'What Did We Do?': Kargil Seethes At Centre's Bifurcation Decision

On Friday, Kargil ended its fifth shutdown since the Centre, on August 5, consigned it to joining the Union Territory of Ladakh.

Kargil: On Friday, the district of Kargil observed a shutdown against the bifurcation of the Jammu and Kashmir state and the reading down of Article 370. This was the fifth such shutdown in this region of Ladakh since the Centre, on August 5, took the drastic step which now means that Kargil and Leh will form the new Union Territory of Ladakh.  

All the regions of Kargil, including Drass, Sankoo and Suru observed the strike peacefully. In Kargil town, which has a population of around 18,000, shops and schools remained closed, movement was restricted and Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure had been imposed. 

Mobile internet has been out of bounds since August 5, as a ‘precautionary measure’ according to Deputy Commissioner Baseer-ul-Haq Choudhary, the administrative head of the district.

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“The measure will remain in place until the situation improves,” Choudhary told The Wire

At the break of dawn on Friday, hotels asked tourists to leave Kargil town before 7 am if they were planning to visit nearby tourist spots or travel to Srinagar or Leh. A group of tourists from Kerala who were planning to drive down to Srinagar and onwards to Jammu were stopped at Drass – about 60 km from Kargil town – and asked to return to Kargil and procure a letter of permission from the local administration. 

Most shops remained shut on Friday, in response to the strike call. Photo: The Wire

Kargil town wore a deserted look as all shops except medical stores remained shut. Public transport to Leh, Srinagar and Drass also remained suspended. Paramilitary forces patrolled streets and kept strict vigil. A few locals sat at corners and outside closed shops. 

“Look, what has happened is wrong,” said Mohammed Hassan, a 48-year-old grocer sitting outside his shop. “We have become like Delhi. They keep demanding statehood and our statehood has been snatched away from us. Ye tanaashahi hai.” 

Mohammed Yunus, Hassan’s friend, argued that Kargil deserved better. “We know there is a problem in the Valley and that is why the Indian government has done this. But what have we done to deserve this treatment? We have always stood shoulder to shoulder with the Indian state, with the Indian Army. People of Kargil have laid down their lives to protect the border,” he said. 

Kargil, with a Muslim majority population and Leh, with a Buddhist majority, were the two districts of the Ladakh division in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. After the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 announced the bifurcation of the state into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir (with a state legislature) and Ladakh (without a state legislature) – protests broke out in Kargil, while Leh celebrated. 

Security forces kept strict vigil on Kargil’s streets. Photo: The Wire

The key point of difference between the two districts is on the status of the Union Territory. While Leh has demanded since the 1980s that Ladakh be separated from Jammu and Kashmir and turned into an Union Territory, Kargil has always opposed the idea. 

“We have always stood against the division of the state. That has been the consistent stand of Kargil. We have deep cultural and trade ties with the entire state. We are part and parcel of Jammu and Kashmir,” former Kargil Congress MLA, Asgar Ali Karbalai, who is now a key member of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), told The Wire

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Sheikh Nazir Mehdi Mohammedi, who is president of the Islamia School of Kargil and holds significant influence over the area’s Muslim population is also a JAC member. “The government took such a major decision which will impact our lives. It did not even speak to us about it. Gunda gardi kari hai apni marzi se (It has acted like thugs),” he said. 

Loss of land?

Apart from the bifurcation of the state, the people of Kargil are also opposed to the reading down of Article 370 which guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir constitutional special status within India. Specifically, there are concerns over the possibility of people from other Indian states buying land in Kargil, loss of job opportunities and a change in demographic. 

Last week, Kargil observed four days of shutdown. Photo: The Wire

“We demand that the protections that were given to us under Article 370 and Article 35A be restored. If people from all across the country start buying land here, it will be a disaster. And what will happen to the jobs that were guaranteed to local people? Where will our youth go?” asked Mohammedi. 

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Last week, Kargil observed four consecutive days of complete shutdown starting on August 7. A strict curfew was imposed by the local administration. A few incidents of stone pelting were reported from the towns of Kargil and Drass. Police resorted to tear gas shelling and detained a few leaders, releasing them later. 

Now, the government has offered to come to the table and talk to the leaders of the Kargil agitation to help address their concerns. In the evening on Friday, the JAC announced that the strike– which was supposed to continue on Saturday – will be called off temporarily as the chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir will be travelling to Kargil in the next two days to meet them and hold discussions. 

Kargil locals are worried about what will become of their land and demography now. Photo: The Wire

“Since the chief secretary is coming to meet us and talk about the situation, we are calling off the strike for now. But, this is only temporary. If our concerns are not addressed, the street protests will be back,” said Mohammedi. 

For now, Kargil maintains a restive peace as it awaits the outcome of talks between the chief secretary and the JAC. It remains unclear as to how the chief secretary will be able to address Kargil’s longterm concerns as it will cease to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir on October 31.