In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s regional manifesto for Ladakh had impressed 36-year-old Chozang Namgyal. Not only did it promise Union territory status for Ladakh, the party’s nominee Jamyang Tsering Namgyal assured that Ladakh would be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that provides protections to tribal regions.

Jamyang Namgyal went on to win, boosted by the votes of residents like Chozang Namgyal.

Months down the line, the BJP kept its word by breaking up the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories. One of them was Ladakh, a Union territory without a legislature.

But it is the refusal of the BJP-led Centre to award Sixth Schedule status to Ladakh that rankles with voters like Chozang Namgyal and is shaping up the battle for the parliamentary constituency.

Five years later, Chozang Namgyal believes the party has let him down. “The BJP broke its promise,” said the father of two young children who lives in Saspol village, some 66 km from Leh main city.

The constituency votes on May 20, the first Lok Sabha elections after Ladakh was carved out as a separate Union territory in August 2019.

The contest is taking place in the backdrop of growing anger against direct rule by New Delhi and a months-long mobilisation by civil society organisations asking for protections for Ladakh’s land and resources – demands that have left the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre largely unmoved.

“Instead of speaking for the people of Ladakh, our MP chose to impose BJP’s agenda on Ladakh,” said Chozang Namgyal, who works as a casual labourer in Leh besides farming his land in his native village.

He plans to vote for the Congress which has promised Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh in its manifesto. “Every conscious Ladakhi will vote for that party which supports the agenda of the Sixth Schedule,” he said. “Ladakh needs protection because of our fragile ecology and limited resources. We have to save our future generations.”

That this election is about the “future” of the Union territory is a view heard often in both districts of the cold desert region – Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil.

“The mood this time is that everyone should vote to secure the future of Ladakh,” said Padma Stanzin, a 25-year-old Master’s student of sociology in Leh who had voted for BJP’s Jamyang Tsering Namgyal in 2019.

Stanzin is also the chief coordinator of Ladakh students’ Environmental Action Forum, a collective of nine student unions of Ladakh, which supported the protests led by educationist and climate activist Sonam Wangchuk. “We will vote for that candidate who supports the four major demands of Ladakh representative bodies,” he said.

Those demands include 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.

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution guarantees protections to land and autonomy for the country’s tribal areas. In Ladakh, more than 97% of the population are Scheduled Tribes.

A people’s movement

New Delhi’s decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status had been celebrated in the Buddhist-majority Leh district, which had long agitated for separation from Jammu and Kashmir. Muslim-majority Kargil had protested against the move.

But the euphoria was short-lived. Not only did Ladakh have no legislature, its residents had lost their exclusive rights to own property and get government jobs in the region – which Article 370 had guaranteed.

The sparsely-populated cold desert region and its land, many Ladakhis felt, was now open to any outsider.

That fear and the loss of legislative powers brought together the two districts of Leh and Kargil – in a rare instance of unity – to fight for a common agenda.

Over the last few years, the Centre has held multiple rounds of negotiations with the leadership of Ladakh to discuss those demands.

In March, the Centre’s refusal to concede to the demand of Sixth Schedule and statehood brought the negotiations to a standstill. Days after the talks failed, Wangchuk went on a 21-day-long hunger strike in Leh in support of the demands. The protests, joined by thousands of people, did not end. After ending his fast on March 26, Wangchuk led a sit-in protest that was called off on May 10, ten days before Ladakh was scheduled to go for polling.

The shadow of this ongoing people’s movement hovers over the Lok Sabha elections in Ladakh. “The biggest issue in this election is to have protection for Ladakh and tell the Centre how serious the people of Ladakh are about it,” said Jigmat Paljor, a student activist and chief coordinator of Leh Apex Body, an amalgam of different socio-political-religious and student bodies, representing Leh district in the negotiations with the Centre. “Development and infrastructure are secondary. Nobody is concerned about those things in this election.”

The protests led by Wangchuk have only been paused in view of the elections. “They will resume from June 9,” Paljor added

A three-cornered contest

The groundswell of anger against the BJP is likely to benefit the Congress, which has fielded Tsering Namgyal, the leader of Opposition in Ladakh autonomous hill council, as its candidate. The Congress is contesting the elections in alliance with the National Conference.

However, the party is facing a challenge from an independent.

In Kargil’s main town, there is hardly any wall which does not have a poster featuring Mohammad Haneefa Jan, a former National Conference leader who is now contesting as an independent.

In contrast, no other candidate’s poster or flag was visible.

Posters canvassing support for independent candidate, Mohammad Haneefa Jan, on a shopfront in Kargil town.

“After a long time, Kargil has fielded a single candidate in the elections,” said Sajjad Kargili, who contested 2019 Lok Sabha elections as an independent and came second.

But Jan was not an independent candidate until the first week of this month.

He was initially proposed as a joint candidate by the Kargil units of National Conference and Congress. He was also supported by two influential religious schools in Kargil. The Congress high command, however, put its weight behind Tsering Namgyal, leading to a near revolt by the National Conference cadre.

Traditionally, voting in Lok Sabha elections in both Muslim-majority Kargil and Buddhist-dominated Leh has been along regional and religious lines. In almost every contest, a couple of candidates each from Leh and Kargil districts compete to represent Ladakh in Parliament.

This election, there are only three candidates in the fray. Apart from Tsering Namgyal and Haneefa Jan, there is Tashi Gyalson, the chief executive of the hill council of Leh, who has been fielded by the BJP. Sensing anger against the incumbent MP, the BJP denied him a ticket, picking Gyalson instead as its candidate.

‘Referendum on August 5’

Both the Congress and Jan are banking on a growing feeling of disempowerment among the people of Ladakh.

Take the case of 32-year-old Mohammad Arif of Kargil. A post-graduate in biotechnology, Arif has been unable to find a job till now. “Around 90% of my classmates became assistant professors through recruitments conducted before 2019,” said Arif. He could not apply as he was unable to crack the National Eligibility Test.

While New Delhi had promised development and jobs to the youth of Ladakh following its bifurcation from Jammu and Kashmir, very little of that promise has translated into reality. “Since there are no job opportunities, I haven’t attempted the NET exam again,” said Arif.

Whatever jobs people have got, Arif said, have been contractual arrangements. “It is a use-and-throw policy. When there is a need for teachers, the government advertises temporary positions. However, once permanent positions are filled, those in temporary roles are let go,” he said.

Mohammad Arif, a post-graduate in biotechnology, said he was frustrated by the bureaucracy’s stranglehold on the administration.

Arif said he would vote for a candidate who favours the demand of Sixth Schedule and statehood. “The election is like a referendum to convey our support for the demand of Sixth Schedule,” he underlined.

He said he was frustrated by the bureaucracy’s stranglehold on the administration. “Even for simple tasks like getting a home loan, I have to navigate through multiple offices,” Arif said. “Before becoming a Union Territory, issues were easily resolved by speaking to the elected representatives. Now, even councillors do not have any power and everything depends upon the signature of the Lieutenant Governor.”

Many Ladakh residents expressed their unhappiness at this state of affairs. “Everything is being decided by the bureaucrats who have no understanding of the region,” said a teacher in Kargil, who requested not to be identified.

While the teacher acknowledged that the funds from the central government for Ladakh have increased, there is little consultation with the people on how to spend it. “What’s the use of thousands of crores of money when the people it’s being spent on have no say?” he asked.

The BJP softens its stance

Even the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate Tashi Gyalson has not been able to ignore the near-unanimous support for Sixth Schedule status.

While campaigning in Leh, Gyalson has repeatedly asserted that he will fight to ensure safeguards for Ladakh. “After becoming Member of Parliament, if I failed to fulfill the promises to safeguard Ladakh, I will step back from my position,” Gyalson said during the last round of his campaigning in Leh that ended on May 18.

A BJP rally in Leh on May 18.

With Bharatiya Janata Party battling anti-incumbency in Ladakh and reports that Union Home Minister Amit Shah had shot down the Sixth Schedule demand in March, Gyalson’s task is easier said than done.

But with the two parties of the INDIA alliance unable to reach a consensus candidate, the anti-BJP vote is likely to split. However, political observers say, that is unlikely to benefit the saffron party, if Ladakh turns out in high numbers to vote, as it has in past elections.

In Kargil and Leh, many see the contest largely between Congress’s Namgyal and Jan.

Observers say Jan has an edge in the contest, if most of Kargil rallies behind him.

Jan also has an advantage when it comes to the total electorate. While there are more than 1.84 lakh voters in Ladakh Lok Sabha constituency, nearly 96,000 of them are in Kargil as compared to approximately 89,000 voters in Leh.

Congress’s Namgyal is likely to get most of his votes from Leh where he is in direct contest with BJP’s Gyalson.

But Namgyal might be able to attract some votes from Kargil as well.

“I will vote for Congress because they have made a written promise to grant Sixth Schedule status to Ladakh in their manifesto,” said 22-year-old Mohammed Maqbool, a resident of Kargil’s Batalik village who works in Leh.

For some in Kargil, the candidate’s educational qualification is also an important factor. While Mohammad Haneefa Jan is a Class 10 pass out, Namgyal has a post-graduate degree in tourism management.

“A candidate should have the ability to articulate issues in Parliament in a clear and lucid manner,” said the private teacher from Kargil. “Educated representatives are always a better option.”

All photographs by Safwat Zargar.