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 in—what will happen to the safeguards for the population, landholdings, nature and environment, and so on.