Does Ladakh Truly Need Sixth Schedule? Will ‘Tribal’ Policy Work?

Govt must be careful to avoid ‘cut + paste’ tribal policy here. A ‘civilising’ mission may have a negative outcome.

Published
Opinion
6 min read
Image of maps of newly-formed UTs of Ladakh and J&K used for representational purposes.
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Amidst mounting Chinese pressure at the border, some mischievous contrivances to stir up trouble in Ladakh have recently begun. China recently stated that it “does not recognise the Union Territory of Ladakh”; soon after, media outlet Al Jazeera put up an article with the title ‘Ladakh Buddhists who hailed India’s Kashmir move not so sure now’.

With the first anniversary of Ladakh UT having just gone by on 31 October, mischief-makers are once again on the loose. “Ladakh is in the news for border conflicts. But its residents have bigger worries than China,” writes another news tabloid. Others have followed suit.

The narrative is – while the Muslims of Ladakh are dismayed at the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A, Buddhists too, who initially rejoiced at the UT status, are now having second thoughts.

They convey the impression that people in Ladakh are unmoved by the border stand-off; instead they are fretful of ‘outsiders’ foraying in to threaten their culture and demography.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Designating Ladakh As UT: A Restoration Of Its Identity

Ladakh’s separation from J&K in 2019 was a watershed moment – a new tryst with destiny to change the fate of Ladakh after 185 years of ‘slavery and coercion’ under J&K.

Designating it as a UT was a historical re-enactment of Ladakh’s profile – a restoration of its identity and dignity as a formidable Western Himalayan region of India. It was a dream come true, for the people had been struggling for a UT status since 1947. 31 October, therefore, marked the end of Ladakh’s cruel irony, its prolonged political neglect and apathy in the country.

There is obviously a cause for celebration. But, to be sure, Ladakh UT is at an infancy stage, facing some teething problems of transition, especially when people are voicing some apprehensions relating to their identity and land protection.

Ladakh’s Demand For Constitutional Safeguards Amid Fear

Such fears have given birth to the idea of demanding constitutional safeguards, that is, the inclusion of Ladakh UT in the Sixth Schedule of India’s Constitution – a provision given to 10 tribal districts in four Northeastern states.

The demand has suddenly triggered a ‘People’s Movement’ in Leh led by a prominent religious leader and two veteran political leaders who left the BJP recently.

A range of political, social and religious outfits rallied behind them in support for the demand of ‘Sixth Schedule for Ladakh’. They even called for boycotting the elections to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) until the demand was met.

Strangely, their demand came with some threatening undertone that inadvertently concurred with the Chinese utterance of ‘not recognising the Union Territory of Ladakh’. It was unclear whether they intended to leverage the border stand-off, but it seemingly put the government under a lot of pressure. What followed was a meeting between them and Home Minister Amit Shah who assured to start a talk after 15 days of the local poll results on 26 October. Ladakhis instantly lifted their boycott call and also quickly denounced China’s statement on Ladakh – ostensibly to avoid any misunderstanding at such a critical time.

What’s At The Crux Of The Ladakhis’ Demand?

At the heart of their demand is power. The UT status came without a legislative Council and instead, even the existing powers of LAHDC got shifted to the Lt Governor.

The demand now is that the local Councils are empowered with legislative power by bringing them under the ambit of Sixth Schedule of Article 244(1) of the Constitution. The leaders also abhorred Delhi-appointed bureaucrats running the show.

They demand a Bodoland-type power arrangement that protects the rights of indigenous people over their land with legislative subjects that are exclusive to local governments without interference from Central Laws. A similar provision under Article 371 (A) is given to other areas such as in Nagaland in respect of the religious, social practices, customary law of the Nagas.

Why Ladakh’s People ‘Can’t Be Considered’ As ‘Vulnerable’ Or ‘Primitive’

The bestowal of the Sixth Schedule certainly entails advantages and is also emotionally satisfying for specific communities. Yet, others contend that it comes with its own shortcomings. For example, it leads to political and economic ‘exclusion’, and in the absence of political will, and the mercy of government allocating funds, the scheduled areas inevitably stand to face neglect.

The problem is that voices raised by Leh are not supported by majority Shia Kargil.

They even went ahead to oppose J&K’s bifurcation and reject the formation of the UT.

Also, a contrary opinion is that Ladakhis cannot be compared with the vanishing tribes like the Jarawas of the Andaman Islands or other forested tribes facing threat of extinction.

The world knows Ladakh more as a part of the global Buddhist civilisation or Islamic heritage that can’t be described as a ‘primitive’ or ‘vulnerable’ community.

Ladakh is historically perceived as a cosmopolitan region with centuries of multiple cultural settings. It was an Asian pivot – the people here traversed diverse cultural boundaries and engaged with ideas. Its Buddhist community resembles nothing like the Chakma tribes in the Northeast. The Baltis and Purigs of Kargil cherish their rich Persian Shia and Sufi heritages.

The region had the highest literacy rate (82 percent) in J&K. A great deal of social equality exists; the women enjoy high status in every aspect of life. It has a highly westernised Buddhist and Balti elite which send children to study in India’s top-public schools.

An Expectation Mismatch

Ladakh had some famous national leaders like Kushok Bakula, P Namgyal, Kacho Sikander Khan and Munshi Habibullah. It produced several technocrats, bureaucrats and military leaders like Sonam Norboo, AJ Kundan, Colonel Rinchen, C Phunsog and others who held important political and diplomatic positions in the country. Ladakhis are also known to be true nationalists. The velour of Ladakh Scout Regiments is well known.

To draw an analogy between Ladakh with any other tribal communities of India therefore seems a folly.

However, the Ladakhi demand is much more than ‘reasonable’, for there is certainly a mismatch between the nature of the existing governance structure (UT without a legislature) and the expectation of the people after they have been stripped of the safeguards under Article 370.

The expectation gap certainly needs to be bridged.

‘Cut + Paste’ Tribal Policy Won’t Work For Ladakh – A ‘Civilising’ Mission May Not End Well

The government, however, needs to tread carefully and avoid having a 'cut and paste' tribal policy for Ladakh. To set the clock back to reviving the old feudal socio-economic hierarchy is even more unnecessary.

Any misguided notion of approaching Ladakh with a ‘civilising’ mission may have its own negative consequences.

At the same time, the Sixth Schedule demand also appears imprudent and not a well thought-out idea – seemingly raised in a fit of hasty deliberation. Ladakh deserves much more, for it was once an ancient Western Himalayan Kingdom with a profound cultural backdrop.

Why The Sixth Schedule Is A ‘Regressive’ Move

Its rich Buddhist, Balti and Dardic cultural heritage requires a much higher degree of protection.

The Sixth Schedule seems a regressive move, whereas a bigger panacea is to seek a higher political status to commensurate with Ladakh’s historical profile.

A prudent policy step would be to consider Ladakh under the ambit of protecting the Himalayan heritage – its people, culture, environment and security. A national commission is urgently needed to review the issue as also addressing the Ladakhi demand so as to bring about a necessary law by the Parliament.

Ladakh’s geo-strategic importance needs no elaboration.

The region extends from Karakoram Range in the northwest to the Kailash Range in the southeast, from the Tarim Basin in the north to Kangra-Mahasu Valley in the south. It now shares international borders with China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obviously, after having been designated as a Union Territory, the region certainly cannot be treated as a municipality town to be governed by bureaucrats alone. The UT status must be complimented with proper political empowerment to strengthen democracy, as well as national defence.

(The author is the founder of the Ladakh International Centre. He is on the Advisory Council of Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, Washington. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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