On Wednesday, the first-ever elections will be held in Kargil district since Ladakh was carved out of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019 as a separate Union territory.

While typically the elections to the hill council deal with local civic matters, this year the major issue appears to be the reorganisation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.

At the time, the Buddhist-majority Leh district had erupted in jubilation at Ladakh being turned into a Union territory without a legislature. But the Muslim-majority Kargil district saw widespread protests and shutdowns over the Centre’s controversial move.

“We know it is beyond the capacity of elected councillors to talk about restoring the status of Ladakh to the pre-August 5, 2019 position,” said Shaan Haidary, a lawyer whose uncle is contesting the polls. “But people are desperate to use this election to send a message to the Bharatiya Janata Party that they have snatched the rights of the people of Ladakh and it’s not acceptable to us.”

Political parties opposed to the move are also banking on this anger to canvas for votes.

On September 30, Omar Abdullah, the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference vice-president, said the hill council elections present the first opportunity for the people of Kargil to register their protest. “You can send a clear message through your vote that you accept or reject the decisions of August 5, 2019,” Abdullah said, while addressing an election campaign rally in Kargil.

BJP workers on campaign trail. Courtesy Jamyang Tsering Namgyal's X (formerly Twitter) account

A pre-poll alliance

While Ladakh was a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, residents had, for decades, pushed for a greater participation in governance and share of resources. In response, the then Jammu and Kashmir government passed the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act in 1995.

The first autonomous hill council elections in Leh district were held in the same year. Eight years later, another hill council was announced for the Kargil district of the region. Elections to both councils take place every five years, though separately.

The Kargil hill council has 30 seats. Elections are held on 26 seats, while four members are nominated by the Union territory administration.

The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council elections in Kargil have traditionally been a battle between National Conference and Congress. In the 2018 hill council elections, National Conference emerged as a single largest party, winning 10 seats, followed by the Congress with eight seats. In 2013, Congress had 10 seats followed by the National Conference with eight seats.

However, this year, the two parties have set aside their differences. In the past, too, the National Conference and Congress have entered into coalitions to take control of the hill councils, but this is the first time that the two parties have a pre-poll alliance.

“The understanding is that in constituencies where we feel the BJP might get an edge by the division of votes among National Conference and Congress, only one among the two parties will field a candidate there,” said Mubarak Shah Nagvi of National Conference in Drass sub-division of Kargil district.

Nagvi is the sitting councillor from the Ranbirpora Drass constituency. He is among the three candidates in fray, while two others are from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The pre-poll arrangement is not in this seat because BJP does not have any chance here. That’s why I have a friendly but direct contest with the Congress.”

The traditional voters of both appear to be responding well to the pact. “I am a Congress supporter but I don’t mind if the National Conference wins the election,” says Aamir Ali, 35, a contractor in Kargil’s Minjee village. “The main objective is to tell the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and the Centre that we are not happy with the August 5, 2019 decision.”

Women in Minjee village line up to hear the address of a candidate. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

‘Where’s the development?’

The Bharatiya Janata Party has never had any real electoral presence in Kargil. In 2018, the party managed to win its first ever seat in the hill council polls in the district with a margin of 30 votes. In Kargil, the party’s influence is confined to areas which are Buddhist-dominated and are geographically closer to Leh district.

The party’s primary pitch is the Narendra Modi government’s push to upgrade the infrastructure, road and air connectivity and other major projects in Ladakh.

Ahead of the hill council polls, the party’s national general secretary Tarun Chugh campaigned in Kargil with the same message. “Under the able guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ladakh is shaping new paradigms of development. Work on the Zojila tunnel, road infrastructure, and hospitals have been started,” he said last month.

Local residents in Kargil do not appear to be impressed.

“Where are the jobs they promised?” asked Asghar Ali, a 74-year-old farmer in Kargil’s Baroo village. “Our youth are getting frustrated day by day. After studying so hard, they struggle to find a decent livelihood.”

Kulsoom Banoo, a Persian school teacher in Baroo, said unemployment is a sticking point for the youth. “Those who have some financial help at home can think about heading out of the state and look for jobs but there are several families that used to depend on the government jobs that Jammu and Kashmir reserved for us.”

The Jammu and Kashmir state government had 10% reservation for Scheduled Tribes in jobs and professional colleges. As Ladakh’s population is 97% tribal, they benefited greatly from the quota.

The Ladakh administration, Banoo said, has not been able to provide jobs to local residents in the last four years, “other than contractual offers”.

Zakir Zaidi, a young entrepreneur from Kargil, said the Centre had claimed that as a Union territory, Ladakh would get more resources for industrial development. “But since 2019, the administration has been unable to develop a single industrial estate,” said Zaidi, who works in the agribusiness and mining sector. “Not a single entrepreneur has been allocated land for industry because we still don’t have an industrial policy for Ladakh.”

Apart from the economy, Zaidi said the events of 2019 have stoked a fear of demographic change in the minds of the people of Ladakh. “In a way, this election is a referendum to underline what people actually feel about the August 5, 2019 decision.”

An election campaign poster on the Leh-Kargil highway. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

‘Losing autonomy’

The anxieties of Kargil’s residents are not limited to the industrial sector alone.

Elected members of hill councils in both districts of Ladakh have complained of the Union territory administration curbing their powers and autonomy.

“When we were with the state of Jammu and Kashmir, hill councils had more powers. Not a single project would move without being vetted and discussed by the council,” said Mubarak Shah Nagvi of National Conference in Drass.

After 2019, that has changed. Earlier, the hill councils would be the agency to implement and execute developmental projects. “The power to implement Special Development Packages and centrally-sponsored schemes is now with the Union territory administration. That has created a lot of duplication in schemes and wastage of money,” Nagvi added.

Questions over future

Though Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh had reacted in contrasting ways to the developments of August 5, 2019, eventually the Buddhist-majority Leh, too, came around to expressing its discontent with a Union territory without legislature.

In a rare display of unity in August, 2021, Leh and Kargil joined hands to press upon the Centre that the status of Union territory was not acceptable to them.

Two influential collectives – Ladakh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance – comprising social, religious, political and student organizations from both the regions, agreed on a set of four demands to put forward before the Centre.

These include the grant of statehood to Ladakh, constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution and separate Lok Sabha seats for Leh and Kargil districts. The Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution offers protections and an amount of autonomy to tribal areas. Another key demand was an immediate rollout of a recruitment process and a Public Service Commission for Ladakh, given the soaring unemployment in the region.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Centre has not accepted any of the demands so far. In June, after a gap of 22 months, the representatives of the two bodies sat down with the Union Home Ministry to discuss their demands. However, there was no concrete outcome of the meeting.

A meeting between the representatives from Ladakh and Centre is expected after the conclusion of hill council polls.

For the BJP, the unity among the two regions over what many call existential issues for Ladakh is a major challenge.

In Kargil, the separation from Jammu and Kashmir remains an emotive issue.

“When I heard that Kargil has been separated from Kashmir, I broke down,” recalled Ilyas Ansari, a young man in his 20s. “I cried all day,” narrated Ansari.

For him, the events of August 2019 was no less than “a partition”. “How can we forget what BJP did to us?” he said.