A few months ago, a Ladakhi wildlife tour operator passionately explained to participants during a training session for guides why, as growing numbers of tourists come to the region to catch a glimpse of snow leopards in winter, it should be Ladakhis who benefit the most.

“...At the end of the day, it’s our people, it’s our mountains, it’s our snow leopard,” said the tour operator.

For centuries, Ladakhis have conserved the animal and borne the damage when the snow leopards eat prized sheep and goats, this person implied. But increasingly, people from outside the region acting as wildlife guides, tour operators and silent business partners in tourism ventures are cornering the lucrative income from snow leopard tourism.

What does the act of claiming snow leopards for Ladakhis say about the current political situation in Ladakh?

Denied self-governance

August 4 marked four years since the bill dividing the former state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories was introduced in Parliament.

Many Ladakhis were unhappy. Though Ladakhis had been demanding separation from the state of Jammu and Kashmir for decades, they were dissatisfied with the decision to make Ladakh a Union Territory. They wanted to govern themselves. But the steering wheel of the administration has been handed over to bureaucrats.

With Union Territory status, the 2.7 lakh people of Ladakh fear that they will be outnumbered in a few decades and their unique culture will be overwhelmed. Restrictions on buying land and property have been removed. The political representation of Ladakhis has been curtailed. The region has lost the four legislators it sent to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. It now has only a lone MP in Parliament to voice its concerns.

Though the Ladakhis are designated as Scheduled Tribes, many want the protections available under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to tribals in Assam, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. This provision puts restrictions on the transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals. In addition, it provides for the establishment of autonomous tribal councils that have the legislative powers to safeguard tribal culture.

The fact that it has been four years since Ladakh became a Union Territory without such protections being extended to it has added to the disquiet. There is fear that the dominant culture of Ladakh, which has historically been outside of Hindu cultural geography, will be diluted.

Already, even before Union Territory status was imposed, changes in the terminology used to describe Ladakh’s landscape seemed to warn of impending cultural threats. For instance, Singay Khababs (the Indus) is increasingly referred to as Sindhu. Ladhakis fear that their sacred geography will be reconfigured. For many Ladakhis, water is not just H2O, but the residence of a spirit called “lu”. Similarly, glaciers are presided over by spirits called “lha”. The fear of demographic change in Ladakh is not an expression of xenophobia but cultural distress.

Ladakh's Suru Valley. Credit: Narender9, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ecological crisis

The third reason for the consternation in Ladakh is the unfolding ecological crisis. For some time, Ladakhis have been living alongside dying glaciers, shrinking grasslands, retreating springs, withering wetlands and deteriorating pastures. Scientific reports underscore that their grief is not misplaced. For instance, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate 2019 by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that satellite images show glaciers receding high up in the Asian mountains..

As a result of this anxiety, platforms such as the Kargil Democratic Alliance in Kargil and the Apex body in Leh have, for the last two years, been demanding full statehood and the extension of the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the region. To alert the Central government to the region’s precarious ecology and to seek its protection under this provision, Ladakhi inventor and engineer Sonam Wangchuk went on a five-day “climate fasts” in January and June.

India and multiculturalism

The political activity in Ladakh is not insular: it is rooted in a desire to secure and protect India’s ethic of multiculturalism – the idea that ethnicities, races, and cultures, especially those of minority groups, deserve special recognition for their diversity within the dominant political culture. Multiculturalism does not subscribe to a single culture for the entire country.

The first step in multiculturalism is recognising that there is a multitude of cultures. The next step is to recognise the differences between cultures. Once the difference is acknowledged, it gives rise to relationships rather than authoritarian hierarchies. Instead of an attempt to own a minority culture, there is give and take.

In a world where difference is recognised and celebrated, the decision to impose Union Territory status on Ladakh without these tribal provisions makes little sense. The demands for statehood and self-governance through the Sixth Schedule are a reflection of the desire to be Ladakhi and Indian at the same time.

A snow leopard in Ladakh. Credit: Tashi Lonchay, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As for the demand for locals to benefit from snow leopard tourism, it is an acknowledgement by the region’s seemingly apolitical tour entrepreneurs – none of whom have publicly expressed an opinion on the Sixth Schedule or statehood – that if they are to protect their business interests, it is vital for Ladakh’s environment and cultural practices to be protected too.

Snow leopards, Panthera uncia, are known as “shan” in Ladakh. The species is classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Snow leopards do not weigh more than 50 kg. They belongs to the genus Panthera – along with the lion (Panthera leo), the leopard (Panthera pardus), the jaguar (Panthera onca) and their closest relative, the tiger (Panthera tigris).

In Ladakh, protecting culture is increasingly being entwined with protecting local economic interests. This is reflected in the concerns about the relatively small snow leopard in a country whose national animal is the mighty tiger. In Ladakh, the snow leopard is becoming a mascot both for local business and a minority culture under pressure.

Padma Rigzin is a Shamma from Ladakh and researching for a PhD in social anthropology. He is exploring the evolving human-snow leopard relationship.

Also read: Why melting glaciers are causing both drought and floods in the Himalayas