On August 5, there was celebration on the streets of Leh, the main city of Ladakh. The Centre had just announced that the state of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of special status under Article 370 and was going to be split into two Union Territories. The Ladakh division was going to be a separate Union Territory without a legislature. Union Territory status had been an old demand among Buddhists in Ladakh, who form 40% of the population.
While Leh celebrated, the residents of Kargil district protested. Mostly Shia Muslims, they greeted the bifurcation of the state with dismay.
A year later, there is gloom among both communities in Ladakh.
“People are happy that we became a Union territory but our demand was UT with a legislature not like this,” said PT Kunzang, president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association. For decades, the powerful socio-religious group had agitated for Union Territory status which would separate Ladakh from the political fortunes of Kashmir.
“There should be protections for our land, jobs, culture, environment and businesses,” Kunzang said. “The Indian Constitution has a number of safeguards for other tribal areas.”
These sentiments were echoed by Rigzin Spalbar, Congress candidate from Ladakh for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and former chief executive councillor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council
“We understand it’s still a new phase and they need time to put in place a system,” Spalbar said. “But everyone is worried here. People in Ladakh want a constitutional guarantee that will protect their identity, culture, land and jobs. We are just three lakh people and cannot withstand an inflow of 1.3 billion people from across the country.”
With the August 5 decisions, the inhabitants of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir lost certain Constitutional protections. Apart from hollowing out Article 370, Parliament also repealed Article 35A. The latter had enabled the legislature of the former state to define “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir. The legislature was empowered to reserve for them certain rights, such as the right to hold government jobs and own land in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
When the law was repealed, permanent residents were those who were state subjects of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1954 and their descendants, and those who had lived for 10 years and owned land in Jammu and Kashmir in 1954 and their descendants.
With these protections gone, Ladakh was open to people and investors from outside the region, waiting to buy land or set up industries.
Last September, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had recommended that the Union Territory of Ladakh be brought under the Sixth Schedule, which offers protections and a degree of autonomy for tribal areas. Over 97% of Ladakh’s population belongs to Scheduled Tribes.
“But the government has made a U-turn on that and that’s why people are apprehensive,” said Spalbar. “No such guarantee is being talked about by the government of India.”
There have been murmurs of a domicile law for Ladakh on the lines of the law notified for the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir recently. The rights previously reserved for “permanent residents” are now available for “domiciles”, a much broader category including those who have lived in the region for 15 years, studied there for seven years or written Class 10 or 12 board examinations there. It also includes exemptions for Central government employees and their children
Spalbar said such an arrangement would not be acceptable to people of Ladakh. “By issuing a domicile law you are saying that don’t die today but die after 10 or 15 years,” he explained. “The thing we want is complete protection and security of our land, culture and identity. It shouldn’t be that someone will live in Ladakh for some time and then become a citizen of this place. Ladakh has a scarcity of resources and any change in demography will mean a disaster.”
Kunzang said that in February, the Ladakh Buddhist Association, along with other organisations, had held a mass rally in February demanding constitutional safeguards.
“We were expecting the start of many things but then Covid came,” he said. “The government actually didn’t get the chance to do anything. After that government attention got diverted to Chinese incursions. We are hopeful that once everything normalises, the government of India will accept our demand.”
Crowding out the hill councils
Many feel the transition to Union Territory status has also crippled the independence of the hill development councils, which were an answer to Ladakh’s demands for greater autonomy from Kashmir. There are two autonomous hill development councils in Ladakh, one in Leh district and one in Kargil, each with its own chief executive councillor.
Feroz Ahmad Khan, chief executive councillor in Kargil, said there had been clashes over jurisdiction between the councils and the Union Territory administration. “Sometimes the hill development council gives one order and the UT administration issues another order,” he said. “All of this is happening because of the absence of business rules defining the roles and functions of both the setups.”
Unlike Jammu and Kashmir, the Union Territory of Ladakh lacks a legislative assembly. In such a situation, Khan said, the powers of hill development councils should be increased and not curtailed. “There’s also the issue of the downgrading of financial powers of hill development councils by the ministry of home affairs,” Khan said.
According to Khan, the matters had been raised with the Union home ministry, which had promised to find a solution and strengthen hill development councils.
Not everyone was content with the assurances. In May, Cheering Dorjay, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ladakh unit, quit the party. While the immediate cause was the BJP’s and the Union Territory administration’s failure to bring back Ladakh residents stranded in various parts of India after the coronavirus lockdown was announced, it was not the only reason.
“Another reason was that there was no clarity on the role and responsibility of hill development councils and the Union Territory administration,” said Dorjay, who served as a cabinet minister in the government of the former state. “There’s confusion over which setup should handle what. That’s why everything in the administration has become highly confused.”
According to Dorjay, the Union Territory administration’s influence is now writ large in Ladakh. “They [the Union Territory administration] interfere in everything,” he said. “Since they are more powerful, the UT administration is taken more seriously by government officials.” When he tried to raise these concerns with the Ladakh administration and senior BJP leaders, Dorjay claimed, no one took him seriously. “That’s why I resigned from the party,” he said.
Kunzang, for his part, felt the hill councils should be given legislative powers. “Hill development acts were formed under J&K state acts in the past,” he said. “Now, it’s time to change these acts and strengthen these hill councils. These hill council acts should be passed through Parliament.”
A shrinking pool of jobs
Before special status was revoked and Article 35A scrapped, government jobs were reserved for permanent residents only. “Since these are far-flung areas, candidates from Leh and Kargil had reservations in state government jobs as well,” explained Sajjad Kargili, who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Ladakh.
With those reservations gone, insecurities have grown. “You can say that our jobs have diminished not increased since we became a Union Territory,” Kargili said.
Earlier, residents of Ladakh often found jobs in Jammu and Kashmir divisions. Now, all government jobs in Jammu and Kashmir are reserved for domiciles of that Union Territory, leaving no space for the youth of Ladakh. Najm ul Huda, a lawyer based in Kargil, has moved the Supreme Court against the 100% reservation for domiciles of Jammu and Kashmir.
“In J&K domicile laws notified in March, they have provisions for the children of Central government employees to become domiciles and be eligible for government jobs there,” he said. “There is no such mechanism for the children of state government employees who were from Ladakh. We, too, were permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir before August 5. But they are giving job opportunities to those who come from outside and not those who were previously permanent residents of the state.”
This is the fourth part in a special series on the legacy of the sweeping changes made by the Modi government to the status of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019. Read the full series here.