Not all of Ladakh is happy with the reading down of Article 370: A Ladakhi’s perspective

Kevin Ilango
29 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. Aamir Sohail is a Ladakhi who holds a master’s degree in criminology and justice. He explains why he wanted the region to be a union territory, but does not trust Ladakh’s politicians to safeguard its interests.

On 5 August, I woke up to the sound of Whatsapp notifications flooding my phone. When I opened my chats, I saw that my friends from home, in Ladakh, had shared articles which claimed that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government had bifurcated the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. I had heard rumours that the centre was planning something big in Kashmir, but no one knew what it was going to be.

After reading one article, I was left feeling numb. I could not believe that Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution were effectively nullified. In one of the videos I received, I saw people in Leh coming together in the town square, dancing to Ladakhi songs in full fervour by swinging their scarves—each scarf was printed with a lotus symbol. It did not make sense that I was not feeling the same joy as them.

I always hated that I had to explain to people where Ladakh was located. Most people always made some racist remark when they heard “Ladakh”: “Oh, I heard it is in China.” “Does it come under Nepal?” “So, you are from the North-East?” I thought if ever Ladakh got the status of a union territory, it would be a historic moment for the people of our region—we would finally have our own separate identity, one which does not need to be defined in terms of Jammu and Kashmir. The only positive aspect of the news was that we, Ladakhis, would no longer have to make arduous journeys to Jammu or Kashmir for official work. But I could not help thinking about what must be happening in Kashmir.

Just a week earlier, there was news that the government had sent additional troops to the Valley because there was a terrorist threat to the pilgrims going for the Amarnath Yatra. As a result, everyone who is not from Kashmir was asked to get out of the Valley as soon as possible. If the threat was real, why did the government not ask the Kashmiris to evacuate as well?

I could not understand this back at that time. Now, it seems clear that the government created an atmosphere of fear and hysteria so that no one witnesses the horror that was awaiting Kashmiris. The decision to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir and reduce its status from an autonomous state to a union territory, controlled by a Hindu supremacist party at the centre, is just another attempt by the party to force its pseudo-nationalism on the people of Kashmir.

On the surface, it might look like the people of Ladakh region are happy with the decision of the government, but that is not the complete picture. My friends and family in Ladakh told me that the decision to make Ladakh into a union territory without legislature has led to an atmosphere of confusion, invoking a mixed reaction from the common people. Everyone I know is sceptical of rich corporates coming into their homeland and taking over their businesses. They believe that the central government will be more than happy to sell the large tracts of barren lands to industrialists—lands which have served as the backdrop in the pictures of tourists.

The local leaders who are in favour of this move have said that it will lead to more development of Ladakh, as it will bring in more investment. But they refused to specify which sectors it will benefit. Also, we, Ladakhis, know that there is no way to hold our local politicians accountable for their statements. No one would dare to speak against them due to the fear of intimidation and accusations of defaming a “respected person.”

Our leaders argue that the union-territory status will lead to greater inclusivity. The autonomous hill development council that administers Leh has formed a consultative committee to take into account the “apprehensions” of the public regarding the union territory status. But it does not include any representatives from minority communities. I have not seen women, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs have much say in local politics. It seems to me that our leaders have forgotten that Buddhist men do not speak for all of Ladakh.

Ladakh is not a single entity and comprises many sub-regions which have their own political aspirations. It is divided into two districts, Leh and Kargil, each of which is administered by an autonomous hill development council. People in Leh have always felt that the Kashmiris have never cared about them, whereas the Kargilis have always felt that Leh considers them to be inferior. In the past decade, Leh has emerged as a major tourism destination, while the image of Kargil is still tied to the war of 1999.

I feel the friction between both the districts will only increase now. Many people in Kargil fear that power will be concentrated in the hands of a few leaders in Leh who will continue to discriminate against the Muslims of this region.The Kargilis are also apprehensive that Leh will become synonymous with Ladakh. They feel that the central government is favouring Leh over Kargil because the Kargilis have shown solidarity with the Kashmiris in the past. Even when the Kargilis protested the nullification of Article 370, the government suspended their internet services.

Without the constitutional protections of Article 370 and Article 35A, the central government can do whatever it wants—it can also easily override the autonomous hill development councils. Millions of tribals have been forced out of their homes in the name of development throughout India. How can we be so positive that the central government will care about a union territory with less than three lakh people in it?

The whole process of conferring the union-territory status to Ladakh was carried out in an undemocratic manner without the consent of Ladakhis—there has never been a poll regarding the matter. While Jamyang Tsering Namgyal from the BJP, who had been advocating for the union-territory status, was elected as our member of parliament this year, he got only around one third of the total votes cast. The election cannot be taken as a stamp of approval of all Ladakhis for the union-territory status.

The political leaders who had been vying for Ladakh to be a union territory had years to prepare, inform the public and plan for the day this goal might be achieved. That day is now here, but they have no plan—they do not know what is going to happen now that we are a union territory. Are these the people we trust to lead Ladakh through this critical period? It is a bitter truth that Ladakh’s politicians cannot be relied upon to protect the environment, culture and livelihood of the region. A new movement that cuts across region, religion, class and caste is needed to safeguard Ladakh.