Ladakh talks: Civil society leaders disappointed after second meeting with Centre

Talks focus on demands for statehood, Sixth Schedule guarantees, and job-land safeguards, but delegation is disappointed over lack of concrete action.

Published : Feb 26, 2024 20:47 IST - 5 MINS READ

People holding placards take part in the ‘”Leh Chalo Andolan” called by Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) and Leh Apex Body (LAB) demanding the implementation of the 6th Schedule, Statehood, Land, and job security and separate Lok Sabha seat in Parliament for Kargil and Leh, in Leh in January 2024.

People holding placards take part in the ‘”Leh Chalo Andolan” called by Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) and Leh Apex Body (LAB) demanding the implementation of the 6th Schedule, Statehood, Land, and job security and separate Lok Sabha seat in Parliament for Kargil and Leh, in Leh in January 2024. | Photo Credit: Arhaan/ANI

After two rounds of discussions with the Centre on February 19 and February 24, civil society leaders of Ladakh said they were “restless” and “disappointed” over the government’s “delaying tactics” regarding their core demands that include Sixth Schedule Guarantees for the Union Territory, which was carved out of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.

Sajjad Kargili, a member of the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), told Frontline that the government has not given any indication so far as to how they plan to address the Ladakhi aspirations even as tension simmers in the region over New Delhi’s bureaucratic direct rule in which jobs and lands have been thrown open to outsiders.

On February 24, the government’s high-powered Committee on Ladakh, led by Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai, met a 14-member delegation of the KDA and the Leh Apex Body (LAB, a collective of several trade unions, tourist bodies, and religious and political groups) for the second time in a week. The Committee informed the Ladakhi delegates of its intent to examine how the provisions of the Sixth Schedule Guarantees could be implemented in Ladakh.

In the next round of discussions, legal and constitutional experts representing the delegates and the Centre, respectively, would assess the legal merits of the charter of demands put forth by the Ladakhis. Kargili, who was part of both meetings, said that there was a sense among the Ladakhi leaders that the government wanted to buy time and manage perceptions in Ladakh till the general election, due in April-May

Also Read | Ladakh’s struggle for identity and survival

Kargili pointed out the lack of rationale in legally vetting their charter of demands. “When Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated and its special status was abrogated on August 5, 2019, did the government consult legal luminaries or even civil society members? Did they refer the question of putting Ladakh under the Lt. Governor’s control without an elected legislature to constitutional experts? So why do that this time round when there is wide-scale consensus in Ladakh regarding statehood and also regarding the need for Constitutional safeguards to prevent the absorption of jobs and lands by non-locals?” Kargili asked.

Mustafa Haji, a lawyer who is also part of the KDA, said that when the talks were scheduled, there was a sense of reassurance but it was getting clear by the day that New Delhi did not plan to arrive at a solution anytime soon. “The BJP knows there is anger against it in Ladakh. By calling for talks the Centre has sent the right signals to the Ladakhis, but it also needs to translate into concrete action. There is no sign of it yet.” There is concern amongst the Ladakhis that once the general election is over, their bargaining power with the Centre will substantially reduce.

The BJP is combating adverse public opinion in Ladakh and its leader Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, who is the Lok Sabha member from Ladakh, may be staring at defeat when the general election is held. The BJP in October 2023 faced a drubbing in the Hill Council elections in Kargil. In the elections to the 26-member Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council-Kargil, the National Conference-Congress combine won 22 seats.

The decline in public perception and Ladakhi leader Thupstan Chhewang’s call for a fast-unto-death are believed to have pushed the BJP to recalibrate its strategy from one of wait-and-watch to repairing ties with the Ladakhi civil society groups that are known to have considerable influence in the hill region.

The KDA together with the LAB have been organising protests in Ladakh to press for, among other things, land and job exclusivity which ended when the Centre abrogated Article 370 and split Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories.

Also Read | ‘Centre’s stance on Sixth Schedule and the demand for statehood is unclear’: Sajjad Kargili

The KDA and LAB have four core demands: Statehood for Ladakh; inclusion of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution; increasing the number of Lok Sabha members from one to two; and representation of Ladakh in the Rajya Sabha. The two bodies have together organised several bandhs across Ladakh and also sit-in demonstrations in New Delhi, leading to a groundswell of public opinion in Ladakh against the ruling BJP.

After the first round of meetings on February 19, the Ladakhi delegation was hopeful that New Delhi wanted to redress their grievances and might offer a “Sixth-Schedule-like guarantees” if not implement the Sixth Schedule itself. Kargili had earlier described the February 19 meeting to this reporter as “positive” with “scope for a mutually acceptable solution model”. “This is the first time the government has agreed to talk on our four-point demands. Before this, they were adamant to hold deliberations on their own terms. This is an advance,” he had said.

A source had told Frontline that while it is unlikely that Sixth Schedule guarantees would be offered, as it goes against the staple of the BJP’s politics, “there is optimism that New Delhi might envisage similar guarantees with a different nomenclature”.

The Ladakhi delegation has been conveying to the Centre about the waning influence of locally-elected councillors in the Lt. Governor’s administration, and the need to devolve power by guaranteeing a Legislative Assembly to Ladakh. According to the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, Jammu and Kashmir has been made a Union Territory with a Legislative Assembly and Ladakh a Union Territory without any Assembly. There were four representatives from Ladakh in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir Assembly.

Siddiq Wahid, Ladakhi historian and political commentator, did not rule out the escalation of public protests if New Delhi continued to buy time. He said, “The government has had ample time to respond to the demands of the Ladakhis. The delay could be either because of election fever or a deliberate tactic to stall decisions. Either way, it is worth noting that the Ladakhi leadership in Leh and Kargil are sceptical of the delay. An acceleration of the Ladakhi pushback cannot be ruled out.”

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