The Union Territory of Ladakh is split down the middle when it comes to political choices.

In Buddhist-majority Leh district, the leadership is preparing to discuss Sixth Schedule status, which guarantees a degree of autonomy and special protections to tribal areas, with the Centre. Leh recently voted the Bharatiya Janata Party back into power in its autonomous hill district council.

But Muslim-majority Kargil demands the restoration of special status under Article 370 and statehood for Ladakh. Most of the Kargil leadership has cast its lot with the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration, a conglomeration of largely Kashmir-based parties which demands the return of the pre-August 5, 2019, status quo.

On August 5 last year, the Centre stripped away special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, guaranteed under Article 370. It split the regions of the former states into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. It repealed Article 35A, which had empowered the government of the former state to define “permanent residents” and reserve specific rights for them. That included the right to hold government jobs and own land in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

A new alliance

On October 29, a collection of political and socio-religious organisations announced they had formed the new Kargil Democratic Alliance.

“We have two agendas,” said Qamar Ali Akhoon, a veteran National Conference leader from Kargil and one of the two chairmen of the Kargil Democratic Alliance. “We demand the restoration of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and we demand the statehood for Ladakh union territory until the special status is restored.”

The Kargil Democratic Alliance comprises the representatives of parties like the National Conference, which already leads the Gupkar Alliance in Kashmir, and the local Congress, whose Kashmir unit shied away from joining the Gupkar Alliance. It also includes influential religious schools like the Islamia School Kargil and the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust.

“So far, nine organisations have sent their representatives,” said a member of the Kargil alliance, speaking off the record. “We are expecting the support of two-three more organisations in the coming days.” While the alliance in Shia-dominated Kargil is largely Muslim, non-Muslims in Kargil district are also expected support it, he added.

Akhoon said that the alliance would become party to the petitions challenging the August 5 decisions in the Supreme Court. A batch of such petitions have been filed, including by parties of the Gupkar Alliance.

This is the second alliance to be formed in Ladakh since August 5, 2019. Earlier this year, the social, religious and political leadership in Leh formed the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule and threatened to boycott hill council elections unless their demands were met. The boycott was only called off after leaders from Leh met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi. The Centre reportedly assured them that it was “open to discuss [sic] protections available under the 6th Schedule.”

‘Closer to Kashmir than to Leh’

On October 30, the Kargil Democratic Alliance had its first meeting with a visiting delegation of the Gupkar Alliance. This was the first time the Kashmiri political leadership was allowed to visit Kargil since special status was scrapped last year. Most leaders had been in detention for months. The delegation from the Gupkar Alliance was led by National Conference leader and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah.

“We both agreed that we want the pre-August, 2019 position to be restored and we will continue to fight for it,” said Akhoon.

A member of the visiting Kashmir delegation said there had been a total of four meetings in the towns of Drass and Kargil. “But the most important meeting was the closed-door meeting with the Kargil Democratic Alliance,” he said. “It was beyond doubt that people in Kargil see themselves closer to Kashmir than Leh.”

Parleys with Leh

But the Kargil alliance will also consult with the Leh leadership. “We know people in Leh are demanding Sixth Schedule status and had always wanted Union Territory status,” Akhoon said. “But Kargil never supported any of these demands. Now when the alliance in Leh will come to talk to us, we will put before them a proposal of jointly demanding statehood for Ladakh. That’s our stand when it comes to the Leh leadership.”

He went on to explain that statehood for Ladakh, one of their two demands, could not be achieved without Leh’s support. “We will try to convince the Leh leadership that there’s no power in a Union Territory and they should support our demand of statehood of Ladakh,” said Akhoon. “At the same time, our fight for the restoration of J&K’s special status will continue.”