Ladakh, surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges and nurtured by the mighty Indus river, has less in common with New Delhi, its new master, than it did with Kashmir, its erstwhile co-administered region. The high plateau, away from the tumult of mainstream Indian politics for centuries, was thrust into the spotlight when, in a historic decision, New Delhi unilaterally decided its fate.
On August 5, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government carved out of the State of Jammu and Kashmir two separate Union Territories (UTs), Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. This sudden move took Ladakhis by surprise. While their demand for a UT was as old as the creation of the Indian nation state itself, no one from the region had expected it to be fulfilled at this juncture or in this manner. While political compulsions forced leaders from across party lines to welcome the decision, given the fact that they had been agitating for it for several decades, an uneasiness over its uncertain future pervaded the mountainous region.
Of the many reasons for this uneasiness, the primary one was the complete absence of any consultation with the Ladakhis before the declaration by the Centre. The second reason was that the UT status would be without a legislature. This meant that there would not be any Legislative Assembly or any MLAs from Ladakh henceforth. Many saw this as a reduction in Ladakh’s negotiating power vis-a-vis the Centre when compared with States of the Union.
Third, the feeling that Ladakh might have been made a pawn in India’s more direct concern of addressing the issues in Kashmir gripped a section of the citizenry. The abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, which granted special status to the State, affected the entire Kashmir region. But the manner in which the Kashmir Valley was put under a communications blackout or curfew was imposed and protests were quelled disturbed a lot of Ladakhis. “Kashmir is our neighbour for more than 70 years, and we cannot be blind to the injustice being done to them,” said Rinchen Angmo, Editor of Reach Ladakh. However much the Ladakhis tried, they could not shake off the feeling that they were made political pawns at the expense of Kashmir in the machinations orchestrated by the Centre.
Although Kashmir and Ladakh have their own unique identities, they are glued together by a shared history. Before the Tibetanisation of Ladakh, the region had close religious, cultural and trade relations with Kashmir. “The Brahmi, Kharoshti and Sarda scripts came to Ladakh from Kashmir. Students from Nagri Korsum, or Greater Ladakh, went to Buddhist Kashmir to learn Sanskrit and study religious texts. With the advent of Islam in Kashmir, Muslim scholars and preachers came to Ladakh. The chiefs of Purig invited scholars from Kashmir to impart religious education to their children,” wrote the historian Abdul Ghani Sheikh in his book Reflection on Ladakh, Tibet and Central Asia . Kashmir introduced Central Asian dishes to Ladakh and gave some popular commonly used words to colloquial Ladakhi.
Ladakh used to occupy an important strategic position in Central Asia. Bordered as it is by Tibet in the east, Xinjiang in the north, Baltistan (now in Pakistan) in the north-west, Kashmir and Doda district (Jammu) in the west and Himachal Pradesh and Punjab to the south, it was an important juncture in the Silk Route trade. Culturally, it became a sponge that diffused Buddhism from Tibet to the rest of India. It was plundered several times by invasions from its neighbours, who withdrew after the plunder. But in the 1830s, when the army of Raja Gulab Singh, led by General Zorawar Singh, invaded the region, the Dogras took permanent possession of Ladakh.
In 1947, it became a part of India. In the uncertainty that followed, Ladakhi leaders such as Kalon Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, and Kushok Bakula hinted that Ladakh was prepared to merge with Tibet if India did not keep Jammu and Kashmir. However, Ladakh remained with India, but the severance of trade and cultural ties with Tibet was lamented by the Buddhists and Muslims of Ladakh, recollects Abdul Ghani Sheikh.
Despite the State’s bifurcation, for all practical purposes Kashmir continues to be Ladakh’s neighbour. There are two main roads that Ladakhis can take to enter India: one is through Srinagar and the other through Manali. Whenever one of them is shut owing to floods, landslides or other environmental contingencies, the other one carries the burden of the traffic. Disturbance in Kashmir does not bode well for Ladakhis. Travel restrictions in the valley directly affect business in Ladakh. Tourists often plan their visits to both the areas sequentially. In the current lockdown in Kashmir, when foreign countries have issued travel advisories to their citizens to keep away from Kashmir, the footfall of tourists in Ladakh has seen a sharp dip. In August, which is seen as a peak tourist season, shops and hotels wore a deserted look. In some places, small tradesfolk who sold handicrafts or vegetables and relied on Kashmir for their supplies had to shut down indefinitely. They were forced to wait for the situation in Kashmir to improve in order to continue their businesses, they said.
In the days following the announcement, as Leh functioned as usual behind the “normalcy” facade, Kargil, the Muslim majority district of Ladakh, witnessed a number of protests. Kargilis, comprising largely of Shia Muslims, did not want to go with the Buddhist-majority Leh but preferred to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir. The dissenting voices were swiftly quelled with the imposition of curfew and an Internet ban.
On August 7, two days after the announcement of the State’s bifurcation, the Leh Press Club called for a public debate on “Understanding UT for Ladakh without Legislature”. Former Ambassador to the Republic of Kyrgystan, P. Stobdan; former Minister in the Jammu and Kashmir government from the Congress, Rigzin Jora; former MLA and Chief Executive Councillor (CEC) of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Tsering Dorjay Lakrook of the BJP; and Tsering Samphel of the Congress were the panellists. The audience participated with fervour, many of them asking for clarifications on the new status. One of the attendees, on condition of anonymity, told Frontline that Ladakhis had not thought this through. The participant explained that a great deal of apprehension had been voiced in the meeting and also on social media by the younger generation.
While the older generation grew up under the shadow of Kashmir, being short-changed in fund allocations, the younger generation is much more educated, confident and less likely to give up its rights. But people in Ladakh, young and old alike, are concerned about the ownership of their land by outsiders and the environmental degradation that might follow, endangering not only Ladakh but the rest of India as well. “The only thing that Ladakhis have is land. We are not very adept at business, so we get Nepalis and Kashmiris to run our shops,” said a Ladagspa in the main market of Leh, expressing concern over land ownership. “As you can see, every other family is building a hotel or guest house for tourists. They have taken huge loans from banks. If tourism does not take off as expected and they are unable to pay back their loans, the banks can now confiscate the property and sell it to outsiders. We are worried,” he said.
After the Bollywood film 3 Idiots was filmed in Ladakh, Indian tourists thronged the banks of the Pangong lake. While it brought tourism revenue, plastic waste increased monumentally, turning the place into an environmental nightmare. Ladakhis quietly fear even more people visiting Ladakh and throwing their garbage around without a care for the surroundings.
The real challenge
Rigzin Spalbar of the Congress, a two-time CEC, told Frontline that the grant of UT status was welcome but that the real challenge for Ladakhis would begin now. “Ladakh is a majority tribal habitat population and a resolution would need to be passed either by the Hill Council or the Governor that non-tribal people cannot buy land here. In other words, replacing 35A through other means. Either by way of inclusion in Schedule 6 or some other safeguard. I think that the Hill Council will remain empowered and the land would be under its jurisdiction. There are many States in India where non-tribal people cannot buy land from tribal people born there, and it can be applied to Ladakh to protect our interests,” he said.
Rinchen Angmo said that concerns remained on the role and function of the Hill Council and other government departments. “There is no clarity on what is to happen after this. Earlier, Articles 370 and 35A gave special status because of which our rights were secure. But now there are insecurities. Many people fear that there will be an impact on our culture and language as more outsiders come in. People are very conscious about culture in Ladakh. When it [Ladakh] was opened for tourism in 1974, people became more conscious about their culture,” she said.
Ladakh being a small and connected community, there was a swift clampdown against civil society organising itself, both online and offline. The Deputy Commissioner of Leh forced WhatsApp groups that were set up to discuss the situation to shut down. And no more meetings were held after that. Moreover, Ladakh being a sensitive border district, the fear of intelligence units perceiving their harmless discussions in a negative light is omnipresent.
Critiquing the media representation of celebrations in Ladakh, Rigzin Spalbar said there were hardly any celebrations. “The kind of celebrations that would have [otherwise] taken place in Ladakh did not take place in the first instance. Being part of a democratic country and in the light of civil liberties, we don’t appreciate what is happening in Kashmir. But then, we are happy because we got UT [status] and are not at a level to express our opinion on other matters. Under the previous system too, Kashmiris were not happy. We have seen worse things. Now if you think things are going to be better than they were, then you are living in a fool’s paradise,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Parliament, as leaders of political parties debated the withdrawal of the special status to Jammu and Kashmir, first-time MP from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal surprised everybody with his speech. The 34-year-old defended the BJP’s move vociferously. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Ministers Amit Shah and Smriti Irani congratulated him on his speech and his Twitter followers soared from 4,000 to 2,93,300.
But people back home were not impressed. They said that the struggle for UT status had been going on since before JTN, as he is popularly known, was born. “He became an MP five months ago and has not done much work since. Taking credit for the UT status is not justified on his part. The speech brought him in the public eye and ab woh hero banke ghoom raha hai [he is roaming around like a hero]. But he did not give us the UT status. Why did he have to mention Syama Prasad Mookerjee in his speech in Parliament? We have leaders who have lost their lives demanding UT status. He should have taken their names. He should have demanded UT status with legislature or for Ladakh to be included in Schedule 6, but he didn’t do any of this. In fact, the previous MP did more work than he but never got such coverage because he didn’t indulge in self-publicity,” said a political observer on condition of anonymity, adding that his speech was not representative of Ladakhis.
JTN studied in Jammu and became an active Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) member in Leh. He was the private secretary of the BJP MP Thupstan Chhewang, the face behind the demand for UT status, who resigned in November last year from the BJP and the Lok Sabha when the party did not fulfil the demand. He made it big by deceiving and overshadowing Thupstan, said a journalist. Later, he became Councillor from Martselang constituency. Then, he was the CEC for two months after which he became an MP. The grant of revenue division status to Ladakh happened during his time and went in his favour. His excellent command of the Ladakhi language endeared people to him, said the journalist.
Rigzin Spalbar said he did not mind if JTN took the credit for the grant of UT status to Ladakh. He was just happy that Ladakh was no longer with Kashmir. “Ladakhis never wanted to be with Kashmir. There is nothing in common—psyche, culture, traditions or mindset. For the past 70 years, Ladakh has been exploited and discriminated against in every respect. With higher education levels [in Ladakh] now, you may not feel it, but we have experienced it,” he said.
Journey to UT status
Recalling the journey to UT status, he said it began under the leadership of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, and then P. Namgyal, former Union Minister, took it forward. “In the 1970s, Thupstan Chhewang became the face of the UT demand and was even imprisoned for the same. At one time, the demand was for a North East Frontier Agency type of governance. Thereafter, for a while people demanded statehood and then central administration, which then culminated in the demand for UT status. We were fully involved in the demand for UT under the leadership of Thupstan Chhewang. Then, in 2002, we formed a non-political outfit known as Ladakh UT Front. That ultimately resulted in the formation of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. We took it as a stepping stone for achieving UT status,” he said.
But back in the day, Spalbar recalled how Kashmiris used to call Ladakh “Kala Pani” and mourned when a family member got posted there. There was also an inferiority complex on the part of Ladakhis vis-a-vis Kashmiris. The 1990s were a turning point, when militancy grew in Jammu and Kashmir. The old demand of separation from Kashmir found its echo in many parts of Ladakh.
People say that when the BJP came to power in 2014, the political dynamics of Ladakh changed dramatically. Several rifts appeared within the BJP, and political observers blames it on JTN. The CEC has changed five times in the last four years. At the time, people thought the BJP would get wiped out from Ladakh. But in a surprise twist, the BJP won with a huge margin in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The reasons for the rise of the BJP in Ladakh are common knowledge in the region. People openly admit that it won on the basis of money power. A journalist told Frontline that while the Congress also distributed money in its time, the BJP did it blatantly and in huge amounts. The BJP continues to invest huge sums of money in supposedly non-political organisations in Ladakh in a bid to buy out influential people.
This correspondent was witness to one such incident. During the Lok Sabha election in May, the Press Club in Leh wrote to the Station House Officer that BJP State president Ravindar Raina and MLC Vikram Randhawa had tried to pass envelopes filled with money to journalists after a press conference. They alleged that this open bid to bribe them was an attempt to use the platform to influence the outcome of the election. They demanded that a first information report be lodged against the two for violating the model code of conduct in a blatant manner.
Politicians complained that since the BJP came to power in 2014, the interference by outsiders had increased manifold in Ladakh politics and in the functioning of the Hill Council. The communal undercurrents between Muslims and Buddhists had also intensified. Journalists are worried that the ideology of the RSS might impact Ladakh adversely. They are worried about lynchings, the collapse of the economy and religious polarisation.
Just recently, a RSS conference was held in Shynam Community Hall in Leh, presided over by the Sangh ideologue Ram Madhav, which was a cause for concern for Ladakhis. But locals feel it might not be easy to promote communal polarisation in Ladakh, given the close ties enjoyed by Muslims, Christians and Buddhists even today. Inter-religious marriages are not unusual and several families boast of followers from all three faiths. The tradition of non-Muslims visiting homes of Muslims during festivals and vice versa is alive even today.
Others said that the polarisation attempts in Ladakh were gaining ground not despite but because of the presence of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), the most powerful sociocultural-political outfit. While in theory the LBA and the RSS have nothing in common, in practice they are closer than the outside world would imagine. “The LBA is equally fascist. By their decree, meat cannot be sold in shops or restaurants on designated religious days. All of Ladakh is forced to turn vegetarian, and the LBA conducts raids to check. In recent times, their leadership has been accused of sexual harassment,” said a Ladagsma. In 2017, the LBA threatened communal violence unless a Buddhist woman who had married a Muslim man from Kargil was “brought back”.