On February 3, both districts of the Union territory of Ladakh – Leh and Kargil – observed a complete shutdown to seek Sixth Schedule status and statehood.

The videos of protest marches in Leh, a region which had celebrated the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood in 2019, went viral on social media.

The call for shutdown had come from the leadership of Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance, a collective representing several social, religious, political and student organisations of Leh and Kargil, which has been fighting for statehood and safeguards to land rights and jobs for the locals since 2020.

The discontent was not new. The first formal meeting between the central government and leaders of Ladakh took place in December. On January 16, both bodies from Kargil and Leh submitted their demands in writing to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

But the leaders did not hear back from the ministry – until the call for a shutdown on February 3.

Sensing that Ladakh was geared up for widespread protests, a day before the proposed shutdown the Union Ministry of Home Affairs notified that a second meeting between the government-appointed committee and Ladakh leadership will be held on February 19.

The people of Ladakh still turned out in huge numbers to protest, an indication of the anger in the cold desert region against the Centre.

Ahead of the second meeting, representatives from Kargil and Leh say they are firm on their demand. “We are not going to compromise on the demand for Sixth Schedule status,” said Chhering Dorjey Lakrook, a veteran Buddhist leader from Leh who was also president of Bharatiya Janata Party in the region till 2020. “Anything below that is unacceptable to us.”

Lakrook said they are hopeful of an outcome from the meeting. “We are going with full expectations,” he said. “But we also understand we might have to wait for a demand like adding one more Lok Sabha seat to the Union territory of Ladakh. That may happen only after the 2026 delimitation.”

As far as the demand for statehood is concerned, Lakrook added, any set up where the Ladakh has its own legislature is something they can agree upon. “The point is we want to have our own legislature. Whether they give us statehood or a Union Territory with legislature, but we want to have our own law-making body where our people are elected.”

A protestor demanding statehood for the Ladakh region in New Delhi last year. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP.

After August 5, 2019

The current protests can be traced back to August 2019, when the Centre downgraded Jammu and Kashmir from a state to two Union territories – Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.

While the Buddhist-majority Leh district celebrated Ladakh’s separation from Jammu and Kashmir, the Muslim-majority Kargil district had protested against the move.

But the celebrations in Leh were short-lived – primarily for two reasons.

First, the August 5, 2019 decision turned Ladakh into a Union territory – but one without a legislature. The Buddhist-majority Leh district had for years demanded that Ladakh should have its own Assembly.

Second, and more significantly, like the rest of the citizens of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the people of Ladakh also lost exclusive rights to own immovable property and get government jobs in the region after August 2019. The sparsely populated cold desert region and its land, Ladakhis felt, had become vulnerable to demographic changes as well as loss of autonomy.

The anxiety of having lost special protections regarding land and jobs, took centre stage in Ladakh.

In September 2019, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes recommended Sixth Schedule status to the Union territory of Ladakh. The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution guarantees protections to land and a nominal autonomy for the country’s tribal areas. In Ladakh, more than 97% of the population belongs to Scheduled Tribes.

In 2020, a range of political, social and different religious outfits in Leh district came together to form the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh. Among the members of the powerful group were members from the local Bharatiya Janata Party unit, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party.

The Muslim-majority Kargil district aligned itself with People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration, a group of largely Kashmir-based parties which demanded the return of the pre-August 5, 2019 status of Jammu and Kashmir.

But a year later, Kargil and Leh found themselves on the same page vis-à-vis the future of Ladakh.

In August 2021, both Kargil and Leh rejected the Union territory status for Ladakh and demanded statehood instead. In addition, they also sought safeguards for land rights and jobs for natives.

By 2022, those demands crystallized into a set of four demands: statehood for Ladakh; constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution; separate Lok Sabha seats for Leh and Kargil districts and the rollout of a recruitment process and a separate Public Service Commission for Ladakh.

A loss of autonomy?

The Ladakh leadership has consistently expressed its displeasure with the state of affairs in the administration set up after August 5, 2019.

One of the most common refrains has been the purported hollowing out of the autonomy of Ladakh’s powerful hill councils in Leh and Kargil. In order to have a greater say and independence in their development, two autonomous hill councils were established in the Ladakh region in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. More so, these hill councils were in response to the recurring demand of the people of Ladakh who felt overlooked by the power centre in Kashmir.

After 2019, however, the autonomous hill councils have found themselves becoming subservient and even overlooked by the bureaucracy. Even though the Centre has increased the budget of hill councils by nearly four times post 2019, the elected members of hill councils have found themselves disempowered and powerless.

Similarly, there have been concerns regarding jobs and employment opportunities in the region. Given the Centre’s promise to provide “adequate employment opportunities” after August 2019, the young and jobless in Ladakh are still awaiting a major recruitment drive in the region. More importantly, separation from Jammu and Kashmir has also shrunk a larger pool of jobs for the youth of Ladakh.

While there has been some recruitment in low-ranking government jobs, the unemployed are frustrated over the lack of gazetted jobs in the region.

The Ladakh challenge

After August 2019, Ladakh has emerged as a multi-faceted challenge for the hardliner Bharatiya Janata Party government.

This challenge has an external, geopolitical dimension, following the 2020 Galwan valley clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in eastern Ladakh.

Politically, too, Ladakh has not been an easy ride for the BJP. For instance, in September 2020, days after the elections for Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh were announced, the powerful amalgam People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh announced a poll boycott until their demands were met.

The boycott call had come as a major embarrassment for the saffron party as its own local unit had also supported the call. Within days, the Leh leadership sat with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi who told them the government was “open to discuss [sic] protections available under the 6th Schedule.”

When the elections were held in October 2020, Bharatiya Janata Party retained the majority in the 26 seats of the council – although the party won three less seats than it had in the previous election.

Since 2021, the Centre has held multiple rounds of deliberations with the Ladakh leadership. The deliberations have become streamlined with the constitution of a high-powered committee by the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 2023 under the chairmanship of Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai.

With the Model Code of Conduct likely to be implemented after the announcement of Lok Sabha elections next month, it remains to be seen if the February 19 meeting between the Centre and representatives of Ladakh finally yields something for the strategically important region.

A member of the Ladakh leadership, who requested not to be identified, said they were expecting some kind of breakthrough in the next meeting. “My sense is they might give us a Public Service Commission for recruitment,” he said. “They may also propose some constitutional safeguards for land and jobs. But we want safeguards only in the form of Sixth Schedule.”

In case a resolution proves elusive, Ladakh may spring more surprises for the Bharatiya Janata Party.