Ladakh has been in the national news because of the border stand-off with China. But residents of Leh, the capital of the cold desert region, have other worries.

Few people in Leh were affected by the military standoff happening miles away in Eastern Ladakh, explained Chhering Dorje Lakrook, former Bharatiya Janata Party leader and minister in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. “It only has an impact on those living on the border,” he said. “The main concern in Leh is protection for land, jobs, culture, and this will continue until our demands are finally met.”

These anxieties took shape after August 5 last year, when the Centre revoked special status under Article 370 and split the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. Ladakh became a separate Union Territory without a legislative council.

There were contrasting responses in the two districts of Ladakh. Many in Muslim-majority Kargil district were dismayed. Buddhist-majority Leh district, where Union Territory status had been a long-standing demand, rejoiced initially. But soon afterwards, worries crept in: opening up the region to outside buyers and businesses would mean the local population could lose land and jobs. In Leh, the overwhelming demand was now protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The border conflict suddenly intersected with these concerns when China said it refused to recognise the Union Territory of Ladakh. Political leaders in Ladakh were quick to denounce China’s statements.

“We condemn the recent remarks of the Chinese foreign ministry that they do not recognise the Union Territory of Ladakh,” Lakrook told reporters in Leh on October 2. “This is an unnecessary intervention in our internal affairs.” He also lashed out at China’s treatment of dissidents in Tibet and Xinjiang. “They should look into why they are committing atrocities there,” said Lakrook.

Internally, China’s statements also prompted a hasty pact between Delhi and Leh.

A boycott call

Last September, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had recommended that 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.

With little progress over the past year, a range of political, social and religious outfits in Leh district came together to form the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh.

It was a campaign led by veteran politicians in Ladakh: Thupstan Chhewang, former BJP member of Parliament from Ladakh, former Rajya Sabha member Thiksay Rinpochey, Ladakh Congress president Nawang Rigzin Jora and Lakrook, who quit the BJP in May.

“We have sort of retired from active politics but there was a lot of pressure on us,” Lakrook explained. “That’s when we decided we would collectively run a movement for constitutional safeguards for the people of Ladakh.”

Then on September 19, the Union Territory administration announced elections to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh, would be held on October 16. The hill development councils were set up in the 1990s, an answer to Ladakh’s demands for greater autonomy while it was still part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. There are two councils, one in Leh and one in Kargil, each with its own chief executive councillor.

The announcement of election dates sent the People’s Movement leaders into a huddle. “We had already met all sections of the public in Leh regarding our movement,” added Lakrook. “We met the numberdars, panchs and sarpanchs [members of local government bodies]. They advised us that in order to put pressure on the government, we should call for a boycott of elections. The government did come under a lot of pressure.”

On September 22, leaders of the People’s Movement announced an election boycott until the Sixth Schedule demand was met. Signatories to the statement included heads of the local party units of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.

But by September 27, the boycott had been called off.

Leaders in Leh admit that tensions on the Line of Actual Control and China’s belligerence made them rethink the boycott. “We didn’t want to give the Chinese a stick to beat us with,” said a leader of the People’s Movement, speaking off the record. “A boycott at this point of time, when the Chinese have internationalised the bifurcation of J&K, would not have been in the national interest. We didn’t want the country to lose face in international fora.”

It also helped that Delhi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, quickly swung into damage control mode.

A quick detente

A day after the boycott call, the BJP’s troubleshooter, Ram Madhav, landed in Leh to cool tempers. He was accompanied by Ashok Koul, a senior party leader from Jammu. Koul had initially dismissed the boycott resolution as “nonsense”. On September 24, Leh observed a shutdown called by the People’s Movement.

On September 25, Koul was much more conciliatory, telling reporters that the BJP supported all the demands made by the people of Ladakh. On September 26, Rinpoche, Chhewang and Lakrook called on Home Minister Amit Shah, just out of hospital in Delhi.

“After his discharge from the hospital, the home minister had his first ever official engagement with the leaders of Ladakh,” said the People’s Movement leader who spoke off the record. “That shows his interest in the region. Since he assured us that talks will start over safeguards to Ladakh 15 days after the poll results, we had to be reasonable.”

The Union government was “open to discuss protections available under the 6th Schedule”, said a statement issued by the Leh leaders on September 27.

Legislative powers

The People’s Movement’s agitation has been suspended until the elections are over, said Lakrook. But it is a troubled council that goes into polls. As Ladakh became a Union Territory, local residents accused the Central administration of undermining the autonomous hill councils.

“The LAHDC council wasn’t functioning properly and the Union Territory administration was not cooperating with the council,” said Lakrook. “People were facing problems since it’s the only institution for development in the Union Territory.”

The loss of power was most keenly felt by the councils when the pandemic spread in Ladakh and the Centre imposed a lockdown. Local councillors grew increasingly impatient with the Union Territory administration’s efforts to bring stranded Ladakhis home, alleging that there were delays.

“The LAHDC chairman [in Leh] had to sit on a dharna at the gate to the LG’s [lieutenant governor’s] office,” said Jora. “Even then, he [the lieutenant governor] didn’t bother to come and see them.”

Around the same time, Lakrook quit the BJP to protest against the administration’s handling of the evacuation process.

Sixth Schedule powers would prevent such spectacles in future, Jora said. “The Sixth Schedule doesn’t only mean protection of land or job opportunities, it means an elected body [the council] would have legislative power,” he said. “No law of Parliament or the state assembly would apply to Ladakh without the concurrence of the council. Plus, the Sixth Schedule makes the council a constitutional body. Right now, the council is only a statutory body.”

The anxiety over Delhi-appointed bureaucrats running the show in Ladakh is sharpened by the nature of the Union Territory. Unlike Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh does not have a legislature.

“Our demand was always Union Territory with a legislature,” said Lakrook. Without legislative powers, he explained, the council felt even more powerless to ensure special protections for local residents. “When we get the Sixth Schedule, the councils will have legislative powers and we can use these powers to protect our land, jobs, identity and culture,” he added.

While the local Congress and BJP made common cause over the demand for the Sixth Schedule and anxieties about autonomy, they go to polls as political rivals. “Since regional parties like the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party have no base here, it’s going to be a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP,” said Jora.

Home Minister Amit Shah during a meeting with former MP Thupstan Chhewang, former MP Thiksay Rinpoche, former minister Chering Dorjay Lakrook & other public representatives of Union Territory of Ladakh, in Delhi.

‘Reach out to Kargil’

Meanwhile, Leh will not find much support in the more populous Kargil district when it comes to Sixth Schedule status. The Shia-majority district is still bristling about the loss of special status.

“Union Territory status was never our demand – it was Leh’s demand,” explained Sheikh Nazir Ul Mehdi Mohammadi, President, Islamia School, one of the two influential religious schools in Kargil. “We had demanded divisional status within the state, which was accorded to us before the abrogation of Article 370. We are no way going to accept the division of Jammu and Kashmir and loss of its special status. When we didn’t demand a UT, how are we supposed to support or oppose the demand for Sixth Schedule? Neither we are in its favour, nor in its opposition.”

The two districts of Leh and Kargil have often competed for political prominence. In February 2019, Ladakh was sectioned off from the Kashmir division and recognised as a separate division. At the time, residents of Kargil had demanded that the divisional headquarters rotate between Leh and Kargil. Now that Ladakh is a Union Territory, Kargil still feels marginalised in the administrative set up.

“All the top offices of the Union Territory administration are in Leh,” said Mohammadi. There were other grievances: Leh had an airport but Kargil did not. “Everyone knows that the road to Kargil is dangerous and it remains cut off from the world for six months in winter,” said Mohammadi. “We have been always ignored. Nobody from the Centre is interested in coming here. They just come to Leh and leave from there.”

Mohammadi now feels Kargil’s Muslim-majority character has ensured neglect from Delhi. “There’s definitely a religious dimension to this treatment of Kargil,” he said.

Asghar Ali Karbalai, who was a state legislator from Kargil and twice the chairman of the Kargil hill council, argued if the Centre was really “serious and concerned” about the development of Ladakh, it should restore statehood. The Centre, he pointed out, would discuss Sixth Schedule status with leaders from both Leh and Kargil. “We are definitely going to make our point to the Centre,” said Karbalai.

Leaders in Leh hope to win Kargil over. “After the LAHDC polls, there’s definitely going to be an effort to reach out to the Kargil leadership because whatever solution comes from the Centre will apply to the entire Union Territory,” explained Lakrook.