On 16 March, a press conference, followed by a protest event, was held under the banner of Zanskar Coordination Committee headed by the ‘Ladakh Buddhist Association Zanskar’ in Jammu. They were demanding for Zanskar to be made into a separate district. The Jammu event was an extension of the protest of 11 March held in snow-covered Zanskar.
With the recent protest in Zanskar, it has become imperative to revisit its political history as a site of oppression, to have a clear understanding of the present crisis.
Zanskar sub-division, one of the first three tehsils of Ladakh, was merged with Kargil district with the latter’s creation in 1979. Spread over an area of 7,000 sq. km, Zanskar, a Buddhist-dominated region with a minuscule Muslim population – is a part of the Muslim-populated district of Kargil. On the other hand, the Muslims are in minority in the Leh district of Ladakh.
No Leaders From Zanskar
For the sake of it there is the Zanskar constituency, but till date not a single leader from the Zanskar region has represented it. Only ‘outsiders’ have been representing the constituency. The sole reason for this is the gerrymandering of the densely-populated region of Suru Valley with the sparsely-populated Zanskar.
The bifurcation of Ladakh into twin districts on the basis of religious identity has made it an easy prey for both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists in Ladakh.
The influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Imam Khomeini in Leh and Kargil is a visible dividend of this polarization. Historically speaking, the division of Ladakh on religious identity has always resulted in various problems for the region.
Multiple narratives have deluged social media from the twin districts of Kargil and Leh: some in favour of and some against the legitimacy of Zanskar’s demand. Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the BJP Chief Executive Councillor of Leh district, has supported the separate district for Zanskar. He had also put forward this cause before Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s recent visit to Leh in February 2019.
Politics of Religion
Sajjad Kargili, a prominent journalist from Kargil, has termed the protest the ‘brainchild of the RSS’, and alleged that it is being organised to disrupt the peaceful environment of Ladakh. The dialectic of solidarity and disagreement does not stop here. Rinchen Namgyal, President of Ladakh Buddhist Association Youth Wing, has also supported the cause of Zanskar and accused Kargil district of discriminating against it.
Needless to say, many people from both the districts of Ladakh have shown their solidarity for the cause, without religious and regional differences.
At the same time, many people from Kargil are in disagreement over this demand for a separate district. This disagreement and scepticism arises from the timing of the demand just before general elections, and the experience of having the BJP in power both at the centre and the state.
The BJP’s love for Ladakh in the guise of religious intimacy (with the Buddhists) can be seen through the grant of the long-pending demand of the division status to Ladakh, with its base in the Buddhist-dominated district of Leh. Was this division status granted to address the agonies of the people of Ladakh, or was it only a political gimmick?
Why the Govt Needs to Shift Focus to Marginalised Regions of Ladakh
After the declaration of Ladakh’s division status, the people of Kargil protested en masse and accused the BJP of playing divisive politics on religious identity. Kargil demanded the rotation of the headquarters of the division between Leh and Kargil, so as to have an equal share of Ladakh division. One can, however, question why is it bothering some sections of Kargil if Zanskar is demanding a separate district— unequivocally cutting across religious and regional differences— for its holistic development?
This lack of understanding in their approach exposes the double standards of people who are against the demands of Zanskar. Moreover, the people of Nubra and Changthang have also been raising demands for a separate district.
In the case of such an impasse, it will not be a cake walk for the people of Zanskar to materialise their goal. This protest has raised the election fever in Ladakh and shifted the battlefield to the marginal region of Ladakh (Zanskar, Nubra, Changthang) from the twin districts of Ladakh: Leh and Kargil, which have attracted the eyes of the government for a long time.
(Jamphel Sheyan is a resident of Zanskar sub-division in the Kargil District of Ladakh, and is a research scholar at the Central University of Jammu. This is a personal blog. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)