“In J&K’s reorganisation, Kargil is the biggest loser”: Asgar Ali Karbalai

Praveen Donthi
30 October, 2019

The first thing the people of Kargil tell outsiders is that the Ladakh region is comprised of the two distinct districts of Kargil and Leh. And that Ladakh is not all about monasteries or Buddhist monks, and the majority population is of Muslims. For decades, the two districts have been rivals in a scramble for funds and political power. While Leh always wanted to be separated from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Kargil was opposed to any division. Even as Leh celebrated after being granted a union territory status on 5 August, Kargil protested with a charter of demands, which included the demand for a separate union territory. All the political and religious organisations in Kargil, except the local unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, formed a joint-action committee to fight for this charter.

When I visited Kargil in the last week of October, the situation seemed normal, but there was no internet on mobile phones. People were anxious about 31 October, when Kargil will formally become a part of the Ladakh union territory. The residents of Kargil were unhappy with the way the BJP government at the centre sanctioned various facilities to Leh, and ignored them. They were getting ready for a long struggle to make their voices heard.

Praveen Donthi, a staff writer at The Caravan, spoke with Asgar Ali Karbalai, a Congress leader and a prominent social activist in Kargil, on how the reorganisation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir affected Kargil. Karbalai was a former member of the erstwhile state’s assembly and represented the Kargil constituency. He was also the chairman of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, an autonomous district council, created in 1995, that administers the Ladakh region.

Praveen Donthi: What do you think of Kargil being a part of the new union territory of Ladakh?
Asgar Ali Karbalai: If you look at Leh and Kargil from a racial, cultural and geographical point of view, we have no differences. But Kargil is more connected to Srinagar for trade and commerce, and politically. Not just Kargil, but entire Ladakh. We have never been in favour of UT status for Ladakh. We are against bifurcation or trifurcation or any division of the state, on any basis, be it religious or linguistic or whatever. We suffered the most because of the 1947 partition. More than 7000 families were divided along the LoC [Line of Control]. We know the pain of separation.

We need an equal share in development, but Leh gets everything. We fought hard for Ladakh [as an administrative] division and it was granted in 2019. The majority of Ladakhi people, at 46.4 percent [according to the 2011 census], are Muslims. The Buddhists of Leh feel that they are dominated by Muslims in the J&K state. But Kargilis feel the same discrimination. The state government thinks we are Muslims, but Shias. The centre thinks we are Ladakhis, but Muslims. For instance, till 2002, not even 0.1 percent of the Muslims of Ladakh were recruited in the Ladakh Scouts [an infantry regiment of the Indian Army, which specializes in mountain warfare and recruits from the Ladakhi communities]. After the formation of 14 Corps [formed in 1999, it is responsible for military deployment along Kargil and Leh], Lieutenant General Arjun Rai recruited Muslims for the first time, after the Kargil war. It’s the same with the SSB [Sashastra Seema Bal] and the ITBP [Indo-Tibetan Border Police] as well. They have trained only Buddhist people in villages with mixed population. They openly say that they do not want to train Muslims.

Till Kargil and Leh were tehsils, Leh was the headquarters. In 1979, Kargil became a separate district. At that time also, the Buddhists felt that it was done to appease the Muslims of Kargil, even though we are such a big area of more than 14,000 square kilometres with an equal amount of population as Leh. But now, they are demanding districts for Zanskar and Nubra in the name of religion. After an MP [member of parliament] seat was allocated to Ladakh in 1968, it increased the competition between the two communities. We never had riots here but in 1989, there were anti-Muslim riots in Leh. They [the Buddhists] forcibly converted people. The social boycott [of Muslims by the Buddhists] still exists. Land cannot be sold to Muslims. There are no intermarriages. They had brought people from Himachal Pradesh for meat shops but that did not run for long. People from here went to Leh and converted to Buddhism but we never made it into a communal issue.

Our students jointly struggled for a higher education university, but they gave us a cluster university. [In 2016, cluster universities were instituted for the first time under the ambit of the Srinagar and Jammu Cluster Universities Act, 2016. As per the legislation, two such universities were constituted with five existing government-run colleges, each. One college was designated as the lead college for each of the universities and all the colleges were made a part of the new administrative set-up.] Kargil has more number of students but they gave the lead college to Leh.

The Leh runway has been upgraded to international level, but no civil or commercial flights can land on the Kargil runway of 6000 feet. It has a beautiful terminal, but only for the army. Leh was opposed to the divisional status, but Kargil fought for it. But when the order came, headquarters was given to Leh. After agitating in sub-zero temperature, they issued another order saying the headquarters would be at Leh and Kargil on a rotational basis.

PD: Given this background of competition between Leh and Kargil, how did the people of Kargil react to the announcement of a joint union-territory?
AAK: When the 5 August reorganisation bill [on 9 August, the parliament ratified the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, which reconstituted the state as two union territories] was announced, there were protests here. The joint-action committee put forward a charter of 14 demands. The government team that visited Kargil gave a commitment that they will meet all our demands and the [former] governor Satya Pal Malik said that Leh and Kargil are like his two eyes. But since then, they have given a medical college and cricket academy to Leh. And the Ladakh Affairs Department [an administrative unit which oversees all matters pertaining to the two districts] has also been shifted to Leh. The [state general] secretary of BJP Ashok Kaul came and held a press conference saying nothing of that sort has happened though there is a government order for that. They want to fool the people of Kargil. They think we are stupid and ignorant. They are pushing us to the wall. They are forcing us to come out on the streets.

We, the people of Kargil, have always, since 1948, sacrificed much for the nation. Even in the Zojila war [one of the military fronts during the Kargil war], we provided ponies and porters to the army and helped take Kargil back from Pakistan. This area was under Pakistan for six months. It was taken back with the help and support of the people of Kargil. Same with the 1965 and 1971 wars. Despite all these sacrifices, instead of owning them, you are pushing them to the wall and crushing them. Naturally, alienation will increase.

All the powerful people of the state, including the governor, chief secretary, home secretary and advisor met the joint-action committee and had promised that they will do justice to both the areas. But they are making decisions totally on a communal basis. This feeling of insecurity is increasing day by day. How can we support such a move when there is no hope for justice or trust in the authorities who do not keep their word?

We had the power of a legislature till now, but now we will have a UT with no job security and with no land protection. If we cannot be made part of J&K state then we had asked for a separate UT, legislature and for a change in nomenclature. Call it UT of Leh and Kargil instead of Ladakh, because Leh people are misusing Ladakh. Everything that is given to Ladakh, goes to Leh. They show Leh as Ladakh. That’s why we had asked for a change in nomenclature on the lines of Andaman and Nicobar, Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Just like Jammu and Kashmir UT.

PD: What do you reckon is the reason behind such discrimination?
AAK: They want to appease one community and negate the other community—because we are Muslims. Despite our sacrifices, despite hoisting the national flag in every nook and corner of Kargil. We are proud to be Indians. Not by chance, but by choice. But they do this because they want to implement the Hindutva policy in Ladakh. They think the Buddhist community is much nearer to them.

Around 2010, the 6000-foot runway and a terminal were completed at Kargil. We are in 2019, not a single commercial passenger aircraft has landed or taken off here. In Leh, there are more than 14 flights a day. We have been demanding for the tunnelling of Zojila Pass since many decades. Three times there has been tendering and twice there has been allotment. But still there is no execution. Despite all that they are tunnelling Rohtang Pass to connect Leh with Manali. They are exploring a railway line from Gurdaspur to Manali and Leh for 700 kilometres. But no attempt is being made to connect the 200 kilometres between Kargil and Srinagar. In the winter, we have no road connectivity or air connectivity. We are cut-off from the rest of the country for more than six months.

PD: Why is mobile internet suspended in Kargil even though it has been mostly peaceful?
AAK: It’s because we are Muslims. We are against the separatist movement and militancy in Kashmir. Since the outbreak of militancy in 1989, despite being a Muslim-majority district, in Kargil there has not been a single incident. We are much more peaceful than Leh. Riots happen in Leh but not in Kargil. But the internet is available in Leh but not in Kargil.

When you say Ladakh, it is seen synonymous to monasteries, gompas—a meditation roomand Buddhists. The media has propagated it and the government wants to project it that way. Ladakh is the land of lamas according to the signboards written by the BRO [Border Roads Organisation]. “Welcome to the land of lamas.” “Don’t be a Gama in the land of Lama.” We have 121 brigade headquarters here. Right in the middle of it there is a Buddhist religious flag. What does it convey in the Muslim-majority district?

PD: So, the fear of discrimination by Leh pushes Kargil towards Kashmir?
AAK: We are not worrying that we might be discriminated against. We have been discriminated against in the past, so we know it will happen again.

PD: Did you try to convince your party about the situation of Kargil?
AAK: They are all the same. The Congress party is divided on 370. On the one hand they are saying there is no harm in [keeping] Article 370 and 35A, on the other hand some people are saying [the prime minister Narendra] Modi and [the union home minister] Amit Shah have done a good job, they have integrated the state with the rest of India. For 70 years, where was Jammu and Kashmir? Was it not part of India? Does that mean India was from Kanyakumari to Pathankot? What a joke. In the largest democratic country, they have done a very undemocratic thing in Jammu and Kashmir. The governor is not the representative of the people of J&K, he is the representative of the president and the union government. With his consent, you are changing everything in the state.

Earlier, we used to fight for jobs within the state. There are no more than 15 to 20 lakh [people from the] Scheduled Tribes in Jammu and Kashmir. With the removal of 370 and 35A, we have to fight with the 11 crore ST population of the country. We had our own J&K State Service Commission. We had a chance to enter high bureaucracy. Now, we have to clear UPSC [Union Public Service Commission]. How can we compete with the rest of India with a lack of facilities? Can we get a single seat in a UPSC exam? The job security of future generations is finished. Now, Ladakhis won’t be visible in the higher echelons of bureaucracy.

Six legislative members represented Ladakh. Now, a bureaucrat or governor will decide everything. You know how the bureaucracy deals with the public. They are not answerable to them. A public representative has to face people after five years. That’s what makes us better than China—the right to elect our own government, to be ruled by our own selves. They have made us voiceless, though they talk about empowering people all the time. We are so proud of our democracy but that democracy is being snatched away from us.

PD: Some leaders in Leh say that not having any legislature will improve the relations between Leh and Kargil.
AAK: It is very unfortunate. It’s like saying there should be no parliament in India, that there should be no democratic set-up. Just select elite will rule the country. It’s like dictatorship in the name of bureaucracy.

PD: What about the hill council? Leh and Kargil have separate hill councils.
AAK: It’s not like the legislature. It’s only for development with no power to legislate. We have a hill council headed by a chairman with a status of cabinet minister and four executive councillors with the status of minister of state. All the development plans passed by this council go to the deputy commissioner, then to the secretary and chief secretary, finally to the governor. If the deputy commissioner does not forward the plans then the hill council with all its status is of no use. The chief secretary could also amend it or send it back. The chairman and the entire council are subordinate to the chief secretary. The council did not have the power to even fill a peon’s post. The council cannot even sanction a primary school let alone higher education.

PD: What is the plan for future? What will happen if your demands are not met?
AAK: Is there any future plan other than to resist and agitate? People will come out on the streets and agitate. Modi and Amit Shah say that J&K will be given the status of a state at the right time, this UT status is temporary. But the centre is also granting a lot of things to Leh. In this reorganisation of the J&K state, Kargil is the biggest loser and sufferer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.