Why the lotus wilted in Ladakh

The victory of the independent candidate Mohmad Haneefa Jan signals that voters have united over statehood and Sixth Schedule demands.

Published : Jun 07, 2024 09:25 IST - 6 MINS READ

On the final day of Sonam Wangchuk’s 21-day hunger strike in Leh on March 26.

On the final day of Sonam Wangchuk’s 21-day hunger strike in Leh on March 26. | Photo Credit: Mohammad Arhaan Archer/ANI

The BJP met its Waterloo in the cold desert—the region that became the South Asian hotspot during Modi 2.0. The defeat came despite massive military build-up at the nomad-populated borders, invasive political investment, and the media blitz around Ladakh in recent years.

It took a 21-day hunger strike by Ladakh’s poster boy Sonam Wangchuk to shake the lotus before the independent candidate Mohmad Haneefa Jan uprooted it with a convincing win in the 18th Lok Sabha election.

Haneefa Jan, formerly district president of the National Conference in Kargil, quit the party along with the entire unit after citing pressure from the party leadership to support the INDIA bloc candidate for the Ladakh Lok Sabha constituency.

Also Read | Protests on the rise in Ladakh as push for statehood gains momentum

Unlike previous elections, Kargil banked on a single candidate this time. In Leh, however, there were two major contenders—BJP’s Tashi Gyalson, who is also the chief executive councillor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh, and the Congress’ Tsering Namgyal.

Of the 1,35,524 votes, Haneefa Jan secured 65,259 votes with a vote share of 48.2 per cent, followed by Tsering Namgyal of the Congress with 37,397 votes and a vote share of 27.6 per cent and Tashi Gyalson of the BJP with 31,956 votes and a vote share of 23.6 per cent.

Haneefa Jan’s victory has vindicated the votaries of Statehood and the Sixth Schedule. Ironically, even a few local BJP members are now celebrating his win after their own party in power failed to safeguard Ladakh’s identity.

A changed land

For the BJP, especially Home Minister Amit Shah, Ladakh’s local issues did not matter. Instead, external aggression was played up as the issue that needed attention.

This oversight bridged gaps in the fault line-ridden region, bringing together the Buddhist-majority Leh and the Muslim-majority Kargil on the same page. For years, politicians had cashed in on the communal fissures in the cold desert to enforce their writ. The same sensibility was evident in Parliament when the Modi government dissolved the last vestiges of Kashmir’s autonomous structure in August 2019.

The BJP’s Ladakh MP, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, made a passionate speech similar to Omar Abdullah’s “I’m an Indian” monologue at the height of the Amarnath agitation in 2008. The ruling party’s thumping benches legitimised what was termed a “unilateral decision”. But for the region, the decision proved devastating.

“The abrogation of Article 370 changed the land of the Pashmina—known for its pacifist people—forever. The decision sliced off Ladakh from the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir and carved it into a new Union Territory. ”

The abrogation of Article 370 changed the land of the Pashmina—known for its pacifist people—forever. The decision sliced off Ladakh from the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir and carved it into a new Union Territory. The move drew mixed reactions from the region.

Leh celebrated with firecrackers but Kargil mourned the decision with deserted bazaars. Those rallying for Union Territory status for Ladakh felt vindicated. It was their moment to finally break free of the Kashmir-centric political leadership. But then this festive mood was made short work of by the dragon at the doorstep.

After the 1962 Sino-India war, China had never been actively involved in Ladakh. Barring a few brushes with nomads on the border, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hardly made the Line of Actual Control (LAC) an enemy zone. There was an understanding in Beijing that Ladakh, being part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, was a UN-declared disputed territory. And therefore Chinese aggression was in check there.

But the summer of 2019 finally shifted sands in the cold desert. China took exception to the abrogation of Article 370 before showing up at the LAC with jackboots in the initial phase of the COVID lockdown.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s media managers in Delhi adopted an ostrich-like approach before body bags started coming from the frontline, to everyone’s dismay. The India-China LAC showdown became more than an external aggression: it was a sign of the presence of a third party in what New Delhi has traditionally called a “bilateral issue” between India and Pakistan. For Ladakhis, living under the shadow of the dragon, the aggression was a destabilising force that finally routed the BJP from this region.

After the 2020 spring showdown at the LAC, Ladakh was never the same. And like in the post-Kargil War scenario, Ladakh only became more militarised after 2020. The LAC became another LoC owing to heightened military footfalls. In order to keep an eye on the PLA, the Modi government activated men and machinery to keep the snowbound Zoila Pass open even during winter. Before the LAC face-off, this passageway would remain out of bounds for at least six months a year.

The battle for identity

In Delhi, Ladakh was peddled as a developmental story. The citizens of the country were kept in the dark about how the new order had triggered an internal migration from the Ladakh hinterland-turned-frontline. This movement of nomads did great damage to the region’s Pashmina industry that was sustained by the natives, who were now forced to work as casual labourers in Leh. And this is where the BJP eventually stoked the “battle for identity” in Ladakh.

A Changpa nomad shepherd tends to his flock of pashmina goats near Korzok village, in Leh district, Ladakh, on August 29, 2019.

A Changpa nomad shepherd tends to his flock of pashmina goats near Korzok village, in Leh district, Ladakh, on August 29, 2019. | Photo Credit: Noemi CASSANELLI / AFP

The dissenters led by the Magsaysay award-winner Sonam Wangchuk sought Statehood and Sixth Schedule status in the face of “unsustainable” developmental work. The fight finally brought the two districts of Ladakh—Leh and Kargil—together for the united fight.

Also Read | Civil society groups rally behind Ladakh’s demand for constitutional autonomy

Like the abrogated Article 35A, the Sixth Schedule protects the land and the rights of natives. But the BJP, in its mission to open up the region to the whole country, failed to acknowledge the growing anger on the ground. And this is where unsung leaders like Haneefa Jan come into the picture.

After his victory, Haneefa Jan said: “After a decade of dominance, the 2024 Lok Sabha election results show the shifted public opinion against the saffron party in Ladakh.”

Ladakhis will perish’

Haneefa Jan attributes the BJP’s loss to a rising sentiment among Ladakhis favouring local governance, growing environmental concerns and the BJP’s failure to create more jobs in the region. “These issues collectively contributed to the end of the BJP’s decade-long dominance in Ladakh,” he told Frontline. “The people of Ladakh have now realised that if this set-up [put in place by BJP] continues then only Ladakh’s name will exist and Ladakhis will perish.” He added that the outgoing BJP MP from Ladakh never advocated for Ladakh in Parliament: “If he had acted as a bridge between the Central government and [Ladakhi] people, he could have presented Ladakh’s issues in Parliament effectively.”

“After the BJP downgraded Ladakh into a Union Territory, even Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development councillors don’t have any power.”Mohammed ArifHardware store owner, Kargil

Several youths that Frontline spoke to in the twin districts of Ladakh said that the BJP had rendered their region and people powerless. “After the BJP downgraded Ladakh into a Union Territory, even LAHDC councillors don’t have any power,” said 32-year-old Mohammed Arif, a hardware store owner from Kargil.“Since 2019, the people and local institutions in Ladakh have been disempowered. The anger against BJP finally came to a boil on June 4, when the party was shown the exit door in Ladakh.”

The biggest issue in this election was protecting Ladakhi identity and telling the Centre how serious the people of Ladakh were about it. It remains to be seen if the government will adequately address Ladakh’s identity struggle this time round. Either way, the situation looks like a double-edged sword for the BJP.

Zaid Bin Shabir is a journalist based in Srinagar.

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