August 5, 2019, was a day of contrasts in Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region.
That was the day on which New Delhi stripped the state of the special status it had been guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and downgraded it into two Union territories.
Leh, one of the two districts of the new Union territory of Ladakh, erupted in jubilation. But its Muslim-majority district Kargil had sulked and protested the move.
Now, just over two years later, both the regions are on the same page: the events of August 5, 2019, have now been deemed unacceptable by the people of both parts of the Ladakh Union territory.
At a meeting in Leh on August 1, senior political and religious leaders from both districts, Leh and Kargil, reached a consensus on several demands they intend to put forward to the Centre – and firmly rejected Union territory status for the region.
Their first demand is statehood. Though Ladakh’s Union territory status has never been accepted by Kargil, the Buddhist-majority Leh district had demanded a Union territory with a legislature. Now, both districts of the cold desert region are rooting for statehood.
The second demand pertains to safeguards in land rights and jobs. “No outsider should be able to buy land here nor should they be entitled to jobs,” said Qamar Ali Akhoon, a veteran National Conference leader from Kargil and one of the two chairmen of the Kargil Democratic Alliance.
The alliance was formed in October by a collection of Kargil-based political and socio-religious organisations to push for the restoration of the special status that the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had been guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Until that demand is fulfilled, the Alliance wants the Ladakh region to be granted full statehood.
This is the second alliance to take shape in the region following the events of August 5, 2019. Earlier last year, a range of political, social and religious outfits in Leh district came together to form the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh. This schedule of the Indian Constitution offers protections and a degree of autonomy to tribal areas.
It was a campaign led by veteran politicians in Ladakh: former Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament from Ladakh Thupstan Chhewang; former Rajya Sabha member Thiksay Rinpochey from the National Conference, Ladakh Congress president Nawang Rigzin Jora and former Bharatiya Janata Party leader and minister in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir Chhering Dorje.
In both alliances, the political affiliations of the leaders had been rendered irrelevant by the grassroots opposition to the Centre’s new initiatives in the region. “The joint leadership of both the districts cuts across the political parties,” explained Akhoon. “Every party is a member of this leadership except the Bharatiya Janata Party.”
However, during a press conference on August 1, Thupstan Chhewang, the chief of Apex Body of Peoples Movement, told reporters in Leh that even BJP leaders, including Jamyang Tsering Namgayal, the only Member of Parliament from Ladakh, have extended their support to the collective position.
In Ladakh, over 97% of the population are members of the Scheduled Tribes. In September 2019, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had recommended that the Union territory of Ladakh be brought under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which guarantees protections and a degree of autonomy for the country’s tribal areas.
With the Centre on August 5, 2019, revoking the region’s special status as well as guarantees for land rights and jobs, the demand for the implementation of Sixth Schedule in Leh gathered steam. The push got so intense, the leaders of the People’s Movement last September announced a boycott of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council’s Leh election until the demand was met.
The signatories to the boycott call included heads of the local units of the BJP, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.
The call had caused major embarrassment for the ruling BJP at the Centre. It immediately dispatched senior leaders to Leh to cool down tempers. Within days, the boycott call was withdrawn – but not without Leh leadership sitting down with the Home Minister Amit Shah, who, they said, assured them that the Union government was “open to discuss protections available under the Sixth Schedule”.
In January, the Ministry of Home Affairs ordered the establishment of a Ladakh-specific committee under G Kishan Reddy, the minister of state for home affairs at the time. The committee was tasked with finding an “appropriate solution to the issues related to language, culture and conservation of land in the union territory of Ladakh”. So far, Reddy has held two rounds of talks – one each with the leadership of Kargil and Leh in New Delhi.
But the August 1 meeting means the Central government might have to deal with a different set of demands now. “We realised the Sixth Schedule will not mean much if we continue to remain under the Union territory setup,” explained Chhering Dorje, former Bharatiya Janata Party leader and cabinet minister in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. “Even if we are given Sixth Schedule, the UT administration will always have an upper hand. That’s why we have demanded statehood for Ladakh.”
‘UT has no meaning’
While Kargil had vehemently expressed its displeasure with the decision of turning Ladakh into a Union territory, it took almost two years for the people of Leh to realise its limitations, several senior leaders in Leh told Scroll.in
“The demand for Union territory in Ladakh had arisen out of a feeling of being sidelined within the set-up of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Dorje, who also serves as the Vice-President of powerful religious group Ladakh Buddhist Association in Leh. “Now, we realise it’s not enough. Unless there’s no protection to land and jobs guaranteed that was granted under the [now-revoked] Article 370, UT status means very little for us.”
Dorje also accused the Union territory administration of undermining the autonomy of the local hill development councils in the region. The hill development councils were established in the 1990s as the answer to Ladakh’s demands for greater autonomy even as it continued to be part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. There are two councils, one in Leh and one in Kargil, each with its own chief executive councillor.
In October, the BJP won 15 of total 26 seats in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh.
Despite the existence of the councils, the feeling of disempowerment still persists. “Hill councils had greater autonomy when Ladakh was part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” Dorjee added.
In May last year, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Dorje resigned from the BJP, alleging that affairs in the Union territory were run by bureaucrats who cared little about the people.
Sajjad Kargili, who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Ladakh, said the hill councils within the Union territory administration have become subservient to bureaucrats.
“Earlier, a councillor of the hill council had decision-making capacity to spend funds on his constituency,” he said. “Now, the rules have been made so difficult that it’s impossible for a councillor to spend a small amount of money without the consent of a bureaucrat.”
In June, the Union territory administration of Ladakh issued an order stating that all government jobs would be reserved for the locals. While the order had met one of the long-pending demands of the people of Ladakh, the decision was criticised from the elected autonomous hill development councils who alleged that they were not consulted during the deliberations to frame the new recruitment rules.
‘Party to Article 370 petition’
Despite arriving at a political consensus vis-à-vis Ladakh, the leaders in Kargil still support restoring the pre-August 5, 2019, status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. With Kargil and Leh having divergent positions about the cancellation of the erstwhile state’s special status and statehood, Kargil had made it clear that it identifies its future with the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.
In October, the Kargil Democratic Alliance had its first meeting with a visiting delegation of the Gupkar Alliance, a conglomerate of Kashmir’s mainstream parties fighting for the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood.
This was the first time the Kashmiri political leadership had been allowed to visit Kargil since the region’s special status was scrapped in 2019. The delegation from the Gupkar Alliance was led by National Conference leader and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah.
Following those meetings, the Kargil Democratic Alliance had decided to become a party to one of the many petitions pending before the Supreme Court of India that have challenged New Delhi’s August 5, 2019 decision. Leaders in Kargil assert their position is unlikely to change.
“We haven’t given up on the demand for restoration of special status,” said Akhoon, the senior National Conference leader from Kargil.
For now, the joint leadership in both Kargil and Leh is waiting for an audience with the Central government. “We will go to New Delhi,” said Dorje, the former BJP leader. “This time, there won’t be different demands. We will go with our collective demands.”
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