The trans-Himalayan territory of Ladakh is at present living two realities. One is the Union Territory government headed by Lt Governor Dr B.D. Mishra, which calls the shots in administrative matters. The other is the rise of consciousness among the people about protecting their unique identity and heritage and securing the elevation of Ladakh as a full-fledged State. The popular sentiments are being articulated by the Leh Apex Body (LAB) in Leh district and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) in Kargil district.
Historic resolutions have been passed in the two autonomous hill development councils in Leh and Kargil, in keeping with the ground situation where demands for Statehood and inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution rule supreme. In the resolution passed by the Leh council, the following demands have been made: constitutional safeguards for the protection of land; employment guarantee; protection of culture, trade and environment; and extension of provisions of the Constitution to the hill councils. The Kargil resolution is more categorical and has four demands: Statehood for Ladakh, Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh, two parliamentary seats in Ladakh instead of one, and job security and early job recruitment.
A common streak in the two resolutions is the assertion of local identity and its preservation, which amounts to seeking restoration of powers and privileges Ladakh lost after becoming a Union Territory with the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which guaranteed special status of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. If there seems to be some divergence in the use of terminology in the two resolutions, it is because of the reservations of BJP members, who constitute a majority in the Leh council, about Statehood and Sixth Schedule status. The local BJP leadership is caught between the ambiguous stance of its central leadership and popular sentiment.
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Incidentally, the BJP promised Sixth Schedule status in its manifesto for the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council election of 2019, which it won with a clear majority.
Broadly, the stand taken by the LAB and the KDA has been endorsed by the two councils. People have turned up in huge numbers in solidarity with their demands, reflecting the expanse of their reach. Last year, for the first time, there were massive rallies in Leh and Kargil simultaneously on the same demands with identical slogans being raised. This was followed by protests by the LAB and the KDA in Jammu and in Delhi along with a fast by Sonam Wangchuk, renowned environmentalist, in support of the demands for Statehood and inclusion under the Sixth Schedule.
The Union Territory administration headed by the Lt Governor has been a mute spectator to these developments and seems to have no contact with the people on these matters. It is not able to act as a political bridge with the masses and gives the impression that it is just there to deliver services. The administration is out of tune with civil society’s rising aspirations and even with the talks that have been taking place between the LAB-KDA and the Home Ministry. The latest round of talks was held in June, but the Union Territory administration appeared not to have any truck with it.
In fact, the administration does not miss any opportunity to undermine political activities in Ladakh; for instance, the National Conference was denied a symbol for the upcoming elections of the Autonomous Hill Development Council in Kargil. When the party got an order in its favour from the High Court, the administration appealed in the Supreme Court.
A close look at the administration would reveal that there is never a dull moment. Almost every day the Lt Governor’s office signs some Memorandum of Association (MoA) or other for a new development project. The Lt Governor’s Twitter handle is filled with praise for people making their mark in sports, culture, entrepreneurship, education and other areas. The Lt Governor takes a personal interest in these matters and lavishly applauds those bringing laurels to the Union Territory. He makes himself accessible to people wanting to draw his attention to their problems, and these activities are appreciated by the masses.
Yet the people of Ladakh have a problem with the Union Territory administration at a more fundamental level: it represents the centralisation of power by bureaucrats. Indian democracy is participatory and it envisages a dispensation where the people have the biggest say in the law-making process and there is decentralisation of power.
- There is an increasing consciousness among Ladakhis about protecting their unique identity and heritage and securing the elevation of Ladakh as a full-fledged State.
- The popular sentiments are being articulated by the Leh Apex Body (LAB) in Leh district and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) in Kargil district.
- However, the talks between the LAB and the Home Ministry have not brought the Ladakhis any closer to their goal of securing constitutional safeguards for protecting tribal rights and the development agenda does not make up for this in popular perception.
- The Union Territory government is seen as representing centralised rule by the bureaucracy.
Weakened hill councils
The hill councils were created when Leh and Kargil districts were part of a full-fledged State. They were set up after a long struggle and were seen as voices of the masses. In the present scenario, sensitive and knowledgeable councillors feel suffocated and find their position as elected representatives compromised. They find themselves weakened, and this is telling on the capacity and functioning of hill councils to the extent of calling into question their very purpose as effective tools of local governance.
The Home Ministry’s talks with the teams from Ladakh have been evasive. The Ministry seems averse to granting Sixth Schedule status; yet there have been no discussions on alternatives. It said that sufficient funds were being provided to Ladakh to meet its developmental requirements, which, it claimed, was in keeping with the main objective of bringing the tribal population under the Sixth Schedule in order to ensure their overall socio-economic progress.
This stance has taken the people of Ladakh, especially the leaders of the LAB and the KDA, by surprise and strengthened the feeling that the issue of political empowerment is being bypassed. The people see this as a derailment of the dialogue and deliberations with the Central government. This is also contrary to the recommendation made by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes and by a parliamentary panel.
The LAB and the KDA are seeking an all-inclusive role for Ladakh with the full participation of the people, which is not the same as socio-economic development under bureaucratic rule. The two bodies seem to have no other choice than to carry on their protests with more assertiveness.
The last few years have also seen a greater focus on increasing the presence of the defence forces in Ladakh. Whether it is four-lane roads or huge acquisitions of land for the Army, the trend is clearly towards tightening border security, which in effect is a direct consequence of the tensions with China at the Line of Actual Control. Some of these proposals for the acquisition of land were thrown open to the general public for comments. The hill councils put forward their reservations, but not much was done about the objections.
Land is at the heart of the demand for the Sixth Schedule in Ladakh. With the sudden keen interest in border security and the expansion of the military area, there is widespread apprehension that Ladakh is being seen only through the border area and external security prism. The local people and locally elected people not finding a voice could lead to the invisibility of the people of Ladakh. The shift in the policy of the government to expand works in Ladakh is also a deviation from the usual approach that emphasised sustainable development, environmental protection, preservation of flora and the fauna, and more importantly, protection of Ladakh’s indigenous people.
Mustafa Haji is a lawyer from Ladakh.