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Ladakh Crisis: How Sonam Wangchuk Exposed Cracks in BJP's Strategy for the UT

With no legislature, land and jobs even after three years of being a UT, many Ladakhis feel cheated and betrayed.

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On 21 January, Ladakh's top environmentalist Sonam Wangchuk took social media by storm by claiming that “All is not well in Ladakh."

The engineer-turned-education reformer made a fervent appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene and "safeguard eco-fragile Ladakh”.

Wangchuk whose life inspired a character in the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots, had announced a five-day-long climate fast at 18,380 feet high Khardung La pass from 26 January to invite attention of the BJP-led Centre to address the demands of Ladakhis.

However, on 27 January, Wangchuk claimed that he has been placed under house arrest at his institution in Leh by the administration, and has been asked to sign the bond under Section 107 CRPC to ensure he wouldn't make any statement or participate in public meetings for a month. He also claimed that a battery of cops have surrounded his place and he is not allowed to come out from his institution.

The scientist has joined the calls of his fellow citizens for the protection of land, jobs, and the environment in the Ladakh region more than three years after the cold desert was granted Union Territory(UT) status in 2019.
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In Jammu and Kashmir, hundreds of political leaders and activists including three former chief ministers were put behind bars for several months when the Government of India revoked the special status of the region.

The government was expecting a strong rebellion from the valley, however, it had no inkling about the resentment in the Ladakh region.

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Why "All Is Not Well" in Ladakh?

On 5 August 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that granted special status to the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. The state was bifurcated into two UTs—Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.

A separate UT was the long pending demand of the people of Leh and when the government finally granted it, they welcomed the decision and celebrated the UT status. The Kargil district showed a strong resentment against parting ways from Jammu and Kashmir.
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However, over three years down the line, people of both regions feel cheated and betrayed by the BJP, those who were expecting the UT to have legislature and protection of land and Jobs.

Former BJP minister from Ladakh Cherring Dorjay Lakruk told The Quint that the demand of UT for Ladakh was indeed, a long pending demand, however, they were expecting a UT with legislature.

“Article 370 was protecting our land and other rights but it's no longer there now,” he said.

Lakruk, the Vice Chairman of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), said that they want constitutional protection on land, employment and cultural identity of the local population.

“That is why people of Leh and Kargil have jointly decided to fight for our rights. These provisions fall under six schedules of the Indian constitution, so we should get it,” Lakruk added.

Lakruk who is also the vice chairman of Leh Apex Body (LAB) added that people of Ladakh have realised that they were befooled in the name of UT.

“Let me tell you the people of Leh aren’t happy with BJP and they will realise it in the upcoming elections,” he added.

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Chairman/ CEC Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Kargil Feroz Ahmad Khan argues that it was the demand of people of Leh for a separate UT, not Kargil's.

“The crisis right now is in the Leh district because they were expecting something big after UT status but that didn’t happen,” Khan said. “Now you have a UT without legislation where people's participation is less and the show is run by the LG and the central government,” he added.

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Buddhists and Muslims Join Hands

The issue has united both the leaders from the Buddhist majority Leh and Muslim majority Kargil such that they are on the same page and have decided to launch a “massive agitation” if their demands aren’t fulfilled.

Khan, the Chairman of LAHDC said that it was for the first time in history that Muslims and Buddhists joined hands to free their demands.

“..Otherwise the demands of both communities were never the same. Now both are on the same page,” Khan said.

The two groups were formed in the twin districts of Kargil and Leh including Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance following the region’s resentment against the central government after the creation of separate Union Territory in August 2019.
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On 7 January, the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) and Leh Apex Body (LAB) in a joint meeting, decided to stay away from the Centre’s High Powered Committee (HPC).

It may be noted that on 3 January, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) constituted a high-powered committee headed by the Minister of State Nityanand Rai to “ensure the protection of land and employment” for the people of Ladakh.

The 17-member committee that includes Ladakh Lieutenant Governor RK Mathur will “discuss measures to protect the region’s unique culture and language taking into consideration its geographical location and its strategic importance," an order by the MHA said.

However, the apex bodies said they won't engage with New Delhi until or unless their four-point agenda of a full-fledged Statehood for Ladakh, Constitutional Safeguards under the 6th schedule of the Indian Constitution, early recruitment process and PSC for Ladakh and Separate Lok Sabha seats for Leh and Kargil districts are included in the meeting.

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On 15 January, both the apex groups protested in the Jammu region to press their demands. The protesters gathered outside the Press Club of Jammu. They also announced a protest calendar which includes a rally in Delhi in the third week of February.

Even after the BJP-led government constituted a high-powered committee, the same has failed to calm down the tempers as the anger is brewing up in the cold desert.

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Why Abrogation of Article 370 Doesn't Solve Ladakh's Problems

The Sixth Schedule was enacted in 1949, per Article 244 of the Indian constitution. It was designed to protect the indigenous and tribal groups by establishing and functioning autonomous district divisions known as the autonomous district councils or ADCs.

Because of the sixth schedule, the indigenous and tribal groups in the north-eastern states have significant autonomy.

The Sixth Schedule grants considerable autonomy to tribal communities. The District Council and the Regional Council get the real power to make laws.

These bodies can sanction funds from the Consolidated Fund of India to meet the costs of schemes for development, health care, education, roads and regulatory powers in the area. It provides the power of the enactment of autonomous district councils (ADCs) to protect the rights of tribal populations. ADCs are those bodies representing the district. These bodies have been given autonomy within the state assembly.

However, on 3 December 2019, the Govt made it clear that Ladakh may not fall under the sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

It told the Lok Sabha that the existing autonomous councils set up under the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act, 1997, were already the most empowered country with powers “more or less in line with the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution”.

Songam Wangchuk told The Quint on phone that Ladakh was safe with Article 370 but since it’s no longer there, the people are concerned about the climate and the constitutional safeguards.

“We are looking for an alternative to Article 370 and that is in the sixth schedule. Whole of Ladakh has gotten united and every party including the BJP, Ladakh is not opposing the sixth schedule,” he added.

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"BJP Ditched People"

Padma Stanzin, Ladakh Students Educational and environmental Action forum (LEAF) argues Ladakh is predominantly a tribal region in the country and they deserve to be put under the sixth schedule.

“The main demand was UT with the legislature but this didn't happen. Ladakh was strong case for the 6th schedule because 90% population is tribal,” he said adding that it was recommended by many including the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has recommended to the Central Government

According to the Ministry of Tribal affairs, the Scheduled Tribe population represent 66.8 percent in Leh, 73.35 percent in Nubra, 97.05 percent in Khalsti, 83.49 per cent in Kargil, 89.96 per cent in Sanku and 99.16 per cent in Zanskar areas of the Ladakh region.

Stanzin alleged that the BJP promised the sixth schedule in the 2020 parliamentary elections and kept its manifesto but later backtracked and didn't even talk about it.

“They didn't even talk about the 6th schedule and the administration is trying to silence the people of Ladakh,” he added.

Ladakh, a UT without a Legislative Assembly, has two autonomous hill councils, one for Leh and another for Kargil. The Chief Executive Councillor of the council holds the status of cabinet minister of a state and the executive councilor of Minister of State.

It may be noted the autonomous LAHDC lost all its powers after Article 370 was abrogated and the erstwhile state was divided into two Union territories.

Phunchok Stanzin, BJP’s Ladakh president, however, maintains that his party is ready to address all the issues and has constituted a committee for the same. But the opposition parties, he said and people with “vested interests” are making issues out of nothing.

“When the government of India has made it clear that they will ensure the protection of the rights of Ladakhis, why are they protesting,” Stanzin told The Quint on phone.

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He further alleged that some people from Leh along with Kargil’s apex body want to restore Article 370 that was annulled by the BJP government.

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LG Sowing the Seeds of Militancy

Wangchuk completed his five-day-long fast on Monday at his institution. He is the director of the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL).

A recipient of the Magsaysay Award in the year 2018, in November 2022, he was awarded the seventh Dr Paulos Mar Gregorios Award by the former Vice President Venkaiah Naidu.

On 27 January, in a video he posted on twitter, Wangchuk alleged Ladakh Lieutenant Governor RK Mathur of sowing the seeds of militancy in the region.

Speaking to The Quint, Wangchuk said his protest was simply to press people's demand to safeguard Ladakh under the Sixth schedule of Indian constitution.

“I wanted to spread awareness among the people of Ladakh and country to adopt a lifestyle that is climate-friendly because it’s not the government only that can safeguard our mountains and glaciers as well but people have to come forward for the same,” he said.

Wangchuk said he was planning to go to Khardung La pass and observe the climate fast for five days.

"They are using all kinds of tactics to curtail my voice,” he added.

He further added that the Leh administration has restricted his fast to the HAIL campus and is not allowed to Khardung La top, citing threats to his life.

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Are Dissenting Voices Being Curtailed?

While rejecting the allegations, Senior Superintendent of Police, Leh, PD Nitya said that Wangchuk hasn’t been placed under house arrest. She said the police intercepted him when he tried to move toward Khardung La pass.

“The Khardung La pass is an avalanche prone area and the temperature goes -40°C. Since we had apprehensions that other people might join him, we requested him to restrict his fast in his institution only since it was not safe for him and other people,” SP Nitya said.

She further added that there is no restriction on Mr Wangchuk and he is “using social media giving live updates everyday."

(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @AuqibJaveed.)

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