Why Citizens' Groups in Ladakh Are Turning Down the Union Home Ministry's Olive Branch

A prominent grouping in Ladakh has decided to boycott the high-level committee formed by the Union home ministry to “discuss measures to protect the region’s unique culture and language”.

Srinagar: Turning down the Union government’s olive branch, a prominent grouping in Ladakh has decided to boycott the high-level committee formed by the Union home ministry to “discuss measures to protect the region’s unique culture and language”.

The decision was taken in a meeting on Saturday, January 7, in Jammu by the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), a conglomerate of social, political and religious leaders who have been spearheading the agitation in Ladakh.

In a statement after the meeting, the grouping said that it was “unanimously decided” to “intensify the agitation” in coming days against the BJP-led Union government’s refusal to accept its roadmap for resolving the problems in Ladakh.

Chering Dorjay, leader of the LAB and senior vice-president of Ladakh Buddhist Association, told NDTV that the Union government is “trying to making fool” of people of Ladakh by setting up the committee.

“Given the present scenario, we feel the earlier arrangement (of Ladakh) being part of J&K was better. We understand that the Centre is against our demand for statehood and 6th schedule [status],” said Dorjay.

Ladakh was part of Jammu and Kashmir before the Union government read down Article 370 and divided the erstwhile state into two union territories – J&K with a legislature and Ladakh without a legislature.

Sajjad Hussain Kargili, a prominent Ladakhi activist and member of KDA, said that the MHA committee, which is headed by Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai, is a “hollow measure” and its members have been “arbitrarily selected”.

“The committee hasn’t got the mandate to discuss the issues raised by LAB and KDA, and as such we have decided to boycott it. To register our protest, a rally is planned to be carried out at Jammu on January 15 which will be followed by a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi next month,” Sajjad told The Wire.

Sajjad said that one of the four key demands of the grouping was statehood for Ladakh, which was separated from J&K and downgraded into a “hollow” UT without a legislature, “We have also demanded constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule, formation of Public Service Commission and reservation of jobs for local youth, and creation of two separate parliamentary constituencies for Leh and Kargil,” he said.

Since its unprecedented demotion in the Union of India in 2019, Ladakh is being directly administered by the MHA. For more than three years, the absence of an elected government and the alleged anti-people policies have deepened the resentment against New Delhi in the border region, which remains inaccessible during winter months.

Political observers believe that the Union government’s refusal to acknowledge the problems in Ladakh widened the spread of the crisis as unemployment continued to grow, erasing the narrow political and religious divisions that have brought the region’s Buddhist and Muslim populations at loggerheads with each other in the past.

After months of protracted negotiations, the MHA said last week that it has set up a 17-member committee, also comprising Ladakh’s Lieutenant Governor R.K. Mathur, the BJP MP from Ladakh, home ministry officials and members of LAB and KDA to “ensure protection of land and employment” in Ladakh due to its “geographical location” and “strategic importance”.

Citing the constitution of Autonomous Hill Councils for Leh and Kargil in 1993, Professor Noor A. Baba, former dean of social sciences at the Central University of Kashmir, said that New Delhi has always remained “empathetic” towards the “interests and sensitivities” of Ladakh.

“By forming the committee, the home ministry is signalling that it respects the sentiments of Ladakhi people. I believe that a mechanism may be worked out, which will be likely on the lines of Northeast states, to change the constitutional relationship of Ladakh with the Union of India,” Baba told The Wire.

The ‘China factor’

A leader of the Peoples Democratic Party said that unlike the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir where New Delhi has adopted a tough line against local political parties “for political dividends”, a combination of geopolitical and domestic factors turned the tide in Ladakh. The leader, who didn’t want to be named, said that the communal divisions between Kashmir and Jammu diluted J&K’s fight for its constitutional rights.

“In Ladakh, the Buddhists and Muslims could form a united front but the Dogras of Jammu and the Muslims of Kashmir are unlikely to come together on a single platform for demanding their rights,” he said.

Micheal Kugelman, South Asia Institute Director of The Wilson Centre, a Washington-based think-tank, however, said that the government of India is “likely pursuing these efforts (in Ladakh) through a China lens rather than a Hindutva lens”. “Delhi is seeking to undercut Chinese influence in Ladakh and strengthen support for the Indian state, and what better way to do that than by providing new assurances on land and jobs?” he said.

The China factor appears to have weighed heavily in the Centre’s decision to change the tack in Ladakh, “China’s geopolitical manoeuvres in the Himalayas seems to have catalysed the Centre’s decision,” Baba concurred.

In recent years, China, which termed the reading down of Article 370 as “illegal and invalid”, has increased its footprints in Ladakh. Following the clashes in Galwan Valley in 2020, several patrolling points in eastern Ladakh have turned into ‘no-go’ zones for the Indian Army and border residents.

Konchok Stanzin, who represents Chushul region in Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh, said that the cost of the changing territorial realities is being borne by the border residents and especially those who depend on livestock to make a living.

“Today Chinese soldiers are pushing back our herders from the pastures that we have been using for grazing purposes for decades. Tomorrow they may tell us to vacate our homes. Where will we go? There is not even a working 2G service in some areas of Ladakh while China has 5G infrastructure on its border,” Konchok told The Wire.

J&K as Hindu heritage

Kugelman, a South Asia expert who writes on foreign policy issues, said that the situation in Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir should be looked at in different contexts, “The denial of similar concessions to Jammu and Kashmir is a desire to bring more strength to Hindus in a Muslim majority region,” he said.

A Srinagar-based analyst, who didn’t want to be named, said that unlike J&K, Ladakh is not seen by the BJP as a part of the “heritage of Hinduism”. “In popular imagination, Ladakh is a land of Lamas and Gompas which doesn’t clash with the architecture of Hindu Rashtra, even though Ladakh’s Muslim population outnumbers the Buddhists,” he said.

According to Census 2011, Ladakh, which is historically and culturally connected to Tibet, has a 46% Muslim population, mostly Shias, followed by Buddhists at 40% while Hindus come at a distant third, forming 12% of the population. The remaining 2% are from other religions.

“Perhaps it is also a message (from New Delhi) to China that ethnic transformation of what it claims as Tibet was not the aim of Article 370 abrogation. Besides, cowering to the demands of people in Ladakh wouldn’t look like a distortion on the map of a Hindu Rashtra which is a work in progress,” said the analyst quoted above.

Sajjad, the Ladakhi activist, said that the constitution of the committee by the MHA is an admission that a problem exists in Ladakh. “Unlike J&K, we didn’t make it an election issue. It was not a religious issue either. It is a struggle of commoners for our future and our existence. Many people tried to communalise our peaceful agitation but they have failed,” he said.

Baba said that the Government of India “would not like to alienate the people of Ladakh” where India faces the possibility of a two-fronted battle with China and Pakistan in the near future. “However, we don’t know yet how far the committee will go in conceding the demands made by the two bodies in Ladakh,” he said.

But with the key members of LAB and KDA deciding to take their agitation to the national capital, the ball is back in the Union government’s court. In the absence of firefighting, the MHA committee looks set to turn into a meaningless exercise.