Millennium Post


Ladakh’s history post-independence has been a struggle for political relevance. In an era, where the state of Jammu and Kashmir is administered on an enhanced strand of federalism, there exists diversity in the state, which is both ethnic and cultural in its make-up. However, ever since Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession with the Indian union on 26 October, 1947, there has been a failure to recognize and appreciate this diversity from the state administration. Within the struggle for Kashmir’s place within the Indian union, lies Ladakh’s sense of disenfranchisement within the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

This struggle for political relevance has taken the form of demands by significant sections of Ladakhi society, for separation from the Valley and under the direct jurisdiction of the central government, which literally translates into a demand for Union Territory (UT) status. Events since then seem to suggest that this demand isn’t wholly without any merit. Without a single reference to Ladakh in Sheikh Abdullah’s first state budget, imposition of Urdu in schools in place of the local Ladakhi language (an offshoot of Tibetan), presence of only four representatives in the 87-member Assembly, to separation of Ladakh into two districts (Kargil and Leh) in 1979 along communal lines, and the general indifference to the lack of development in the region, the cold desert has reasons to harbour ill-feeling against the Kashmir-run administration.

Until the enactment of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act in 1995, the state constitution did not recognize the federal principle of organizing political power that represents the cultural and social heterogeneity of the region, despite demanding the same from the central government. In fact the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Act was established during governor’s rule, when militancy was at its peak in the Valley during the early ‘90s. It was done through a promulgation of presidential ordinance, as law making powers lied with the central government. As the new state assembly convened in 1996, the central government applied immense pressure to receive its concurrence for the LAHDC Act within one year, as per the requirements of law.

The creation of Leh Autonomous Development Hill Council in 1995, gave the region its first shot at self-governance, albeit with limited executive powers. ‘For the first time in its history the people were involved in deciding their future. Participation and planning, through LAHDC, became a distinct possibility, albeit without law making powers. However, we were vested with other executive powers and land in Leh was vested with the council’, said Thuptsan Chhewang, Member of Parliament from Ladakh, while speaking to Millennium Post.

However, the Muslim leadership in Kargil was against the idea. Backed by socio-religious groups like the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust and Islamia School (funded by the National Conference), the leadership not only decided against it, but were actively against the Buddhist-dominated Leh district from acquiring it too. According to Chhewang, ‘In front of the then union home minister and representative ministers from the state government, they (Kargil leadership) decided that they didn’t want it and neither should Leh get it. The central government then decided that instead of setting up one council, they set up two separate councils, one for Leh and another one for Kargil under the same act’. However, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil (LAHDC-K) was eventually set up in 2003, once they witnessed the fruits of such decentralised governance in Leh.

The region’s history has been festered by communal divide, between the predominant Shia Muslims and Buddhists, despite strong cultural and ethnic affinities, which are wildly different from those in the Valley. In a research paper titled, ‘Autonomy in J& K: The Forgotten Identities of Ladakh’, Navnita Chadha Behera (seasoned expert on Kashmir affairs), says, ‘While Leh’s Buddhist minority (in the State) felt insecure about the Muslim-majority Valley dominating Ladakh, the Shia Muslims of Kargil believed that Buddhist-majority Leh overshadowed Kargil’s identity. The people of Kargil strongly resented the Leh-centric conception of the Ladakh region, which, until the 1980s, had all the district headquarters and central government offices. Keeping in mind the religious affinity, close economic links and political alignments with the Valley, Kargilis traditionally have identified with the Kashmiri leadership, although they did not support the secessionist movement in the Valley’. These fault lines have often been perpetuated by the administration in Srinagar, in order to undercut the region’s demand for autonomy from the state.

However, such insecurities pale in comparison to the lack of infrastructure in the state. For six months in a year the region is cut off from the mainland, due to heavy snowfall along the Zojilla pass. Due to its desert like conditions, the region, especially Kargil, is heavily dependent on fuel wood from the Valley to sustain them during the winters. Despite producing one of the world’s finest apricots and other indigenous fruit varieties, there is no access for Kargil’s produce on the international market. The poor state of the government hospital in Leh is known to one and all, besides an inadequate sewage system. Unemployment is another pressing issue, which was highlighted by Nawang Tsering Shakspo, director, Centre for Research on Ladakh. ‘In June 2012, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (Leh) conducted a written test for the 40 posts for schoolteachers in Leh district. For that, around 2,500 aspirants turned out possessing graduate or post-graduate degrees, and the majority of them were women folk’, he said.

In Leh district, numerous development projects hang in the balance, despite expenditure worth Rs 83 crore over several years. The Hill Council is now looking towards the 14th Finance Commission for a one-time grant of Rs 163 crore to complete unfinished projects. According to a report in the Daily Excelsior, sources in the Hill Council have said that construction of ‘bridges, flood protection works of nullahs, roads, school buildings and sports stadium, could not be completed due to cost overruns on account of revision of Detailed Project Reports and time lost in sanctioning and that these works have been incomplete for the last seven years’, despite many projects coming under various central schemes, such as Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Programme (PMRP), 13th Finance Commission, Special Task Force, NABARD, etc. Sanctioning of such projects and plans is conducted by the state, and Srinagar has failed to take into account that the region is closed for six months in a year.

It is clear that the conflict in Valley has only accentuated Ladakh's problems. It is also clear that over 60 years of Srinagar administration has barely made a dent into the region’s development woes. The region falls under Kashmir division, despite the region’s size. In terms of revenue collection, the divisional commissioner is the appellate authority, and he/she resides in Srinagar. Hence, the demand for Union Territory status resonates amongst the people of Ladakh. 

Both the major regional players, National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are strongly against the idea. ‘Such a move will not only divide Jammu and Kashmir, but will also dilute the special status that the state enjoys under Article 370 of the Constitution,’ PDP president Mehbooba Mufti said. The current chief minister, Omar Abdullah, is also against the idea. ‘Dismembering J&K will have awful consequences, both for communal peace in the state and for its wider relations with the India,’ he said. It is rather ironic, considering the role his party has played in festering communal tensions in the region. Speaking to Millennium Post, senior Congress leader and former union minister P Namgyal, said, ‘Our demand has always been for UT status with its own elected legislature, unlike what you see in Chandigarh. We simply don’t want UT status alone’. Member of Parliament from Ladakh, Thupstan Chhewang (BJP), also spoke on similar lines. ‘Union Territory status (with an elected legislature) is the only way out. It will change the face of Ladakh’, he said.

For the attainment of UT status, abrogation of Article 370 is a prerequisite. ‘UT has to be done through the Kashmir assembly because it is under the state constitution. It is not under the jurisdiction of the central government. Even if Parliament was to pass a law abrogating Article 370 or giving UT status, unless and until it receives endorsement from the Kashmir assembly, we cannot hope to see these changes’, added Chhewang. In light of such concerns, assembly elections in the state, due to be held in November, holds major significance for both Ladakh and the state. With the BJP winning half the seats in the recent Lok Sabha elections, two from Jammu region and one from Ladakh, the party hopes to be in a position to form the government in the state. Debate on the abrogation of Article 370 has begun, with the BJP including it in their national manifesto. The fate of the region hangs in the balance.
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