Kargil’s people have always been against the idea of a union territory: A Kargil resident

Kevin Ilango
28 September, 2019

On 5 August, the Narendra Modi-led government removed the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution. The government downgraded the state into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. It then enforced a communications blockade in the region, which is still ongoing. The government has since claimed that the situation on the ground is peaceful, and that people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have all welcomed the move. News reports from the region, however, contradict this claim.

In “State Subjects,” The Caravan is featuring a collection of voices from various parts of the erstwhile state. Mustafa Haji, a lawyer based in Kargil, discusses the region’s identity crisis and why it has a strong relationship with Kashmir.

Ladakh was a separate kingdom until 1834 when Gulab Singh, the first Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, conquered it through Zorawar Singh, one of his generals. It was under the rule of the Dogra dynasty until Independence, after which it was made a part of Jammu and Kashmir. Historically, the territory of Ladakh extended from Jammu to Gilgit-Baltistan. Skardu, a city which is located in present-day Pakistan, used to be its winter capital while Leh, the summer capital. Similarly, Kargil, a town in the Kargil district of Ladakh, used to be the centre of trade between the cities and towns of Skardu, Srinagar, Leh and Zanskar. It was strategically chosen as such because it was equidistant from these places. Over a period of time, Kargil became a resting place for the traders and travellers from places as far as Yarkand in China. Who would have thought that this seemingly advantageous location would one day be reduced to a neglected region?

After Independence, Leh was the only district in the Ladakh. The Kargil town was a part of the Leh district. It was in 1979 that Kargil was carved out into a separate district, but only to be second to the Leh district in most aspects. In the last 40 years, Leh and Kargil have had different growth trajectories. Over the years, Leh has progressed rapidly, as compared to Kargil, to the extent that Leh has become synonymous with Ladakh. Its monasteries, stupas, landscapes and the serene lakes fit the tourist imagination. This image of Leh, disguised as Ladakh, runs in advertisements, the news and all kinds of public discourse.

On the other hand, over the years Kargil has instead come to be known by the Kargil war of 1999. Bollywood war movies, perhaps the only major source of information about Kargil, further solidified its image as a war zone. It has been two decades since the Kargil War, but jingoistic movies are still being made around the same plot lines, taking away Kargil’s Ladakhiness and making it harder for the locals to move on from their war memories. Not many people realise that Kargil is one of the two districts in Ladakh, in fact the only other district after Leh and that too with a bigger population.

The prejudice can also be seen in the writing on Ladakh, as most of it is centered around Leh, with a lesser focus on Kargil. Whatever little literature there is on Kargil also does not depict its true picture. Having the discourse centered around Leh has inevitably steered the government’s attention away from Kargil too, both the central as well as the state government. This reflects in the number of government institutions whose head offices are located in Leh, the level of development in the Leh town, the number of non-governmental organisations and the tremendous support they get, the voices that reverberate in the policy corridors—all in the name of Ladakh. Very little of this can be seen in Kargil.

Recently, in February this year, the Jammu and Kashmir government granted Ladakh a divisional status. The status meant that a new secretariat will be established in Ladakh. This made it the third division after Jammu and Srinagar in the former state, but all of the headquarters were to be stationed at Leh. It was only after the people in Kargil protested on the streets for ten days that the government agreed to rotate the divisional headquarters between Kargil and Leh districts. This arrangement though has become redundant due to the new bifurcation which has made Ladakh into a union territory.

Apart from struggling with an identity crisis, Kargil also faces a serious problem of accessibility. Due Ladakh’s expansive area, places in the region are sparsely populated. For instance, Kargil is closer to Srinagar than it is to Leh. Drass, one of the biggest blocks of the Kargil district, is just 150 kilometres away from Srinagar and has very harsh winters even by the standards of Ladakh. The temperature dips below minus 30 degrees forcing people to migrate to places in the Kashmir region before winter sets in. Further, as little grows in Kargil itself, most of the region’s life essentials—from groceries to daily supplies—come from Kashmir.

But the people in Leh are not as dependent on Kashmir. They have a commercial airport that operates throughout the year and an alternate route, for supplies to come via Manali in Himachal Pradesh in the summer. It is therefore not surprising that the people of Kargil have always been against the idea of turning the region into a union territory and have endorsed the unity of the state instead. The protests in Kargil after the government’s move to make Ladakh a union territory is just a manifestation of the discontent with how the idea of Ladakh has played out all these years.

Besides, what good is a union territory that is devoid of a legislature, land protection laws and job security—everything that Article 370 and 35A religiously protected?