Ladakh: Identity concerns

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Members of the All Ladakh Students Association during a protest in Jammu on December 5, 2019. Photo: PTI

Members of the Ladakh Students Welfare Society staging a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi demanding inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, on January 2, 2020. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the BJP’s MP. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Rigzin Spalbar, former Chief Executive Councillor of the LAHDC. Photo: Divya Trivedi

People in Ladakh fear for their indigenous culture and fragile environment and want the Union Territory to be included in the Sixth Schedule as the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A has left it vulnerable to outside meddling.

In the middle of December 2019, when an intense cold wave swept through north India and temperatures in Ladakh hovered below freezing point, a group of students sat on a hunger strike at an altitude of 3,500 metres demanding protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which allows the formation of Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) to safeguard the rights of tribal people. Braving the bitter weather conditions of the cold high-altitude desert, the students, under the banner of the Students Organisation of Unified Ladakh (SOUL), peacefully gathered in the main market of Leh town. “The cold did not deter us. It was more important to safeguard our future,” Rigzin Dorje, president of SOUL, told Frontline.

Ever since Ladakh was carved out of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and made into a Union Territory without legislature on October 31, 2019, many of the locals are a worried lot. Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution had protected some rights of the Ladakhis. The abrogation of these Articles has left the land, economy, identity and culture of the place exposed to outside meddling.

The demand for the inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution has gained urgency for two reasons. The first one was the need to protect the fragile environment of the region against an unsustainable “development” model that would inevitably follow if outsiders are allowed to buy land and build indiscriminate structures with the profit motive. There are apprehensions that an influx of trade, industry, commerce and people who are unfamiliar with the cultural, religious and traditional essence of the place will disrupt the quiet way of life of Ladakhis. The second reason was the announcement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) by the Union government, which would force the people to prove their antecedents and threatened to divide the religiously tolerant community of Ladakh along communal lines.

Sixth Schedule

The Sixth Schedule, as per Article 244 of the Constitution, was passed in 1949 in order to safeguard tribal populations through the creation of ADCs. It has provisions that give considerable autonomy to tribal communities, and currently parts of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram are covered by it. These include the Bodoland Territorial Council, the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and the Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council in Assam; the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council, the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council and the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council in Meghalaya; the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council; and the Chakma Autonomous District Council, the Lai Autonomous District Council and the Mara Autonomous District Council in Mizoram.

Currently, Ladakh has the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), which is enabled to take administrative decisions on land, development schemes, budget, health, education, the environment, employment, roads, language and culture, among other things. But these are only executive powers wherein the LAHDC can act as an administrator to manage development as listed under the LAHDC Act of 1997. While land is under the purview of the LAHDC, it cannot make laws with regard to restrictions upon the use or transfer of any land. It can only allot and specify the use of government land. In order for the LAHDC to be constitutionally recognised, it needs to be identified as an ADC under the Sixth Schedule, which would endow it with legislative and judicial powers. It would then be empowered to protect the land, environment and culture of the region.

The ADCs and the Regional Councils under the Sixth Schedule have the power to make laws, receive funds from the Consolidated Fund of India and develop the region in the areas of health care, education, roads and regulations. This enables the security of the indigenous population’s economy, environment and traditions. Parliamentary laws either do not apply to autonomous districts and autonomous regions or can have varied degrees of application.

Exempt from the CAA

The areas demarcated under the Sixth Schedule have been exempted from the CAA, which will guard the regions against the influx of Hindus from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Even if these people are granted Indian citizenship as per the CAA, they will not be able to buy land or have trading rights in these places.

On December 15, as the hunger strike by students entered its third day, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Ladakh, met the protesters. On August 17, he wrote to the Union Minister for Tribal Affairs, Arjun Munda, and requested him to declare Ladakh a tribal area under Article 244. He made an impassioned plea: “Ladakh is predominantly a tribal area with 98 per cent of its population tribal, engaged primarily in primitive land-based economy. The majority of the people here in Ladakh have limited means of livelihood, poor connectivity, harsh climatic conditions, undeveloped markets for their produce and low employment opportunities. The proximity of the China and Pakistan borders and the presence of the Indian Army and paramilitary forces underlines the strategic importance of this region and also the vulnerability of its people.

“Moreover, the ecology of Ladakh is extremely fragile and is subject to catastrophes due to global warming. Our glaciers are receding at an alarming rate, which is severely affecting our agricultural sector. Under such facts in place, Ladakh needs every support and protection from the Union government.... Bringing Ladakh under the provision of Sixth Schedule will guarantee its people a swift ride on the path of development and prosperity as per their aspirations.”

On November 25, Rigzin Spalbar of the Congress and ex-Chief Executive Councillor (CEC) of the LAHDC wrote an open letter to the civil society of Ladakh to “jointly assume responsibility, on an apolitical basis, to come together and collectively work towards ensuring safeguards for the region”. He requested the ruling party to be “magnanimous and take the lead to jointly pursue the matter for further safeguarding Ladakh”. “As Ladakh is deserving of the provision of safeguards under the Sixth Schedule and already stands recommended by the concerned Ministries of the present Union government, let us all remind and support the ruling party to get it implemented during the winter session of Parliament.”

Jamyang Tsering Namgyal asked the students to end their fast and promised to support them in their demands. Being assured thus, and given that the health of some students was fast deteriorating, the students ended their fast on the fourth day. But as the days passed, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal went back on on his promise, and sensing that they had been taken for a ride, the students vowed to intensify their agitation.

In the new year, Ladakhis organised a pledge wall signature campaign at the Leh hunger strike point and got more than a 1,000 signatures.

Ladakh has a population of 2.7 lakh, of which 97 per cent are tribal people and there are fears that unless land and employment rights are transferred to the indigenous people, they stand the risk of being reduced to a minority population. Government and Defence are the two sectors where Ladakhis get employment. On December 26, the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh administrations invited applications from people outside the Union Territories for 33 vacancies in the non-gazetted category of their district courts. This was the first time people from outside the region were being offered government jobs. Until the special status of the region was revoked, only permanent residents had rights to government jobs.

Given the limited government jobs available for educated local youths, the move to invite applications from all over the country was criticised and termed “unacceptable” by a cross section of people, including those in the Hindu-dominated region of Jammu, the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party and the National Conference. Under stringent pressure from various quarters, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court was forced to withdraw the advertisement.

Protest in Delhi

On January 2, Ladakhi students gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to reiterate their demands. They expressed concern that their identity would be threatened if they were not protected under the Sixth Schedule.

Stanzin Thardoth of the Ladakh Student Welfare Society told Frontline: “Between the two districts of Leh and Kargil, the majority population consists of Muslims, followed by Buddhists and then a few hundred Christians. All three are considered minorities at the national level in India. But here in Ladakh, they have preserved a rich culture and heritage. With an overwhelming 97 per cent tribal populace, Ladakh deserves tribal status. Our question is, why is the Modi government not including us in the Sixth Schedule?

“Secondly, we are also concerned with our fragile environment. During the winter months, the temperatures go down to minus 200 Celsius, making it extremely difficult to live there. Water scarcity is a major problem as entire villages depend on melting glaciers for water. But now, because of climate change, snow is present only on the peaks. The snow levels have drastically fallen over the past few years, leading to acute scarcity of water for agriculture. In the urban centres of Leh and Kargil, drinking water shortage is also precipitating.

“Our wildlife is also very sensitive. No proper research has been conducted on Ladakh over the years and a big reason for that is the lack of higher educational institutions. While government schools in Ladakh are not good, for higher studies students have to go out to places like Delhi or Chandigarh. People have to first understand Ladakh properly. We have protected our minority culture and traditions. Ladakh is also important in terms of its strategic location. We share our border with Pakistan and China, two nations with whom India has fought wars. Ladakhis have made massive contributions and helped the Army in tense situations.

“The Modi government should think about these things. Moreover, let’s say that under the CAA, the government makes a colony somewhere in Ladakh and settles 50,000-60,000 people there. Our environment does not have the strength to sustain so many people. According to research done by a Ladakhi non-governmental organisation, Leh city can barely accommodate 30,000 people. If more come in, not only will it threaten the environment but our minority culture will be finished off in one fell swoop. Despite harsh conditions and lack of connectivity, our ancestors nurtured the land and preserved the culture. Now it is our duty to preserve them.”

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