In an unprecedented move, Ladakh has come together to boycott the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) elections, to be held on October 16. Keeping aside their differences, political and religious leaders from Leh and Kargil have decided to campaign against the LAHDC elections in order to safeguard the region’s demography, environment and diversity.
Under the apex body People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh, the region will boycott the LAHDC election “till such time the constitutional safeguard under Sixth Schedule on the lines of Bodo Territorial Council is not extended to UT Ladakh and its people,” said a release signed by leaders cutting across party lines.
The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (Article 244 (2) and 275 (1)) protects tribal populations and provides considerable autonomy to vulnerable communities through the creation of Autonomous Development Councils (ADCs). Parts of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram are covered by it.
The boycott is significant as religious bodies from the Christian, Muslim and Buddhist communities, including the all-powerful Ladakh Buddhist Association, have put their weight behind the protest. All political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, have come together for this specific demand. Former Ministers and Members of Parliament lead from the front, lending credibility to the protests.
Former Chariman of LAHDC Leh, Rigzin Spalbar, resigned from the Congress to join the protest. “I wholeheartedly welcome the call given by Apex Body to boycott the ensuing elections to constitute 6th LAHDC Leh. This is the best way to go about it. This decision amply demonstrates the commitment and strong resolve of the Apex Body to lead and carry forward it's demand for grant of the 6th Schedule to UT Ladakh,” he said.
The flip flops of Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the lone representative of Ladakh in the Lok Sabha, regarding the Sixth Schedule, have rendered him an isolated figure in the political climate of Ladakh. He stands to lose his political credibility in his own region over his inexplicable silence.
In October last year, the Union government led by the BJP bifurcated the State of Jammu & Kashmir by abrogating Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution and made Ladakh a Union Territory. While Ladakhis were happy that their long-held demand of becoming a UT had been granted by the BJP, they were apprehensive about their future for two reasons. First, the UT status came without a legislature, which effectively rendered the democratically elected LAHDC toothless and without any power to take crucial decisions concerning the region. This would expose the fragile environment to unsustainable development and exploitation by big businesses. Ninety-seven per cent of the region was tribal and there were fears that without land or employment guarantees, Ladakhis stood the risk of being reduced to a minority.
Second, after the announcement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act by the Union government, the religiously diverse people were apprehensive about the communal divides that it might create. But they decided to wait out the situation to see what the government would do. However, even as India struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic and is engaged in a faces-off with China in eastern Ladakh, the LAHDC elections were not postponed. The Union government decided to push through with the elections regardless of the will of the people.
Students and traders’ bodies led the agitation for inclusion under the Sixth Schedule from early on and rallied political leaders to the cause. As early as in January, Ladakhi students gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to press for their rights. [Please read Frontline article ‘Ladakh: Identity Concerns’ Issue Jan 31 for a detailed report.]