On August 5, 2019, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government stripped the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated it into two union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. One year after Ladakh gained union territory status, the myth of all-around development and new jobs, which the central government had promised, has been busted.
On August 5 last year, people in Buddhist-majority Leh joyfully crowded the streets dancing and singing in celebration of the fulfillment of their long-pending demand. At the same time unprecedented protests erupted in Shia-Muslim majority Kargil, decrying the bifurcation of the state and stripping of its special status. Protesters in Kargil considered the move an “imposed decision” against the will of the people. During Ladakh’s first year as a union territory, the realities on the ground proved that the concerns of Kargil’s people were genuine and real.
The people in the cold desert realized the change would have more drawbacks than the promised “prosperity and all-round development” as an outcome. The issues of usurping powers of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDCs), confusion on domicile law, lack of employment opportunities, and fear of an influx of outsiders into Ladakh — along with many other issues — have annoyed people in both the districts of Ladakh. One year later, the outlook on these different issues still is not clear to the locals in Ladakh.
Just after the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, while Kargil was outrightly rejecting the new set-up, some whispers of opposition had surfaced from Leh as well. Some pointed out that they had demanded a union territory with a legislature. In absence of a local legislature, the region suddenly fell into hands of bureaucrats appointed from Delhi, who had far less understanding of local issues in comparison to the local public representatives. Amid the initial celebration songs, people in Ladakh did not realize the that the power of the LAHDCs had also been trimmed with the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act. In the aftermath of the bifurcation, the LAHDCs are the region’s top elected public representatives, after the lone member of parliament from Ladakh. Now the LAHDCs, which had been much more powerful after the 2018 amendment, have once again been deprived of financial, recruitment, land allotment, and administrative powers.
Now, a cold war-like situation has surfaced between Ladakh’s public representatives and Delhi’s appointed bureaucrats. After the union territory administration had been functioning for a few months, the public representatives in both Leh and Kargil complained the bureaucrats were not taking them on board while making decisions on important issues of public interest. The rivalry went to the extent that the BJP-led LAHDC in Leh staged a furious protest outside the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. Some even accused the lieutenant general of functioning as a “dictator.” In April, all the elected bodies of Kargil — including the LAHDC, Panchayat Raj members, and Municipal Committee — had threatened to resign en masse over similar issues, a move that was supported by multiple political, religious, and social organizations.
Later, even the local units of the BJP and leaders in Leh realized the shortcomings of the new union territory status. A day after the resignation threat by public representatives in Kargil, an audio clip leaked that appeared to be from an online meeting between members of the BJP unit in Ladakh with their higher-ups. The audio clip revealed the deep resentment of BJP cadres of the Ladakh region against the functioning of the Ladakh union territory (UT) administration. Even Ladakh’s MP, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal of the BJP, who had welcomed the new status with a fiery speech in the parliament, was critical of the set-up in practice.
Ladakh’s public representatives accused the UT administration of putting up “hurdles” to the working of Autonomous Councils in Ladakh. In one example, the District Magistrate office had served a notice to the executive councillor for health over “violation of Section 144” and “crossing many check posts without permission from the competent authorities” amid the COVID-19 lockdown. However, as per media reports, the executive councillor was on a tour to check medical facilities in the region. The public representatives have been left with no role to play, even while they remain the immediate authority accessible to the public.
In addition to stripping off the powers of the LAHDCs, the leaders in Ladakh have complained that they had acquired the divisional status for Ladakh in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state – but those powers have been eroded again in the newly formed union territory. Ladakh has not gained a legislature, but it has lost four MLAs (members of legislative assembly), two MLCs (members of legislative council), and two cabinet ministers that were representing the region in the former Jammu and Kashmir state.
It seems that despite the long-time demand for union territory status, it was not a well thought-through decision.
Beyond the political reality of being a union territory, there have been other downsides. Students suffered confusion due to unclear recruitment procedures and a lack of employment opportunities. Ladakh’s students lost reservations that had been granted in universities and government colleges of Jammu and Kashmir. Aspirants from Ladakh also lost the chance to take part in recruiting by JK Bank and Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS). Last week, at the call of the All Kargil Students’ Association, an umbrella organization of students’ associations functioning in different cities, all of Ladakh observed a complete shutdown to protest against the delayed results of various employment exams, the unclear domicile law, the JK Bank recruitment row, and many other issues. The major political and religious organizations from both Ladakh’s districts were very quick to declare support to the student fraternity, terming their concerns “genuine public issues.” The unprecedented mass strike seems to have earned results, as the JK Bank has opened its vacancies to aspirants from Ladakh (in an earlier notification, the postings had been opened for residents of the new Jammu and Kashmir union territory alone). In addition, the Jammu and Kashmir UT administration has announced a 4 percent seat reservation for Ladakh students in its professional institutions.
In addition to these concerns, Kargil district has always complained of discrimination from the Ladakh UT administration and BJP-led central government. The major issues to mention are the set-up of directorates and major offices in Leh district, putting Kargil at a disadvantage. Recently, media reports revealed that the divisional commissioner office — originally set up on rotational basis in both the districts — has not opened in Kargil for a long time. There’s a widespread belief that it has closed forever and shifted permanently to Leh. In a new example that has annoyed the public, the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) headquarters at Chutuk, Kargil is all set to move to Basgo, Leh. The chief executive councillor of Kargil’s LAHDC in a letter to Lieutenant Governor Ladakh Radha Krishna Mathur has sought retention of the NHPC office at Chutuk in Kargil district.
The boiling resentment of the public in Ladakh speaks to the lack of ground research and study from the central government’s side before making the decision to bifurcate the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. Even the Ladakh Union Territory Front and the Ladakh Buddhist Association, who were the frontline advocates of union terriroty status, did not seem to have framed a roadmap for its three decade-long demand. As a result, people even in Leh district murmur that this is not the type of union territory they wanted. The haste and timing of the decision have dragged Ladakh into a new round of concerns instead of meeting their long-held expectations for the new status.
Some of the leaders and the youth sensed these issues in the beginning. They initiated a series of mass protests in different cities to demand the inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, their demonstration has remained suspended.
The government’s claim of all-around prosperity and development of Ladakh after the formation of the union territory thus seems to be far off in the distance. To achieve its promises, the central government has to adopt a realistic approach, considering the on-the-ground realities.
Anwar Ali Tsarpa was born and brought up in Ladakh. He is a research scholar at Nelson Mandela centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, JMI, New Delhi.