On May 20, three of the four candidates in the fray for the Ladakh parliamentary seat wrote a joint letter to Chief Electoral Officer, Jammu and Kashmir, seeking a repoll in Zanskar sub-division.

Ladakh had voted in the fifth phase of Lok Sabha polls on May 6.

This followed a letter they had sent to the office of the Election Commission of India on May 9, in which they alleged “blatant violation of Model Code of Conduct during the polling process and the malpractices thereof committed with utter disregard to democratic practice and norms”.

The three complainants – the Congress candidate and two independents – said that they were compelled to move the office of the Election Commission once again due to the absence of any “positive response” to previous representations.

The fourth candidate in the fray is from the BJP.

In the May 20 letter, the candidates rued that the Election Commission had not addressed their previous complaints satisfactorily. The letter said: “We were expecting a favourable consideration of our case based on facts. There has been no positive response till now. The use of religious persecution to garner votes through intimidation is not only unconstitutional but has also diluted the spirit of democracy in a scale not witnessed by the peace-loving people of Ladakh ever in the past.”

‘Support PM Modi’

On April 25, the Zanskar wing of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, a prominent religious organisation in Ladakh, called a meeting of various religious outfits, councillors, leaders of political outfits, associations and sarpanches.

The stated agenda of the meeting was to “unite Zanskar for only one cause” – to get it the status of a district.

Zanskar is now part of Kargil district.

While the demand for district status is not new, the three complainants said that they were alarmed that the religious and political leaders gathered at the meeting decided that the people of Zanskar would support Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in the parliamentary elections. They say it ended with a “diktat”.

“The two main religious organisations – Ladakh Buddhist Association Zanskar and Ladakh Gompa Associate Zanskar – issued a diktat that no political party will do campaigning there,” said Rigzin Spalbar, the Congress candidate and a Buddhist leader. “These organisations openly voiced their support to BJP as it had promised district status to the sub-division. The influence of diktat was so strong that no political party dared to campaign there. These organisations threatened people with religious excommunication, social boycott and violence if anybody did not follow their diktat. They also banned the campaigning by our agents in that area.”

Spalbar, who was the first among the three complainants to bring the alleged diktat to the notice of Election Commission officials, said the religious organisations “wield strong influence” on the residents of Zanskar.

“The result of diktat was that out of a total of 54 polling booths in the sub-division, there was not a single polling agent from the other three candidates at any of these booths,” said Spalbar. “However, all the 54 polling booths had polling agents from the BJP.”

Spalbar claimed that even if someone in Zanskar wanted to canvass for any other party than the BJP, that person could not do so due to fear.

“They were too afraid to come out in the open,” he said. “We have reports that more than 25 polling booths witnessed 95%-100% voting. But the reality is that a lot of people from Zanskar are living or studying outside the state. How were they able to cast votes? Since we did not have any agents at polling booths, there was massive bogus voting at many booths. This is the first time that Zanskar has witnessed such a massive polling in its history.”

The president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association in Zanskar said the organisation did not issue any diktat at the meeting nor did it threaten people with boycott or violence if they did not vote for the BJP.

“We did issue a call for unity and support to BJP because we want Zanskar to become a district,” said Tsewabg Chostar, the association’s president. “But we did not threaten anyone for campaigning for other parties. The reality is that none of the polling agents of those three candidates came to Zanskar for campaigning.”

BJP candidate Jamyang Tsering Namgyal also dismissed the allegations as baseless.

“None of three candidates went to Zanskar for campaigning,” he said. “I don’t know who stopped them from campaigning. Why didn’t they approach election authorities if they were being stopped from campaigning?”

He added that it was true that the Ladakh Buddhist Association, Zanskar, and other outfits had held meetings for the development of the sub-division, but “the decision of supporting BJP has been taken at the public level”.

Namgyal added: It is not that they were not allowed to have polling agents in Zanskar. Actually, they were unable to get agents for campaigning.”

‘Question on EC’s neutrality’

The complainants say they are dismayed that the several letters they had sent to Election Commission officials in Delhi and Srinagar did not lead to any action.

“We have been continuously writing to the Election Commission, Chief Election Officer Jammu and Kashmir and Returning Officer, Ladakh,” said Asgar Ali Karbalai, a former Congress MLA and one of the independent candidates for the Ladakh seat. “Till now, we have not got any reply from them.”

The lack of action by the Election Commission has raised questions about its neutrality, said Spalbar. “All the three candidates are complaining against one party and still the Election Commission is not taking these allegations seriously,” he said. “I personally went to the Election Commission’s Office in New Delhi but all they say is they are seeking a report on it.”

Electoral officers told Scroll.in that their investigations have not found any merit in the allegations levelled by the candidates. “We have verified and enquired and we have found that the allegations levelled by the candidates are not true,” said Shailendra Kumar, Chief Electoral Officer, Jammu and Kashmir.

Kumar refused to answer a question on whether there will be re-polling in the sub-division. He said he did not think the decision taken by the Election Commission has to be shared with the media.

Controversies galore

This is not the first controversy to erupt in Ladakh during the 2019 general elections.

Days before Ladakh went for polls, Press Club Leh, a body of journalists in Leh, the capital of Ladakh region, accused BJP leaders of bribing journalists to “report in the party’s favour” ahead of the elections.

A fact-finding inquiry into complaints found merit in the allegations. On May 9, a first information report was filed against the BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir unit chief Ravinder Raina and MLC Vikram Randhawa in a “bribery” case and for violation of the Model Code of Conduct.

Before the bribery controversy died down, another complaint surfaced. This was against the Army.

On May 10, Leh district election officer Avny Lavasa wrote to the General Officer Commanding, 14 Corps, in connection with a complaint raised by a candidate who alleged the Army’s commanding officers in the region were engaging in malpractice with regard to the electronic postal ballot system.

Lavasa said the complainant alleged that commanding officers had asked soldiers for their voting preferences over the phone instead of providing them with a ballot paper to cast their vote.

“This is a gross violation of the secrecy of voting and malpractice that has the potential to invite strict legal action,” Lavasa said in the letter. “In this context, it is requested that all the concerned officers may be sensitised about the issue and the sanctity of election process maintained.”

While the Army said the allegations were “unfounded” and “appeared to have been made to tarnish the image of Army”, the Army spokesperson in Srinagar, Colonel Rajesh Kalia, had said that an “in-depth investigation” was under way to find details in “an impartial manner”.

With election results only two days away, the three candidates in Ladakh are still waiting for some action by the Election Commission.

“Incidents like these could lead to alienation among the people of Ladakh and they might lose faith in democracy,” said Karbalai.