Buddhist-Majority Leh & Muslim-Majority Kargil Unite To Demand Autonomy For Ladakh

31 Aug 2021 8 min read  Share

Since 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir was reduced to two union territories, Ladakhis have found themselves without a legislature and without powers over laws affecting livelihoods and community rights. Buddhist and Muslim organisations now demand statehood, more political representation and a constitutional right to self govern.

A deserted street in Kargil on the day of the bandh/BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

New Delhi: “Leh was ecstatic.” 

Despite being from a party that opposed the move, Congressman Deldan Namgyal, 43, said he felt “happy” on 5 August 2019. As military columns secured the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), a communications blackout was imposed, and the contested former kingdom reduced from a state to two union territories (UTs) governed from New Delhi. 

Two years on, Namgyal’s satisfaction at achieving a three-decade old desire for separation from Kashmir has degenerated into disappointment because New Delhi has acceded to few of the region’s long-held demands: powers to make its own policy, statehood and inclusion in the sixth schedule of the Constitution. 

The sixth schedule allows autonomous development councils—with legislative, judicial and executive authority—in areas with dominant tribal populations. The councils can frame laws, including those for inheritance, marriage, police, village administration, and health. 

On 28 August 2021, Ladakh shut down, as its people, regardless of religion or political affiliation, demanded statehood, sixth-schedule rights and parliamentary representation for its two districts of Leh and Kargil. 

In addition to their core demands, Ladakhis are unclear about the laws that apply to them. While 113 central laws have been applied in J&K over the 24 months since it was made a UT, that has not happened in Ladakh. The absence of central laws in Ladakh has led to the misplaced assumption that laws of the erstwhile state of J&K are still applicable in Ladakh.

The result has been disquiet and a loss of power over livelihoods and community rights, since local elected representatives no longer have a say in decision-making for new projects and related issues. Local civil services officers, both from the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, report directly to New Delhi.

Like others in the new UT of Ladakh, Namgyal felt hard done by, and echoed the disenchantment on the streets. 

Ladakh has no legislature, and instead of four MLAs (members of  legislative assembly) who represented its two districts in the former state legislative assembly of J&K, the only representative now is a sole member of Parliament—for a region larger than Switzerland, Denmark or The Netherlands, although Ladakh’s population of 300,000 is smaller than scores of small Indian cities, including Udaipur in Rajasthan, Mangaluru in Karnataka and Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. 

“We have been left at the mercy of a lieutenant governor who is an outsider and does not understand our culture,” said Namgyal. “We can see the negligence towards Ladakh.”

On the second anniversary of the revocation of Article 370, the constitutional provision that bound J&K to India, many in Leh, almost entirely those allied with the BJP, celebrated the occasion, but the people of Kargil, observed the separation from Kashmir as a black day for the third year since 2019. 

Except the BJP, political parties in Muslim-majority Kargil (76.8% Muslim; 14.2% Buddhist) support petitions pending since 2019 in the Supreme Court against the unconstitutional removal of Articles 370 and 35A—the latter guaranteed ownership of land in J&K to “permanent residents” only. 

In Buddhist-majority Leh (66.4% Buddhist; 14.3% Muslim), the resentment against New Delhi is more muted but it is clear there is disenchantment, even anger, at the lack of a legislature and being kept out of the sixth schedule.

Ladakh And Kargil, United In Resentment

The two regions brought their resentment to the same table for the first time on 1 August 2021 when the leaders of the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) met in Leh. 

The LAB and the KDA are amalgams of socio-religious, political and student organisations, both created after J&K’s special status was stripped.


While the LAB demanded provisions of the Constitution’s sixth schedule be extended to Ladakh, the KDA supported restoration of autonomy

The demands reiterated a proposal for an additional member of Parliament and two Rajya Sabha seats to represent Leh and Kargil districts

J&K National Conference leader and co-chairman of KDA Qamar Ali Akhoon likened Ladakh to a bogey without an engine. 

“The administration’s negligent attitude has brought Kargil and Leh together as one voice,” said Akhoon. “By removing constitutional guarantees, BJP gifted our region with dictatorship where we have zero representation.” 

No Statehood, No Rights 

Only restoration of statehood and thereby a state assembly can increase political representation for Ladakh, Buddhist and Muslim representatives said. 

“Now that the concept of state subject has ceased to exist, rights to land and livelihood seem snatched,” said Sajjad Hussain, a Kargil-based social activist. “Our hill councils, a method of exercising decentralised democracy in Ladakh, have been disempowered.” 

“As a UT, we have no laws to govern our land, no laws to check influx of outsiders, no laws to tend to our unemployed youth,” Akhoon said. 

The BJP government in New Delhi extended all central laws to J&K in the “concurrent list” in 2020. India has central laws, such as those that define matters such as defence and foreign affairs; state laws, which govern issues such as state police, health and education; and laws on the concurrent list, administered by state and Centre—such as criminal jurisprudence, labour welfare and professional higher education.

Chhering Dorje, former BJP leader and minister in the erstwhile J&K state, said he had welcomed the separation of Ladakh from J&K but was now disillusioned. “There hasn’t been any gain,” said Dorje. “If these demands aren’t met, people are ready to struggle for statehood.”

On the emphasis on statehood by all Ladakhi representatives, Dorje said they were “in the beginning” mainly concerned with the implementation of the sixth schedule. “But we felt under-represented as the MLA system doesn’t exist anymore,” said Dorje. “Our demands have evolved into a combination of statehood and the sixth schedule.”

“Article 370 and 35A were our talisman for the protection of our lives and livelihoods” said Nasir Munshi, secretary, Kargil joint action committee and Congress politician. “Ladakh has a population of 3 lakh. In 1975 Sikkim was granted statehood with a population of 3.5 lakh people, then why not us?” 

Ladakhis & The Trust Deficit

Mountainous Ladakh—which at its lowest is 8,370 ft above sea level and 25,400 ft at its highest—is strategically critical to India, nestling as it does between the Line of Control with Pakistan and the contentious border with Chinese-controlled Tibet to the east. 

“A trust deficit has set in among the people,” said Hussain, calling the two years since August 2019 a period of “betrayal, humiliation and discrimination”.  

“It was only after abrogation of Article 370 did China cross the border,” said Hussain. “It was only the BJP government’s inefficiency that China was able to usurp land in Ladakh.” 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met mainstream political parties of J&K on 24 June in New Delhi and the union home ministry held talks with the KDA on 1 July. There has been little progress beyond these talks. 

The BJP has not understood the significance of Ladakh as a strategic location, said Dorje. “In 1995, Congress empowered us after four years of our agitation with hill councils [under the administration of] former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao,” said Dorje. “The demand to be designated scheduled tribes was also fulfilled then, but the BJP is not paying attention to our pain.” 

Who Is A Ladakhi Now?

In June 2021, Ladakh administration reserved subordinate services posts for the residents of Ladakh. The order said no person would qualify for appointment “unless the person is a resident of the union territory of Ladakh”.

Ladakhis felt “very humiliated” over this domicile rule, said Dorje, since no domicile law was put in place to define who was a Ladakhi.  “There is no clarity nor any system to cater to the unemployed youth,” said Dorje. “They created posts but didn’t hire many.”  

Munshi said the Centre has no law to define a “resident” of the new UT.   “We used to have a permanent resident certificate under the state subject laws as part of the state of J&K,” said Munshi. “It made sense. That doesn’t exist now and neither is there a domicile law.”

Self-Governance, Village Autonomy Key

As  95% of Ladakhis are tribal, in September 2019, a month after the revocation of Article 370,  the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes recommended that the new UT be brought under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, which guarantees protections and a degree of autonomy for the country’s tribal areas. 

The sixth schedule has provisions for administration of tribal areas in the border states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. It provides for these states to have autonomous districts and councils to frame laws that safeguard the interests of tribal communities.

“After the initial joy, Ladakhis now fear outsiders will corrupt their pristine region with mass industrialisation, leasing of lands, huge inflow of outsiders that may amount to alteration in demography and loss of jobs for locals,” Munshi said.  

The union government has so far ignored the recommendation from its own department. This has only firmed up the resistance further. 

Tashi Gyalson, chair of the BJP-ruled Leh Hill Council conceded that locals were concerned but dismissed the demand for both statehood and the sixth schedule.

 “Implementation of the sixth schedule is debatable, people demanded it, then they demanded statehood, the demands keep changing,” said Gyalson. “We have just become a UT, how can we ask for statehood so immediately?”

While Gyalson said people would not buy the “false narrative” of the demands, Hussain pointed to the “facade of normalcy” attempted on 5 August 2021, when security officials in Srinagar forced shops to open by breaking the locks. It showed, he said, “how BJP has completely failed”. 

(Tarushi Aswani is an independent journalist based in Delhi.)