Ladakh is strategically very important for India because it connects India to Central Asia, South Asia, China and Pakistan. Historically it was also the centre of trade along the Silk Route and also known as the gateway from India to Tibet and Central Asia.
In 1979 Ladakh was divided into two districts known as Leh and Kargil. Leh is a Buddhist majority district while Kargil is Muslim majority. Kargil is geographically located between Srinagar and Leh, 210 Kms away from Srinagar and 230 Kms from Leh.
For decades Union Territory status for Ladakh was the popular demand of Leh district and they wanted to get separated from Jammu and Kashmir. But the people of Kargil were always opposed to the UT idea and the leaders of Kargil have always opposed the bifurcation or trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. The leaders in Kargil were demanding greater Ladakh including Gilgit and Baltistan and opposed any kind of further division on the basis of region, religion and language.
Kargil’s opposition to UT status for Ladakh was not only because of its Muslim-majority composition. The fact is Kargil is physically dependent on Kashmir. Kargil remains cut off with the world for six months and there is no air connectivity from Kargil to connect with the world during winter. Although there is an airport in Leh but for many people air travel is still unaffordable.
For decades, people of Kargil demanded the construction of Zojilla Tunnel to connect Ladakh with the rest of India. But despite multiple inaugurations and biddings the work has not been started yet. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi also inaugurated the Zojila Tunnel project on May 19,2018. If the tunnel is constructed It will provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar, Kargil and Leh and, at 14.2 km, will also be the country’s longest road tunnel. The tunnel will cut down the time taken to cross the Zojila pass from 3.5 hours at present to 15 minutes.
During the inauguration of the Zojila Tunnel project, Modi had said, “The Centre and the state government are working together to take the development work forward. Today alone there will be either inauguration or foundation stone laying for projects worth ₹25,000 crore. This is a testimony to the Centre’s commitment to the development of the state.” But things have hardly moved in this direction. Instead, what followed was the sudden and unilateral announcement on 5 August 2019 by the Modi government of abrogation of Article 370 and division of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.
People of Leh initially welcomed the decision and celebrated by saying that they have achieved freedom from Kashmir while in Kargil people observed black day and staged a protest. All leaders of regional parties were detained, even former Chief Ministers of the state of Jammu and Kashmir were booked under Public Safety Act. Dissenting voices were curbed and Internet snapped. The entire valley was under strict lockdown and in Kargil too the space for political and social activities shrank considerably.
On 31 October 2019, soon after the government’s announcement, images and videos were beamed on televisions and phones in India of citizens celebrating in Leh, where a demand for a separate Union Territory of Ladakh has existed for years. There were barely any images from Kargil town. The two towns are largely divided in their response but what unites them is the shared anxiety about the future of the Himalayan region.
On May 2020, President of Bharatiya Janata Party, Union Territory of Ladakh, Cherring Dorjay Lakruk resigned from his political position and from primary membership of BJP “in protest against utter failure of UT administration Ladakh in evacuating passengers, patients, pilgrims, and students stranded at different places throughout India.”But this resignation ‘in protest against utter failure in evacuation’ was just a plea. Actually, Ladakhis by and large are feeling that their future is unsafe and people have deep resentment about growing land and job insecurity.
On May 4, 2020, the Chief Executive Councillor of the BJP-led Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Gyal P Wanyal, along with his Deputy Tsering Sandup, executive councillors, and other councillors held a dharna outside the residence of Lt Governor R K Mathur protesting over the delay in evacuation of locals stranded elsewhere in the country amid the coronavirus lockdown. This was the first protest against the LG administration in the UT Ladakh.
Most people are currently in a state of confusion because Ladakhis have been deprived of political representation. Earlier there were 4 legislative members (2 from each district) in the J&K state assembly and two legislative council members. People now do not know how their rights will be protected. And what would be the status of the people of Ladakh under the government’s new policies? Because the financial powers from the Ladakh Autonomous Hill councils have been taken away.
Interestingly, people who were dancing and celebrating Union territory are now demanding the tribal rights for Ladakh and they want Ladakh to be designated as a tribal area under Sixth Schedule.
The governement earlier assured people of Leh & Kargil to have equal share and political representation but now the Government is systematically depriving the Muslim majority district of equal share in the newly imposed Union Territory (UT).
Earlier Ladakh had reserved seats in various professional and academic institutions in Jammu and Kashmir. Entire area was declared a scheduled area and there were job reservations and land protection. Now, the UT model has failed to address the plight of the people and to secure land and jobs for of the people of Ladakh. Recent incursion by China into the Indian side of the LAC and the subsequent face-off between Indian and Chinese troops have further complicated the Ladakh situation. The agenda of development and democratic representation and rights of the people of Ladakh has been overshadowed by the LAC standoff and military build-up.
(Sajjad Hussain Kargili is an activist based in Kargil).