Ladakh is Winning the War on COVID-19 but the Voices of the People are Diminishing

Independence from a Kashmir-centric administration has led not to the flowering of autonomy for Ladakh but growing control by the Lieutenant-Governor and his officials.

As different parts of India have grappled with a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the last four weeks or so, the manner in which the five-month-old Union Territory of Ladakh and its new administrative set-up have tackled the crisis has been appreciated.

The irony is that the efforts of the lieutenant governor (LG’s) office to protect the people of Ladakh from the infectious disease have put it on a collision course with elected members of the very institutions based on the principle of people’s participation in the planning process, namely, the Autonomous Hill Development Councils of Leh and Kargil – bodies that came into being after much struggle for democratic decentralisation by the people of Ladakh.

Actions such as ordering a shutdown of the Leh Council’s office for a few days, or reopening the Zojila pass and taking over the distribution of essential commodities – the remit of the Kargil Council –  to name a few, have created such an opaque atmosphere that members of the latter held a press conference a few days ago to complain about a non-responsive LG office and threatening mass resignation.

What all this has done is expose the fault-lines running through the heart of the project to make Ladakh a Union Territory – fault-lines that foreground the absence of a well-thought out roadmap despite a longstanding demand and agitation for the status of UT for Ladakh.

It is now gradually dawning on many that the reconstitution of Ladakh as a UT under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, 2019, following the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, has not solved Ladakh’s problems; it has only created a new set of dilemmas for the locals. There is a gap between the dream of a union territory called Ladakh, with extended autonomy, and the UT that seems to be firmly under the thumb of the LG’s office and its bureaucracy.

The immediate response to Ladakh’s reconstitution as a UT last year was mixed. Leh district saw  celebrations on the street and in the main market. The pictures of Ladakh’s sole MP, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, dancing went viral just like the Bharatiya Janata Party MP’s  speech in parliament had been during the debate on the J&K Reorganisation Bill. The same excitement was not visible in Kargil due to several reasons: The Union territory has its headquarters in Leh, therefore the people of Kargil have to travel a greater distance for official work than they did earlier. Further, the new UT does not have any provisions for the protection of land rights and job reservations either. Also, Kargil’s demand for the Zojila tunnel, to provide year-round connectivity, has been stalled for several years.

The demand for UT status in Ladakh had been a longstanding one. When it was finally accepted, the timing of it surprised many because there was no urgent circumstance necessitating it.

Moreover, the reality of Ladakh as a Union territory does not coincide with the kind of UT the people of Ladakh had envisaged. The people had assumed that if  Ladakh was to get  UT status, it would come with a legislature; there were four MLAs and two legislative council members who used to represent it in the legislature of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.  A UT devoid of a legislature meas an LG-centric administration. This was perhaps the first dose of disappointment for the Ladakhis.

Nonetheless, those in Leh put this fact at the back of their minds and continued with their celebrations while the rest of Jammu and Kashmir remained under an unprecedented lockdown, including a blockade of internet services.  Kargil was also placed under curfew off and on.

Once the celebrations in Leh wound down, they made way for  discussions on how the UT would function. There were many discussions on this aspect, which were attended by people from all walks of life, including leaders, students, lawyers, academics and ordinary people. The Hill Council of Leh even sent a team of members and officials to Puducherry to study  the administrative working of an UT.

What this sudden surge of activities showed was that there had been no prior research or study undertaken to imagine the kind of Union territory that would be appropriate for Ladakh and its specific concerns.  Even the Ladakh Buddhist Association, which was by far the biggest advocate of UT status for Ladakh,  did not seem to have a roadmap.

There was a fresh anxiety too – that there would now be an influx of outsiders buying up land or commencing industrial enterprises, which would dilute the distinct culture and affect the fragile ecology of the land.  News of people showing interest in buying land in Ladakh had already surfaced.

A fresh round of debates  began,  this time about the need to be given Sixth Schedule status. (The Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution comprises provisions for the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, providing safeguards for tribal dominated areas). There is growing support for the view that  only Sixth Schedule status will enable Ladakh to preserve its cultural identity and environment and fetch its people jobs.

The Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL), headed by prominent Ladakhi figure and Ramon Magsasay awardee, Sonam Wangchuk, organised study tours to Sixth Schedule states to get an idea of the system that had been put in place to protect the distinct cultures, land and ecology of the people there. In addition to the study tours, there were protests  spearheaded by  students in Leh who sat on  hunger strike in the cold winter, in mid-November.

In the meantime, Ladakh formally became a Union territory on October 31, 2019, and the office of the LG , along with several senior bureaucrats, assumed charge. There are several changes – from just two district commissioners, the strength of Ladakh’s senior bureaucracy has grown to five with the addition of three senior IAS officers – advisor to the LG,  commissioner secretary, and divisional commissioner – assisting the LG office. There is also the office of the inspector general of police, followed by various directors who are mostly from the state civil service.

This new administrative set-up was in the process of settling down and acclimatising to the difficult climatic conditions and terrain of Ladakh when the coronavirus crisis was unleashed. The new executive swung into action and took  control of the situation, gathering plaudits in the process.

The war on the novel coronavirus was being won in Ladakh but the zeal of the bureaucrats had started to unnerve the autonomous hill development councils  in Leh and Kargil. In a straight clash of power in Kargil, the district magistrate wrote against the executive counsellor (EC) health for breaking the curfew and visiting a village. The EC argued that as the head of the health department in the Hill Council he was duty bound to attend  to distress calls. As mentioned earlier, the Hill Council office in Leh was ordered to close down for some days and the Kargil Hill Council found itself being sidelined as the LG office took over the task of reopening the Zojila pass and distribution of essentials to locals.

At a press conference held a few weeks ago, members of the Kargil Hill Council said they would resign en masse if their demand for evacuation of Ladakhi pilgrims and students stuck in foreign countries was not heeded. Many political leaders from Leh, even the ones from the BJP, have shown their discontent with the LG office on several other occasions. On Sunday, Cherring Dorjay Lakruk, head of the BJP in Ladakh, resigned from the party “in protest against utter failure of UT administration Ladakh in evacuating passengers, patients, pilgrims, and students stranded at different places throughout India.”

It is worth noting that the Hill Councils in Leh and Kargil are the outcome of the struggle of the Ladakhi people, especially the people of Leh, against marginalisation. The Hill Council of Leh was created with the holding of elections in 1995, and the Kargil Hill Council came into being in 2003. They  are also  part of the bigger project of  decentralization in India, with people’s participation in the planning process shaping development according to grassroots realities and needs. The Hill Councils of Leh and Kargil  have existed for close to two decades now and the BJP government had even extended many of its powers in 2018 for the same reasons. With an unprecedentedly large and controlling bureaucracy taking over in Ladakh, how  the elected representatives will survive remains to be seen.

On independence day last year, a huge banner was hung in the main market of Leh which read “Union Territory of Ladakh celebrates its 1st Independence Day”. Mr. Sonam Wangchuk congratulated everyone. For Ladakhis  the word “independence” clearly meant independence, or unshackling themselves from the rule of Kashmiri leaders who, due to their Kashmir-centric agenda, sorely neglected regions like Ladakh.

However, months after Ladakh formally became a Union territory, reality has asserted itself. The lack of any clear roadmap in the minds of the Ladakhis, the inconclusive debates over the proposed Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh, and  the Hill Councils’ struggle to  co-exist with the LG office and assert their  powers, makes one wonder if the word ‘Independence’ on the banner held another meaning for the Ladakhis –  namely, unshackling themselves from their autonomy as well?

Mustafa Haji is a lawyer from Ladakh