Ladakh should be a sanctuary of peace with nature, it needs safeguards: Sonam Wangchuk

TED ALJIBE / AFP / Getty Images
25 October, 2019

The Narendra Modi-led government’s decision to read down Article 370, strip Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood, and carve the region into two union territories came as a shock to the people of Ladakh. The erstwhile state will officially be divided into two union territories—Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh—on 31 October. The high-altitude Himalayan region that borders China had been demanding a union territory status for decades. While the centre’s policy was primarily aimed at Kashmir, Ladakh got lucky is the usual refrain among the Ladakhis. And the initial celebrations gradually gave way to many anxieties among the people of this remote region, which is suddenly facing a deluge of changes.

The locals believe that with the protection of Article 370 and Article 35A gone, it would be open season for people from outside to come and buy land, invest and start businesses. They are afraid that the region’s delicate ecology, the Ladakhis’ distinct culture, and way of life, would all become extinct. The fear of marginalisation has divided the Ladakhi society, which is passionately debating the pros and cons of this situation, even as rumours of an influx of outsiders do the rounds. The absence of a legislature under the new administrative setup is also a major cause of concern. Now, the main demand is that Ladakh should be given a sixth-schedule status—the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India provides safeguards for tribal-dominated regions.

Sonam Wangchuk is an educationist and a prominent face of the Ladakh civil society. An engineer by profession, he runs the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives in Ladakh—an organisation dedicated to developing learning models for sustainable development in mountain regions. In a conversation with Praveen Donthi, a staff writer at The Caravan, Wangchuk discussed the challenges ahead for Ladakh.

Praveen Donthi: After the government’s decision on 5 August, there was jubilation all around. Two months later, that jubilation seems to have made way for some concerns and anxieties, ahead of the formal bifurcation on 31 October.
Sonam Wangchuk: The celebration was almost in disbelief. The Ladakhis struggled for the union territory status for 70 years, and actively for 30 years, to the point that it seemed impossible. It had become the issue for many elections and was now seen as promising the moon. Each party would say “we will bring you UT,” and then one fine day, it’s there. Nobody was expecting it, and that might be the cause for the concerns as they got it without struggle. There was struggle 20, even 30 years ago, but in the last ten years there was hardly any struggle for the UT, it was just lip service.

The young people are more overpowered by concerns. They did not see the struggles and they did not know the value [of a union territory status], so they were more overpowered by the concerns of what will happen to the land, to the people, to the demography, and so on. The undercurrent of jubilation will remain, but now that it is a reality, it is sinking inwhat will happen to the safeguards for the population, landholdings, nature and environment, and so on.

PD: So the concerns are coming mostly from the young people?
SW: Much more, yes. The elders have seen all the sufferings of being with Jammu and Kashmir in the past, before the hill council. [The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, is an autonomous district council that administers the Leh district of Ladakh. It was created in 1995, following Ladakh’s demand to be recognised as a union territory because of its religious and cultural differences with Jammu and Kashmir.] After the hill council, the issues have not been so big. More than half the issues have been resolved. The young have not seen the discrimination, and all kinds of oppression. The older generation has seen that and cannot believe that they are finally free.

PD: If most of the problems were solved by setting up the hill council, then what was the need for a union territory?
SW: We were not a truly autonomous body which can have its own language policy, education policy etcetera. To me, one of the most important issues was—Ladakh had so much potential to innovate, be very dynamic in reformation in education, and to be upright, away from corruption. All this was not possible because we had to walk with a state that was slow, in trouble, and that was corrupt. Ladakh has been very clean.

Given the fact that it had to live with Kashmir, Ladakhi officers would be trained to be corrupt by the system. If they were upright, they would be a problem for the rest of the system. So, we were a misfit in the big system. People [here] have gone through serious problems for being honest. Yet, most of them have remained very honest, while some have joined forces with the [corrupt] system. Similarly, if we wanted to do something out of the box in education, we were told the state [Jammu and Kashmir] does not do this, so you cannot do it. It’s like a race where you are tied to the other person and the other person does not want to run. I am happy that right now, may be, we can bring back moral standards that Ladakh has always known.

PD: If I contrast what you said about freedom from Kashmir with what I have heard from various people in Leh, about the threat to the culture, tradition and way of life as the region opens up to people from all over the country, it seems like Ladakh has jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.
SW: That is why we are stressing on safeguards before we talk of progress. Our institution [HIAL] has sponsored five study tours to various places in the country that are union territories already, and some with safeguards like the Sixth Schedule. Since we are a mountain development university, we thought this will help to kick-start a process to preserve our ecology. We wanted the hill council to have good inputs and recommendations to submit to the centre. We realised that to be concerned is not wrong. There was a point when the older generation said, “You young people are concerned for nothing. You do not even let us celebrate by raising concerns.”

But going to these places, people saw that we should be concerned and we should demand safeguards in time, before it’s too late. It’s important to not only be concerned but also ask for the right things from the beginning, like the Sixth Schedule, empowerment of the hill council with legislative powers. Other things such as Sikkim’s certificate of identification [a proof of domicile], in place of what we used to have—state subject. We may use another name, but we can demand that such a vulnerable area should have a limit on how many people come here. You cannot make it free for all.

PD: The young people turned out to be right to be worried. Where would you place yourself?
SW: The middle path. I am very happy because I have seen the past and, at the same time, very cautious because I can see the future also.

PD: Some Ladakhis said that even if the hill council is given legislative powers, it would be akin to the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi that has to constantly fight the lieutenant governor to implement its policies. Hence, it would be of no use. Would you agree with such a view?
SW: I agree, but then what we have to compare with is the Jammu and Kashmir state, where we had no say, no legislative powers. We were an independent kingdom in the past and we were reduced to a district. Compared to that even [being in] Kejriwal’s situation is not so bad. The rest is all about diplomacy—how we will manage to get things done. So, with a lieutenant governor and the centre, we will have to manage. The other side of having a legislature is that we might have a huge internal conflict. The current arrangement of two hill councils for Kargil and Leh is better. [The Muslim-majority Kargil and the Buddhist-majority Leh are the two districts of Ladakh.]

The Pondicherry-type legislature will lead to huge political strife between Leh and Kargil. It will be a war-like situation. Every time there is a parliament election, there is tension between Leh and Kargil. That will become a permanent tension if there was one Assembly. Kargil will be trying to get more seats and power, and Leh would be fighting to keep its prominence. There has been a population race for demographic control just because of the one member of parliament seat. Imagine if there were thirty to forty assembly seats with one chief minister—who will be made by the region that is more populous. When these two regions compete to have a say, it becomes very communal. That is dangerous.

PD: People say the hill council is mostly dedicated to developmental works. Is the council capable of handling the challenge of preserving the culture and identity of Ladakh as a union territory?
SW: The hill council has that mandate, but they do not exercise it. They never allocate funds and importance to that. In the UT, it will be much more important. It’s a matter of keeping the lieutenant governor in good humour and getting things done. It’s very much up to us how we conduct ourselves.

PD: But many continue to demand for a legislature.
SW: I do not see that big a difference. For example, if you go to Pondicherry, there is less development and more struggles between the chief minister and the lieutenant governor, even without the Leh-Kargil kind of dynamic. If you add the Leh and Kargil dynamic to that situation, you will have more disharmony.

PD: There is rampant coal mining in Meghalaya, which is under the Sixth Schedule. Here, in Ladakh, people are talking about mining for uranium reserves that could be huge draw for big industrialists, and be a death knell for its ecology.
SW: That is for the Ladakhi people to really say no to. We have to say no to big industries. This place cannot support such things. It is already stretched with its three lakh population. There is not enough water. People struggle for water in the spring with just the aboriginal population. You can imagine what will happen in the future. The glaciers would be gone and the industry will also end. Ladakh should be a sanctuary of peace with nature. It should be demarcated as such with safeguards. Then it will be a harmonious place, where people will come more like pilgrims than to exploit the place.

PD: As an environmentalist, you have said that Ladakh is at the forefront of climate change. Where would you draw the line for tourism?
SW: Limited tourism. For example, it is difficult to say locals can do [certain things like run businesses] and non-locals cannot do. It is more about small scale, rather than local and non-local. There was a good suggestion from the study-tour discussions that rather than saying outsider and insider, why not say “a hotel with 25 rooms and not beyond will be allowed.” Maybe no big player will be interested in doing that. Something like that needs to be done.

PD: Do you think giving Ladakh the Sixth Schedule status will take care of all the problems and worries?
SW: It has to be tailor-made with provisions that suit Ladakh. It can take any shape. It’s not the same in different states. Of late, I am a little concerned because we do not hear of Sixth Schedule anymore. Initially, it was in the papers that various ministries have recommended giving Ladakh something like the Sixth Schedule. Suddenly, it stopped, there is a silence. It will not be good if they do not give the Sixth Schedule to Ladakh.

PD: What is the plan of action if Ladakh is not given any safeguards?
SW: Even if they are not giving [Sixth Schedule], it’s because they do not want to give anything easily. They want to probably give it slowly and get some credit for their party. Perhaps people will fight and shout a little bit.

PD: Are there any concerns that a Hindu-majority party such as the Bharatiya Janata Party is gaining ground and influence in Ladakh?
SW: I would say there are concerns because Ladakh has a very distinct culture and people are proud of that. Suddenly, what if they are told “you are a small part of big culture, it’s all the same, behave this way and that way.” Among the Buddhists, there are concerns and among the Muslims also.

PD: Is it true that there has been outside interference? Are more and more things being decided by the BJP party unit in Jammu for the hill council, ever since the BJP has taken over?
SW: Not in the functioning of hill council yet, but in the appointments for the hill council itself. Blatant and glaring things like who should be the chairman of the hill council were decided from Jammu. It never happened before and should not happen. Because of certain people making deals, having Jammu and tomorrow maybe Delhi, decide who the Ladakhi people’s elected representatives should be, has been of great concern for people here.

PD: Ladakh is suddenly looking at complex and far-reaching changes with the looming outside influence. Will the region rise up to the challenge of preserving itself?
SW: Difficult to say. It will depend on the weight of our leaders. With a powerful party [the BJP], it is very difficult because the people in power here are of the same party. They cannot protest much, they cannot demand much. When you are little players in a big party, you cannot stand up to it. That is my biggest concern. Our MP, our chairman [of the hill council] might say “yes” to things that might be compromising. They are little parts of the big party and the big parts of the party are saying “we gave you this, fall in line.”

Therefore, the civil society has to help them raise their voice. If they are clever, those in power should not only not object to that [civil society taking up cudgels] but encourage it because then people are saying it. They can say, “my people do not accept, and it will reflect badly on the party,” then the party might listen. If there are no people and it is between the party and our leaders, then it is like a giant and a dwarf in a closed room. If there is a stadium full of people, they can at least boo. That’s why people and the civil society have a great role to play now.

PD: I have heard people say that Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the current MP from Ladakh, is probably closer to the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh than his own people. Are you missing a decisive leader like Thupsten Chhewang, the former BJP MP from Ladakh who resigned from the party a few months before the 2019 general elections on the issue of the UT status, who never hesitated in voicing the concerns of the people?
SW: Yes, that is what I am saying, a dwarf and a giant will make a difficult combination. We can educate the people to know right from wrong, good from bad, constructive from destructive and expect them to make noise. Then the leaders, knowing that the people know everything, will behave better. That is our only chance. That is why we sent people from all religions, all parties and all walks of life, on the study tours. We are hoping to hold public hearings so that people can educate themselves. Tomorrow, if our leaders say “no Schedule 6 is also okay,” the people will say “no.”

PD: How is that awareness campaign going?
SW: It’s not very strong, should be stronger. We are also considering sending the people, who went on study tours, to the interiors and to talk to people about the concerns and share what they say. For example, in Tripura, the tribal population used to be 80 percent and 20 percent non-tribals, and now, twenty years later, it’s the reverse. We hope to raise awareness in the time we have before it is announced on 31 October. There is very little time.

PD: As a Ladakhi you are happy that you have been granted UT. What do you have to say about the effective abrogation of Article 370 and the way Kashmir has been put under severe restrictions including a communication blockade?
SW: I won’t say anything about restrictions now. My personal view is that we should not give the facility of 370 to Kashmir alone. Every state should be allowed to safeguard itself and keep cohesiveness with the federal structure of India. My point of view does not come from a political perspective but an environmental angle. When people go to one place from another place, it is exploited. A neighbour may visit but they might not live there. It’s not like a family member taking care of the family. People of Himachal Pradesh should be allowed to take care of Himachal Pradesh, people of Tamil Nadu should be allowed to take of Tamil Nadu. Each place should take care of itself. Then, there would not be exploitative behaviour from the outsiders. Kashmir had that right but Maharashtra did not, so the outsiders came in. Outsiders do not respect the locals. India should have diversity in their unity. It should become a federal nation with a lot of diversity. Each place should be given rights to take care of that place.