Ground Report | In Leh, Celebrations Give Way to Concerns over Land and Job Protections

Residents say they want development, but on their own terms.

Leh: On the eve of India’s 73rd Independence Day, and almost ten days after the announcement that Ladakh will be separated from Kashmir to become a union territory and the state’s special status will be removed, an air of jubilation hung in the picturesque town of Leh in one of the country’s most sparsely populated districts – Ladakh.

A group of youngsters gathered at the main market in Leh to put up a banner reading ‘Union Territory of Ladakh celebrates its 1st Independence Day’. All of them preferred anonymity. “Independence from Kashmir,” explained one of them. “For too long, we have been neglected by leaders from Kashmir who have only focused on the Valley.”

The next morning, as the flag hoisting ceremony was about to begin in Leh’s Polo Ground, patriotic songs from Hindi films blared from industrial-strength speakers. Each song was followed by cries of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Jai Hind’ from the master of ceremonies and the ever-increasing crowd.

“It is a very happy moment for us. It is a dream come true,” said Tsering Namdan, who was looking forward to the Independence Day ceremony and was particularly excited to catch a glimpse of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, former captain of the Indian cricket team, who, rumour went, would be present for the flag hoisting ceremony as part of his 15-day deployment with the territorial army.

“We have been demanding UT (union territory) status for 70 years and are very thankful to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah that they have fulfilled our demand. Now, we can look forward to fast-paced development,” Namdan said.

The demand for union territory status in Ladakh dates back to 1949. “We have always held that we want to be separated from Jammu and Kashmir,” P.T. Kunzang, president of the influential Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) told The Wire. “Our identity, culture, geography, way of life and food is different from J&K. That is why we wanted that Ladakh be separated and administered by the Centre.”

At the Independence Day ceremony, 19-year-old Tenzin Minkey stood with her fists tightly clenched as she watched columns of police personnel and school kids march to the military marching beat. As the columns would pass the Indian flag and offer a salute, Minkey would raise her fist and offer her cry of allegiance, “Bharat Mata ki Jai!”

First independence day banner in Leh

“We have always been proud Indians. Today, we are free from the clutches of Kashmir that held us back for 70 years, and I am extremely happy. We had nothing to do with the conflict but our schools and colleges would also be shut when the situation would get tense in the Valley. We were made to learn Urdu, even when nobody here speaks Urdu,” she said.

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Her father, Tenzin, was a little more circumspect. “There is great enthusiasm right now, especially among the youth. However, the fact is that there is a lot of uncertainty. Protections on land and reservation of jobs are also gone now. That could create issues,” he said. “Today, you are seeing an initial euphoria. But this will change in a few days.”

A column marches in Leh on Independence Day.

Concerns of the tribal population

Two days after breaking into a dance during the Independence Day celebrations, BJP’s member of parliament from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, appeared a little more subdued and circumspect. “After the Centre announced its decision to make Ladakh a union territory, the biggest concern of the tribal population here is to protect their identity, culture, land and economy,” he said while speaking at the launch of a national tribal festival in Leh in the presence of the Union minister of tribal affairs, Arjun Munda.

He also handed a letter to Munda outlining the vulnerability of Ladakh’s 98% tribal population owing to its ‘primitive’ land-based economy, limited means of livelihood, undeveloped markets, harsh climate, close proximity to China and Pakistan borders, presence of Indian army and paramilitary forces and a fragile ecology under threat of climate change.

Namgyal urged Munda to declare Ladakh a tribal area under Article 244 – which deals with the administration of scheduled and tribal areas – and bring the new union territory under Schedule 6 of the Indian constitution, which currently grants a degree of autonomy to four states in the Northeast.

Demands for autonomy

The demand is echoed by many leaders in the Leh district, including Kunzang, the president of LBA. He argued that now that the protections on land use and reservation of jobs no longer exist, there are a lot of ‘apprehensions’ and ‘uncertainties. “There need to be protections either under Article 371 or under Schedule 6 so that land and jobs are protected,” Kunzang said, predicting that in the absence of these protections, the people of Ladakh will suffer.

PT Kunzang

Due to the district being sparsely populated, he likened the people of Ladakh to tigers. “Our population is only about three lakhs. If people from all over the country start buying land and settling here, then we will be marginalised. Our culture will be lost. We need to be protected the way tigers are protected.”

Concerns over the loss of Ladakh’s unique culture and identity are now growing. “Ours is a very different culture from the rest of India, and if people from outside start settling here, that culture will be threatened. It will die,” said Tsewang Rigzen, who owns a small grocery store near Leh’s main market.

Also read | Historically, UTs Become States. Now the Centre Is Reversing That Trend in J&K.

Tsering Morup, who stood outside the store, said that for this reason, it is crucial that Ladakh be brought under Schedule 6 of the Indian constitution. “People in other Indian states are wealthier than people here. If they start buying land here, there will be nothing left for us.”

According to the constitutional expert and vice-chancellor of the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Faizan Mustafa, bringing Ladakh under Schedule 6 will grant it the kind of autonomy that it already had, as part of J&K, under Article 370. “Autonomy under Schedule 6 almost resembles the autonomy under the diluted Article 370 – diluted by presidential orders over the years,” Mustafa told The Wire.

A poster in Leh main market.

Since 1954, by a series of presidential orders, the Indian state extended 260 of its 395 Articles, 94 of the 97 entries in the union list, 26 of the 47 items in the concurrent list and seven of the 12 schedules to the state of J&K, thereby diluting its autonomy under Article 370.

“Look, the reality is that we never demanded that Article 370 be revoked. We are not fools. We need those protections. But the government had to do it this way because their focus is the Valley and they can’t be seen to be going easy on them,” said a local leader who declined to be named. “Soon you will see that demands for autonomy, protection over land and jobs and a legislature will increase in Ladakh and the Centre will have to grant them.”

Not getting legislature a ‘letdown’

The demand for union territory status has included the demand for a legislature with it, and the grant of former without the latter has caused disappointment. “While we are very happy that UT status has been granted, but not getting a legislature is a letdown. All political parties, social and religious organisations have always demanded UT status with the legislature,” said senior Congress leader and former minister in the J&K government, Rigzin Jora.

Kunzang agreed with Jora. “Yes, it’s disappointing to not get a legislature. That was our demand. But I am hopeful that the hill council will be granted legislative powers,” Kunzang said.

Hill councils

Leh and Kargil, the two districts in the newly-carved union territory of Ladakh, have retained their autonomous hill development councils, which came into existence in 1995 and 2003 respectively. Both have 30 councillors of which 26 are elected and four are nominated by the government of J&K. It is not yet clear who will nominate the members under the new arrangement.

The councils have powers to collect local taxes, regulate land use, prioritise the implementation of schemes, formulate budgets and others, making them among the most autonomous councils in India. Now, local leaders are hoping the councils will be empowered to legislate, granting the UT of Ladakh a degree of control over its laws.

As things stand, the councils can regulate the sale and purchase of state-owned land, but not private land, and that is a cause for worry. “See, the land is an emotive issue here. We have a deep connect with the land and our economy too is dependent on it. So, it’s a big concern. Even with the hill councils, an individual can sell their own piece of land,” said Jora.

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He argued that Ladakh turning into ‘another Manali or Shimla’ will not be desirable. “In Manali and Shimla, properties are owned by people from Mumbai, Gujarat. Locals are waiters and bartenders,” he said. “We don’t want our boys and girls to become waiters and bartenders.”

Mehboob Ali, who owns three hotels in Leh, agrees with Jora. “Although, we are happy with the UT status, there are some worries also. If big hotel chains come here, then they will take over our land, our hotels. We will have to work under them. We want development, but on our own terms,” Ali said.

Rigzin Jora

Fear of loss of jobs

The youth in Ladakh would prefer if the Centre provide a form of reservation of jobs. Tashi Namgyal, a second-year student of Bachelor of Arts at the government degree college in Leh, explained that reservations are needed because Leh lacks the kind of education facilities and infrastructure that exist in other parts of India.

“It will be difficult for us to compete with them. We have only one degree college and that also does not have any specialised courses. People from outside will come with specialisations,” Namgyal said.

Rigzin, who recently completed her BA, raised apprehensions over the loss of job opportunities, “There are very few job opportunities as it is. If more people will settle in Ladakh, then that problem is going to increase further.”

Concerns over ecology

Namgyal also said that the fragile ecology of Ladakh has its limits, particularly with the impacts of climate change increasingly being felt, “Already, we are seeing that we have less snow and more rain. On top of that, there is the issue of plastic and solid waste which will become more serious if more people start living here.”

According to Tsewang Dolma, who heads the Ladakh Ecological Development and Environmental Group, an NGO that promotes ecological and sustainable development in Ladakh, Leh is already overburdened as it plays host to around three lakh tourists every year – twice the population of Leh district. “There are no facilities for plastic waste treatment and barely anything for treatment of faecal waste,” she said.

To add to the growing woes, Dolma said, a water crisis looms in the cold desert every summer. “Almost every household in Leh either has a homestay or a hotel. And with the number of tourists that we get, there is a huge water crisis.”

She suggests that new tourist spots be developed, a cap be fixed for the number of tourists and a tax be levied. “We have to reduce the burden on Leh. The government can develop other tourist spots. It is also important to limit the number of tourists to say, 2,00,000, every year and charge an environment fee like Bhutan has done,” she said.

A view of Leh town from the palace.

Otherwise, according to Dolma, the comparison, dreaded in these parts, will have to be made. “We need safeguards, otherwise it will not take long for Leh to turn into another Manali or Shimla,” Dolma said.

Kunzang is hopeful that all the concerns will be taken care of before October 31, when the division of J&K takes effect. “We have some time. We are forming committees which will look at each and every issue and negotiate with the government. Hopefully, we will be able to resolve the issues,” he said.

A divided UT

As the new union territory of Ladakh heads towards an uncertain future, it also stands divided. As previously reported by The Wire, Kargil – the other district which will form the new union territory – has seen widespread protests and shutdowns since August 5, when the drastic steps were announced.

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While the people of Kargil and Leh have broadly similar worries over the protection of land and reservation of jobs, their views differ on the bifurcation of the state. While Leh has since 1949 demanded that it be separated from J&K and administered by the Centre, Kargil has never stood by that demand, citing its close ties with the Kashmir Valley and aversion to further division of the state.

In the week after the decision to bifurcate the state was announced, the two districts saw very different reactions. Leh rejoiced, with fervent gusto initially and with some caution as time wore on. Kargil, on the other hand, has protested with the kind of intensity that has rarely been seen.

This has prompted the LBA to write to home minister Amit Shah to seek the protection of Buddhists in Kargil, who form 15% of the population in the Muslim-majority district. The organisation has claimed that there has been an attempt to “infuse communal hatred among the people of Kargil against the Buddhist community and there was an immediate need to ensure the safety and security of Buddhists living in Kargil district.”

Leaders of the joint action committee in Kargil have said that these worries are unfounded. “There is no truth to this. It is an attempt by the LBA to dilute our struggle. Buddhists in Kargil have always lived without any fear and will continue to do so,” said Asgar Ali Karbalai, a former Congress MLA from Kargil and now a key member of the JAC.

He also stressed that the agitation in Kargil will continue. “So far the government has not responded positively. So our agitation will only pick up now. We are against the division of the state and want to continue to be with J&K with our protection over land and jobs restored,” Karbalai said.

All photos by Kabir Agarwal.