A Desert Upheaval?

With arch-rivals joining hands in the larger regional interest, Ladakh is emerging as a model political space in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, reports Yawar Hussain

Leaders from Kargil and Leh had a joint press conference in August 2021. They are demanding a full-fledged state

Three years after the creation of the Union Territory (UT) of Ladakh, the sparsely populated cold desert has risen up to demand almost the same rights and status previously enjoyed by the region under the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state.

The political churnings post-August 5 for a statehood, constitutional safeguards under schedule VI, and accelerated recruitment process along with one more Lok Sabha and two Rajya Sabha seats brought an unusual unity between a Buddhist Leh and Muslim Kargil.

The Protest

Last week, Ladakh witnessed protest rallies across Ladakh. The Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA)—an amalgam of Kargil’s socio-religious and political organisations—and the Leh Apex Body (LAB)—a similar amalgam of Leh-based organisations, spearheaded the protest. Senior LAB leader and former Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentarian Thupstan Chhewang led the procession from the NDS Sports complex to the historical Polo Ground in Leh for pushing the four-point demands for the region.

Chhewang, who resigned from the BJP in 2018 citing differences with the party had headed the Ladakh Union Territory Front in 2000. On last week’s protest, Chhewang said that the coordination committee of LAB and KDA will chalk out a year-long agitational schedule in support of their demands.

“There has been no response from the Central Government to our demands. They haven’t formed any committee to hold talks with us,” he said.

The BJP which rules Leh’s Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), however, stayed away from the agitational programme in Ladakh. The BJP has distanced itself from the LAB as well as KDA on the ground that the grant of UT was a major demand of Ladakhis, which was accepted by the central government on August 5, 2019.

In Kargil, the protest started from Hussaini Park and marched towards Isna Asharia Chowk and culminated at Lal Chowk Kargil. Asgar Ali Karbalaie, former Congress lawmaker from the Kargil assembly segment and co-Chairperson of KDA said that Delhi has in the last three years resorted to giving away small freebies, delaying tactics and using coercion to divide Ladakhi people.

“They gave some people lollipops so that they stay silent,” Karabalie told protesters at Lal Chowk in Kargil “Those who didn’t take lollipops were threatened. In general, people were given false assurances that something is being done so that they are tired at the end and settle for anything.”

Jammu Kashmir In Speeches

The controversy around outsiders being made voters in Jammu and Kashmir found echoes in the last week’s Ladakh protests with the KDA and LAB leaders alleging that outsiders would be brought in Ladakh as well through constitutional means as is being done in Jammu and Kashmir.

“They want to impose outsiders on the people of Jammu and Kashmir through constitutional means and through their B-teams. If Ladakhis stay silent and ignore this, then we would be next,” Karabalie said.

In Leh, LAB leaders asserted that when one crore odd population of Jammu and Kashmir is “frightened” for their existence what would happen to 3 lakh Ladakhis? “There won’t be a trace of our identity left if we don’t speak up now.” Besides, LAB leaders pointed out that in coming times, like in Jammu in Kashmir, religious and cultural identities would be attacked while land and job rights would also be given to “outsiders.

The euphoria around the August 5 decisions has fizzled out. Karabalaie said Delhi must follow Sikkim’s case for Ladakh. “In 1975, when Sikkim was made a state, its population was just two lakh while as per the 2011 Census our population was three lakh,” Karabalaie said. “We are located strategically at a much more important position than Sikkim and our area is more than the area of whole Jammu and Kashmir.” He sought Sikkim like a 30-member legislature.

Diminishing Divides

For securing the lost rights, Ladakh witnessed the stitching of alliances between traditional rival forces. The LAB and KDA alliance was stitched much later than both these bodies being formed post-August-5 in their respective regions by cementing the local decadal local divisions.

The LAB was an outcome of a September 2020 boycott call of Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) polls till the Sixth Schedule of Constitution is granted for Ladakh. The call given by a few Leh-based social and political organisations was supported instantly by all Leh-based parties—including the BJP, Congress and AAP. The new body came to be known as the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule which finally culminated in the formation of LAB.

Earlier, in May 2020, the BJP Ladakh witnessed dissension with the party’s Ladakh unit President, Chering Dorjay resigning. In his resignation letter, he stated: “Patriotic people of Ladakh, who have stood with armed forces in all the wars fought by our nation since 1948, are treated so shabbily and with disrespect by the UT administrators.” Dorjay was a cabinet minister in the BJPDP Coalition Government in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State.

A month after LAB’s formation, the Kargil Democratic Alliance was formed on October 29, 2020, by representatives of the National Conference, which leads the Gupkar Alliance (PAGD) in Kashmir, and the local Congress, whose Kashmir unit shied away from joining the Gupkar Alliance. The KDA also included influential religious schools including the Islamia School Kargil and the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust.

The KDA brought traditional rivals Asgar Karabalie of the Congress and veteran National Conference leader Qamar Ali Akhoon together along with Sajad Kargili, who lost the 2019-Parliament seat owing to Karabalie’s entry into the election fray. However, the leaders rose above traditional rivalries to form the KDA.

The bonhomie between Leh and Kargil was a reach out from the latter to the former which instantly had takers even among those who had fought for a union territory all along.

Following this reach out, a Thupstan Chhewang-led delegation visited Kargil in December 2020 and held first-of-its-kind deliberations with the leadership of KDA and decided to “fight” together any law, which would be considered against the interests of the people of Ladakh.

While the people of Leh had welcomed the fulfilment of their long pending demand for UT status and later formed the Apex body in support of the demand for implementation of the sixth schedule of the Constitution to safeguard their culture and identity, the KDA was not in the favour of UT status and raised the demand of statehood to Ladakh.

The Apex body, separately, had held several meetings with the Home Ministry in support of its demand, while the KDA representatives also had a meeting.

Karabalie said Kargil was never in favour of what happened on August 5 which was evident through the protests in the region. “Leh realised later that they have lost land and job rights which Articles 370 and 35-A had kept exclusively for them,” he said.

But ahead of the second anniversary of August 5, in 2021, the KDA and Leh Apex Body joined hands with the latter coming on board for the demand of a full-fledged statehood to the region.

The bodies had then given a deadline of one month for the UT administration to fill up 12,000 pending vacancies in different departments as no recruitment had been held in the region since August 2019.

They also asked the administration to provide jobs to the locally educated youth as per already issued Permanent Resident Certificates for identification of Ladakhi residents. The Domicile law, which Jammu and Kashmir was granted, wasn’t acceptable to the bodies.

Amicability Test

The amicability between the two alliances came under a litmus test earlier this year when the issue of around two kanal of land granted to Buddhists by the government of Jammu and Kashmir in 1961 for building a monastery was opposed by Muslims of Kargil on the grounds that in 1969 the use of land was changed by the then government only for residential purposes.

The situation became tense in June when a march (Peace Pad Yatra) led by Choskyong Palga Rinpoche, was scheduled to reach Kargil to lay the foundation stone of the monastery.

On June 11, Buddhist Association Kargil condemned what they called provocative and threatening speeches by Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT), Kargil, and Islamia School, Kargil—both part of KDA.

The KDA, also, wrote to the District Magistrate, Kargil, opposing the Choskyong Palga Rinpoche’s march stating that it was “politically” motivated and pointing out that it was led by a monk of Tibetan origin. “The intention of the march is to disturb the communal harmony and peace in the area,” the KDA had said.

However, in September this year, the LAB and KDA leaders initiated dialogue and settled the 52-year-old dispute by granting two kanals of land at Kurbathang through Kargil Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) in favour of the Ladakh Buddhist Association exclusively for the construction of Gompa.

A resolution adopted in the meeting of 18 senior leaders of the two sides read, “All the parties also agreed to work together in order to maintain and promote communal harmony in Ladakh. It was also decided by both the communities to care and respect the religious sentiments of each other to set an example of universal brotherhood globally.”

Earlier last month, when KDA and LAB announced last week’s protest in a press conference, Karbalaie and Thusptan Chhewang both said that the issue of Gompa was raked up by forces who didn’t want Ladakhi people to be united. “Our peaceful and beautiful resolution was a slap on the faces of divisive forces,” the leaders said.

Reach out

Coinciding with the last week’s protests, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification extending powers to the Lt Governor of Ladakh for regulating recruitment to public services and posts of Group ‘A’ and ‘B’ (Gazetted) cadre. Accelerated recruitment in Ladakh is one of the four major demands of the LAB and KDA.

The development is being seen as a first step since August 5, to hold a recruitment drive, which would also clear the air around whether outsiders are eligible to apply for jobs in Ladakh or not.

Earlier in January 2021, Home Ministry had constituted a committee under the then Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy to have a dialogue with the representatives from Ladakh “to find an appropriate solution to the issues related to language, culture and conservation of land in Ladakh”.

The committee was an outcome of a meeting between Leh-based leaders with Home Minister Amit Shah and was supposed to have members only from Leh. In July 2021, the committee decided to include members from the Kargil region also. However, the committee couldn’t fulfil the demands of the Ladakhi people while the woes for Delhi continue in the region leading to reinvigorated protests now.

PAGD In Ladakh

As Ladakh started protests, National Conference Vice President Omar Abdullah camped in Kargil to extend his support. NC, which is part of KDA in Ladakh and PAGD in Jammu and Kashmir, hit out at the central government alleging that the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council, headed by BJP’s local unit, has been rendered powerless as everyone in Leh either goes to the Lt Governor or the bureaucrats. “Only people interested in sipping tea go to the LHDC office.”

Abdullah also announced that NC would contest the 2023 Hill Development Council elections in Ladakh under their own symbol. His visit drew reactions from the BJP, which “condemned” Abdullah’s visit to the region on the day of UT celebrations.

The BJP, which faced dissensions in Ladakh, still heads the LAHDC Leh while NC is in power in Kargil. The two parties along with Congress are still active in the region while the PAGD constituent, Peoples Democratic Party’s local unit merged with BJP. The NC which was sharing power with BJP in Kargil managed to break their local unit to achieve a majority on their own.

While a PAGD team under Omar Abdullah visited Ladakh two years back, the hill development council elections in August next year are building into a fight on the pattern of Jammu and Kashmir where the Gupkar Alliance is on one side and the BJP on the other.

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