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India’s Ladakh region wants its autonomy back

April 06, 2023
tags:#Ladakh, #India, #Kashmir
by:Hamaad Habibullah
Ladakh, part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, was carved out as a separate territory under the direct rule of the Indian government in 2019. Now, locals are demanding certain constitutional safeguards, fearing threats to their land, employment and culture.

Ladakh residents gathered in India's capital New Delhi in February to demand statehood and a set of constitutional guarantees for the region. Attended by political, social and religious leaders, the demonstration was a continuation of the ongoing protests in the union territory.

Ladakh had been carved out as a separate territory and came directly under Indian government rule in 2019, when the region’s special status was revoked. 

The abrogation of the autonomy was initially viewed favourably in Ladakh, but three years down the line leaders from the region say that they were better off under the previous arrangement. This comes as the region is witnessing widespread protests demanding statehood and regional safeguards under the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution. 

"The number of people who attended the protest [in New Delhi] was more than expected," Sajjad Kargili, leader of the Kargil Democratic Alliance and one of the organisers of the protest, told FairPlanet. "This shows that people are concerned with their demands. And we expect that the government will listen to these demands and try to fulfil them. The resentment is rising among the people."

Article 370

Following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the subsequent bifurcation of the state, Ladakh came under the direct rule of the Indian government as a union territory. While the rest of Jammu and Kashmir, which was also downgraded to a union territory, had been allotted a legislative assembly with limited powers, Ladakh was to have no such priviliges.

The shift in attitude towards the territory's change of status, some point out, has less to do with Article 370 and more to do with apprehension associated with New Delhi's direct rule. 

"It is always better to have political representation. We had that in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir with Article 370," Jigmet Paligor, leader of political coalition Apex Body in the Leh region of Ladakh, told FairPlanet. "That's why we are saying that we were better off in the previous arrangement as compared to the present one. Our leaders have said that."

Under the stipulations of Article 370, people from outside of the region were unable to buy land, find work or procure natural resources in Ladakh, as those were only available to residents of the area. Now that the region has been placed under the direct control of the Indian government, these safeguards are no longer valid. 

This alarmed locals, who fear that people from other countries will buy land, compete for jobs that were previously reserved for Ladakh residents and win tenders related to natural resources or forests. Among other concerns, they worry that the removal of these restrictions will undermine their ability to preserve their identity and culture.

The Union of India includes both states and union territories, and while states have their own executive, legislature and judiciary branches that run local affairs, union territories are largely placed under the control of the central government, and are lead by the union government’s nominated lieutenant governor.

While most union territories don't have a legislature or an elected government, Delhi, Pondicherry and Jammu and Kashmir have provisions for them, with limited powers. 

Ladakh is composed of two regions: Kargil, which has a Muslim majority, and Leh, which is predominantly Buddhist. The ongoing protests in Ladakh are mostly led by the Leh Apec Committee (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA). Both organisations demand statehood for Ladakh, constitutional safeguards under the sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution, a separate parliamentary constituency for Leh and Kargil and employment protections for locals. 

Growing demands

The sixth schedule of the Indian constitution deals with the protection of tribal populations in the country; a district designated under the schedule is granted legislative, financial and judicial autonomy to a certain specified degree. The councils established as a result of this process are empowered with special powers - with an overall aim to protect the culture, traditions and environment of the region. 

Kargili explained that for the last three years, Ladakh is being run by appointees from the Indian government who are detached from the reality on the ground. "It is absolutely within our rights to demand statehood, and freedom to make our own laws, and it is our right that the [Indian government] should give it to us," he said. 

In February, prominent activist and Magsaysay Award winner Sonam Wanchuk, who endorsed the abrogation of Article 370 and creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh, held a five-day hunger strike, demanding for the region to have autonomy over its internal affairs and for protections of the local culture to be installed. His act of defiance brought the issue to the limelight. 

Jigmet Paligor said that their demand encompassed the inclusion of Ladakh under the sixth schedule. "Ladakh comprises two districts, and the tribal population in these districts is more than 90 percent. As such we are well within our rights to demand the sixth schedule for Ladakh," he explained. 

The leadership in Ladakh has expressed willingness to talk to the Indian government, but claims that there is a lack of willingness to communicate by the Indian government.

"The leaders of the Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance were not called in the last two years. No high-level meeting has been held," Paligor said. He added that the government had convened a committee to deliberate on the issue, which was rejected by LAB and KDA. According to him, this was because the "agenda and composition were not discussed with leaders."

Ruling Party’s point of view

P.T. Kunzang, a Ladakhi politician belonging to the Indian ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), is against the sixth schedule.

"I don't know why LAB and KDA are making a huge cry about the sixth schedule," he said, "they are not able to convince the people of the merits and demerits of the sixth schedule." He added that they have come to a conclusion that Ladakh needs safeguarding, but through a different provision.

Kunzang added that statehood was never a demand of LAB or of the people of Leh, but rather a demand of the people of Kargil and KDA. "The KDA was never happy with the bifurcation and abrogation of 370. The people of Kargil wanted restoration of 370," he said. 

Kunzang added that Ladakh had demanded to become a union territory for the last 72 years, and seeking to reverse that was not possible. He said talks between protest leaders and the Indian government have to be forward-looking.

"The home ministry had convened a high-power committee for the issue, however, they did not respond, they had some issues with it. So we are in favour of talks. Let's sit and discuss what's good and bad for Ladakh," he said.

Image by Darshan Chudasama.

Article written by:
Hamaad Habibullah
Embed from Getty Images
People from Ladakh, part of the conflicted Jammu and Kashmir state, gathered in the Indian capital of New Delhi last month to demand statehood and certain constitutional guarantees for the region.
Embed from Getty Images
The abrogation of autonomy was viewed favourably in Ladakh at first, but three years down the line leaders from the region say that they were better under the previous arrangements
Embed from Getty Images
"Ladakh had demanded to become a union territory for the last 72 years, and seeking to reverse that was not possible. Talks between protest leaders and the Indian government have to be forward-looking."
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