leh elections as “bakwas (bunkum)”. Among the most vocal critics of Koul and the BJP then was Ladakh’s former two-term BJP MP Thupstan Chewang. President of the Leh Apex Body and the influential Ladakh Buddhist Association, Chewang, who had quit the BJP in 2018, had lashed out at Koul for hurting the sentiments of Ladakhis.
Assurances from Union Home Minister Amit Shah to look into their demands had later led LAB to withdraw their call for boycotting the LAHDC-Leh polls. However, amid emerging fault lines, signs of the BJP’s eroding electoral base became clear when Leh voted to elect the new 26-member LAHDC in October 2020. Though the saffron party managed to retain power, its candidates won by smaller margins and its seat tally went down from 17 of 2015 to 15 while the Congress upped its tally from four seats to nine. Independents won the remaining two seats.
Many in Ladakh believe that the BJP is losing its electoral clout in the UT because people have begun to nurse a feeling of “betrayal” over the promises that were made to them by the Centre when Article 370 was read down. A key reason for the aggressive push for Sixth Schedule status also stems from growing joblessness in the region that many outside of it wrongly assume must have a thriving economy due to its huge tourist inflow.
Though Ladakh has a relatively small population of just over 2.70 lakh (Census 2011), there are no real employment avenues beyond tourism, which itself is a seasonal sector owing to the harsh and nearly five-month long winter during which most hospitality establishments shut down. Migration from Ladakh to other parts of the country has become a major problem. For a small geographical region enveloped by Pakistan on one side and an expansionist China on the other, security issues too are a matter of growing concern. Last year, the Chinese incursion into Ladakh’s Galwan Valley had marked the first bloody clashes in the region between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army in decades and despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claims to the contrary, locals in Ladakh have frequently conceded that the Chinese army has captured Indian territory here and deprived Ladakhis access to traditional grazing lands for their cattle.
In the absence of statehood or Sixth Schedule empowered district/regional councils, a sense that the Centre has left Ladakhis to their own devices – or worse, on the mercy of a bureaucratic system that is filled with ‘outsiders’ – has only aggravated the unrest.
After sustained agitations in both Leh and Kargil, the UT administration finally issued an order, in September, reserving non-gazetted jobs for people holding Permanent Resident Certificates. “The credit for reserving government jobs for locals goes to the LAB which pushed for the demand and organised a complete Ladakh bandh on the issue,” says a senior Buddhist leader, requesting anonymity. He tells The Federal that “resentment is brewing fast against the BJP in Ladakh”.
Over the past two years, several high-ranking functionaries of the BJP’s Ladakh unit have quit the party. Many of them are now mobilising the public against the party, claiming that the abrogation of Article 370 was “not meant to benefit Ladakh but only to teach a lesson to Kashmir”.
By abrogating Article 370 and subsequently ordering delimitation of constituencies for the proposed legislature for the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP had hoped to simultaneously strengthen its political hold on both Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Ladakhis are realising that by stripping them of their constitutionally guaranteed franchise of electing representatives to a legislature, the Centre has left them with no avenue to raise issues such as internal security, unemployment, stagnant infrastructure and the opening up of their traditional pasture lands to non-Ladakhi investors hoping to set up resorts and businesses. Evidently, the supposed ‘masterstroke’ of Modi and Shah isn’t aging well in either Ladakh or Jammu and Kashmir; the latter remains a tinderbox and an attempt to increase the Hindu-dominated Jammu’s seats in the new UT legislature has already triggered a political storm.
(The writer is a Jammu-based freelance journalist. He tweets at @tarun33)