‘Unfortunate That India Used Democracy to Snatch Rights of Ladakhis’: Kargil Leader

In an interview with The Wire, former Kargil MLA Asgar Ali Karbalai speaks about the protests in Kargil, the Centre's decision to bifurcate the state and deprive the UT of a legislature.

Kargil: The district of Kargil has seen several protests and shutdowns in the last two weeks since the move to revoke Articles 370 and 35A and bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir was sanctioned by the parliament. Under the new arrangement, the districts of Kargil and Leh will form the new Union Territory (UT) of Ladakh and will be without a legislature.

While Leh has, by-and-large celebrated the move, Kargil has witnessed stiff protests and shutdowns. Diverse groups, including religious, political and social organisations have come together to form the Joint Action Committee of Kargil to steer the protests.

The Wire spoke to Asgar Ali Karbalai, a former member of the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly from the Congress party, who is now an influential leader of the Kargil agitation.

(The interview has been lightly edited for clarity)

Why has Kargil protested after Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated and Articles 370 and 35A were scrapped?

Kargil has always stood against the division of the state. We have always been against the removal of Articles 370 and 35A. Our stand on these two issues has never changed. When Rajnath Singh came to Kargil last year, we told him the same thing.

Now, suddenly this [bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and reading down of Articles 370 and 35A] happened. It was obvious that we will protest. If somebody is surprised, they are ignorant and ill-informed.

You have done this without consulting us. You consulted the governor, who is not a representative of the people of J&K. He represents the president of India. He doesn’t reflect the voice of the common people of J&K. You revoked Articles 370 and 35A on his recommendation. And then you also go many steps forward and you reorganise the state, revoke statehood and divide the state into two UTs.

And, on top of all of this, the UT of Ladakh, of which Kargil is a part, does not even have a state legislature anymore. We had six representatives in the state legislature, now we will have zero. You have snatched away our right to franchise.

Also read: ‘What Did We Do?’: Kargil Seethes At Centre’s Bifurcation Decision

For 70 years, this was the one right that we had. We used to proudly say it is the difference between India and Pakistan. Our brothers in Gilgit-Baltistan can’t vote. They don’t have representatives. Now, after 72 years, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have brought the people of Ladakh to the same level.

And all of this was done in India’s biggest democratic institution – the parliament. We were proud of the Indian democracy that gave us rights and freedom. Today, that same Indian democracy has used its biggest democratic institution to snatch all democratic rights from Ladakhis.

This is very unfortunate. That this was done by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Especially the Lok Sabha, which itself comprises of elected representatives. The representatives are telling the people of Ladakh that they don’t have the right to elect representatives.

And you expect that we will be happy after this?

But, there were celebrations in Leh. The UT status has been a long-standing demand there. But Kargil has not been very keen. Why?

Look, our state is divided as it is between Pakistan and India. In 1947, our state was divided. Half the state is that side (with Pakistan). Half of Kargil and Ladakh, which is Gilgit-Baltistan, is that side. Culturally, historically and geographically, it is the same as Ladakh. There is no difference. It is because of these divisions, in the name of religion, that we have been suffering for more than 70 years. More than 7,000 families are divided even today between these two sides. These divisions only create anger, animosity and pain. We have had to suffer this. We don’t want our Jammu and Kashmir to be divided based on religion once again.

Children in Kargil, J&K. Credit: Flickr/Saurabh Chatterjee CC BY NC 2.0

But the latest division is not on the basis of religion. Jammu has a sizeable Hindu population and it remains with the Valley, which has a Muslim majority. Leh, with a Buddhist majority, stays with Kargil, which has a Muslim majority.

Han. Ye dikhayi nahi deti hai (Yes. You can’t see this very clearly). But the intention is this. It is clear from the kind of statements that the Ladakh MP has made. In his Lok Sabha speech, he said that Kargil is only a small bazaar and a small lane.

He said 70% of the people of Kargil supported the demand for a UT. The areas he named are all Buddhist areas. He is drawing a clear line between Buddhists and Muslims. He did not represent the position of the Muslim majority population of Ladakh. Officially, there may not have been a division on religious lines. But it is clear that it is their intention.

In Photos: Protests Continue in Kargil Against Abrogation of Article 370

In the recent past, there have also been a few incidents like protests over Buddhist-Muslims marriages. Is there a growing division between the communities?

No, there is no division or hatred. There is peace. We have a shared history and culture. We are peace-loving people. We don’t believe in violence. There are a lot of villages in Kargil where the Buddhist population has not reported any violence – never in our history.

There have been a few minor incidents, but they have not been serious. The entire Buddhist population in Kargil district lives happily without any threat.

But, now the BJP and RSS are attempting to forge a divide. This was clear with the MP’s speech. He distorted and mispresented facts because he has to please his masters. In his speech, he only named the Buddhist majority regions of Kargil. Rest of us don’t exist? Is he not our MP?

He said that 70% of the people here are supporting the UT move. I want to ask him, which survey did he conduct? Who are these people? You have been to Kargil. Did you find anyone happy with the UT status? Happy with loss of statehood and loss of fundamental rights?

People have become voiceless, and their MP is celebrating.

Protestors marching in Kargil. Photo: Special arrangement

So, what are the demands of the current agitation in Kargil?

It is clear. We want the government of India to not impose its decisions on us. Their [the BJP] slogan is sabka sath sabka vikas sabka vishwas (everyone’s support, everyone’s development and everyone’s trust). They have broken our vishwas (trust). They need to win that back.

The culture, history and topography of Ladakh are totally different from the rest of India. There were certain protections under Articles 35A and 370. You have opened up Ladakh for the 1.3 billion population of India. In a way, you are leaving a population of 3 lakh (population of Ladakh) to the largesse of 1.3 billion. Employment opportunities are gone. Land protections are gone. Self-governance is gone. Representation is gone.

Is this not betrayal?

After partition, Kargil was occupied by Pakistan for six months. When the Indian army crossed the Zojila pass (a high-altitude mountain pass which connects the Kashmir Valley to Ladakh), it was with our support and we celebrated. We are Indians by choice.

Also read: Hartal in Kargil Against Centre’s Decision to Read Down 370, Make Ladakh a UT

Even in the 1965 war, Kargilis worked as porters, provided ponies and supported the army. The same is true for the 1971 war. And everyone knows about 1999. India could not have won the Kargil war without the people of Kargil.

In the 1990s, when militancy peaked in the Valley, there was no separatist movement in Kargil even then. Yet, we consider ourselves part and parcel of J&K.

But, what are you demanding from the government of India now?

They should talk to us – committees and representatives. First, they should talk and clarify why they have done this by ignoring the entire population. Then the second step will be to safeguard the interest of people in terms of safety and security.

Also read: Divisional Status in Ladakh Snubs the Demands of Kargil’s People

Can you list a few demands?

The list is so long. They have not left anything for us. Whatever we had has been taken away. All our rights are gone. We want all our rights back.

They should talk if they think Kargil is also part of India. If they ignore us, the situation can get much worse. Alienation will deepen. Anger will turn to hatred. Right now its anger that can be quelled. But, if it turns to hatred, then it will be difficult to control.

Can it turn into the kind of anger that we see in the Valley?

It’s difficult and too soon to say. We will try to ensure that the situation does not become like the Valley. But if the youth and future generations feel they are being suppressed, that their voice is being crushed, then you can’t expect them to welcome you with flowers.