The Centre’s focus on border security is putting the people and the environment of Ladakh at risk.
Before 2019, Ladakh was a part of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh’s people would complain bitterly about Kashmiri domination and demand Union Territory status. Then Article 370 was abrogated and overnight Ladakh’s wish was fulfilled. Its streets erupted in joy.
The joy did not last long. As the scales fell away from their eyes, the Ladakhis soon realised that New Delhi was less concerned about Ladakh and more concerned about itself. The employment and business opportunities that were to be created were not tailored so much to benefit the local population as to line the pockets of shrewd operators from the mainland.
Today, Ladakhis watch as their jobs and small businesses are taken away by rich interlopers. They watch as their ownership of tribal pastures is eroded. They watch as administrative and governance decisions about their lands and their lives are taken by outsiders. They watch as their very way of life comes under threat.
And now, even the peace-loving Ladakhis are angry. They are raising their voice and demanding their rights. For perhaps the very first time they have organised huge rallies in Leh, Kargil, Jammu, and Delhi. The famous Sonam Wangchuk has gone on fast more than once. Their demands are simple: they want full Statehood; they want Sixth Schedule protection; they want their land, culture, and jobs to be protected. They want their Hill Councils to be enshrined in the Constitution; the councils were created after years of struggle, but the central bureaucracy has tightened the noose on that too.
Adding to this internal churn is the insidious threat from across the border. As many government sources as might insist that not one inch of Indian territory has been taken by the Chinese army, there are that many sources on the ground to confirm that there have been significant Chinese advances in eastern Ladakh. The government’s ostrich stance that admitting to any incursion is in itself anti-national would be amusing if it were not so dangerous and self-defeating—it gives the newly aggressive China that much more latitude and deniability to push the buffer zone further and further inside knowing full well that this government’s first instinct will be to deny rather than push back.
Essentially, this means that the Ladakh crisis has several layers to it, each feeding into the other, but each also leaking out in dribs and trickles of its own, and the whole carrying the potential to soon become a disastrous cascade. There are the Chinese incursions to which many shepherds say they have lost their grazing lands; there is the fevered Indian build-up of roads and defence infrastructure that has followed in its wake; there are the people who live on these borderlands whose lives, livelihoods, and loved ones are under siege; there is the constant compulsion of political PR and pugnacious nationalism that drives the government’s every move.
New Delhi, as Professor Siddiq Wahid argues in this issue, has not shown much success either at the local level by engaging with Ladakhi leaders or at the national level with an honest appraisal and debate in Parliament or at the international level in its ongoing dialogues with Beijing.
If the government is too short-sighted to see Ladakh through any other lens but that of border security, the real living people in these regions will be reduced to pawns, their voice and their presence invisibilised. Needless to say, the flora, fauna, and forests of the place, its centuries-old cultural institutions and customs will get even shorter shrift.
That is the threat that Ladakh faces today.
Is there a solution that can balance geopolitics with ecology? A solution that can protect territory but also care for the people who live in that territory?
There probably is but it requires a degree of empathy that is in short supply these days.