Between Protests and Border Incursions, Insecurity Is Rising in Ladakh

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Between Protests and Border Incursions, Insecurity Is Rising in Ladakh

New Delhi’s security-centric policy in the Union Territory since August 2019 has left locals feeling sidelined and disempowered.

Between Protests and Border Incursions, Insecurity Is Rising in Ladakh

Residents from Ladakh hold placards demanding statehood and other democratic rights for their region during a protest in New Delhi, India, Feb. 15, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

On February 3, thousands of people in  Ladakh, India’s northernmost frontier region, took part in a peaceful protest. They were agitating against New Delhi’s delay in meeting their demands since August 5, 2019, when Ladakh was set up as a Union Territory (UT) after being separated from the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). In response, New Delhi called for a meeting between Ladakh and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on February 19. 

The local discontent in Ladakh has geopolitical overtones. The Indo-China border in eastern Ladakh has remained sensitive since 2020, when Indian and Chinese forces clashed in Galwan Valley. There have been persistent reports of India losing access to land, and villagers in the region claim to have encountered troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) freely patrolling inside long-held Indian territory. 

Rapid Infrastructure Growth and National Projects 

In the four years since becoming a UT, Ladakh has witnessed incredible growth, especially in terms of infrastructure. Since 2019, there has been a heavy emphasis on connectivity, with large projects helmed by the central government increasing in pace amid the border tensions. Ladakh has seen 750.21 kilometers of roads constructed or upgraded and 29 new bridges and 30 new helipads built, with ongoing projects including the all-weather Zoji-la tunnel, Kargil-Zanskar road, and Nimmo-Padum-Darch road. In addition, in 2023 the survey for the all-weather Bilaspur-Manali-Leh railway line, which will stretch 498 kilometers with 40 stations, was completed with the budget for the project estimated at 990 billion Indian rupees (around $12 billion). 

Such a significant investment in Ladakh’s infrastructure is not surprising. 

First, the geopolitical situation in the region warrants a scale-up of security infrastructure along the border. Second, Ladakh is rich in natural resources. There are high-quality uranium deposits in Nubra Valley and rare earth minerals, which are vital raw materials to modern technologies, are also found in parts of Ladakh. At present India imports its 95 percent of its rare earth supplies. With abundant land and water resources, the stage is already set to make Ladakh an electronic manufacturing hub and data center.

Ladakh is also a potential renewable energy powerhouse. In 2021, New Delhi solidified plans to build seven hydroelectricity projects in Ladakh with a capacity of 2070.02 MW, in addition to the existing hydroelectric plants representing 90 MW. Also, India’s government approved a 13 GW solar power plant at Pang in Ladakh. India is also exploiting the natural hot geyser at Puga of to generate geothermal energy of about 100 MW. The vast majority of this energy would go to power other parts of the country, as the total power demand within Ladakh is about 50 MW, merely 0.3 percent of the region’s total power capacity (including both existing and proposed projects). 

Growing Unemployment, Land Insecurity, and Disempowerment 

Clearly, Ladakh is an area of great interest and investment for the central government. However, locals say they have not seen the benefits of this influx of money and attention.

After the changes of August 5, 2019, youths of Ladakh became ineligible for certain government jobs, including the post of gazetted officer (managerial-level government officials) under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission and jobs at the J&K Bank. There has been no gazetted officer recruitment drive in Ladakh since 2019. 

In 2022, a special recruitment drive for 797 non-gazetted posts was carried out under the State Service Commission, which recruits at the level of the Union Government of India. About 30,000 youths from Ladakh applied for these jobs. The selection of seven candidates with graduate degrees and one science postgraduate as “sweeper cum scavengers” in a recruitment drive by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDC) in 2023 highlights the precarious situation facing Ladakh’s young people. There has been a loss of job opportunities for youths since 2019, resulting in Ladakh witnessing one of the highest rises in unemployment in India between 2021-22 and 2022-23. Unemployment in Ladakh grew 16 percent between those years, with 26.5 percent of graduates unemployed.

Further, without the previous constitutional safeguard to protect land, large chunks of land are being allotted for national projects. For example, 80 square kilometers of land was requisitioned for a solar project at Pang. Ladakh has already raised concerns about this.

Further, Ladakh already faces water shortages as it depends on glaciers for water. With global warming and receding of Himalayan glaciers, including those in Ladakh, mega projects are detrimental to the region’s fragile ecosystem. Understandably, then, the government’s draft Ladakh Industrial Land Policy 2023 met with concerns over its impact on the environment.

A related concern is the autonomy of the LAHDC. After August 5, 2019, the two autonomous bodies of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils of Leh and Kargil lost their financial, revenue, and constitutional powers. They currently act only as executive bodies under the bureaucracy. Despite a fivefold growth in the annual budget of Ladakh since 2019, out of the total annual budget of more than 50 billion rupees, the two LAHDCs are allocated about 7 billion rupees, which is only about 14 percent of the total. 

Under the current system, there is only one member of Parliament from Ladakh to represent local interests, in contrast to an additional four Members of the Legislative Assembly Ladakh once had in the (now dissolved) Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly. 

Ironically, the only existing MP of Ladakh has been shifting the goalposts regarding providing safeguards to Ladakh. Despite including “constitutional safeguards to Ladakh under Sixth Schedule of Indian Constitution to protect the land, jobs and environment by focusing Ladkah’s unique linguistic and ethnic identity” in his party’s manifesto in the 2020 LAHDC Leh election, at present, he now denies any need for such safeguards.

Dilution of Unique Tribal and Cultural Identity

On September 11, 2019, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes recommended including UT Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule of India’s Constitution based on the need for the protection of Ladakh’s autonomous bodies, land, and unique cultural identity. The State-Subject document that previously certified an individual as an indigenous resident of Ladakh has now been replaced with a Resident Certificate, a temporary solution that is not legally protected. In addition, prior to August 5, 2019, Bhoti or Ladakhi language was recognized as one of the state languages of J&K. Since the end of J&K’s statehood, Bhoti has been neither recognized as an official language of UT Ladakh nor recognized constitutionally as one of India’s official languages, despite the demand for such status since the early 2000s

Furthermore, there is a covert push to induce mainstream culture and rhetoric in Ladakh. Since 2019, prominent government entities have been named with the prefix “Sindhu,” the Hindi name for the Indus River. Examples include Sindhu Central University, Sindhu Sanskriti Kedra, and Sindhu Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited. Similarly, the Indus had been the entry point for Hindutva groups to make inroads into Ladakh, as when the “Sindhu Darshan” pilgrimage to the region began in 1997. In Ladakh, Muslims and Buddhists are the main religious groups, with Hindus a small minority. 

In 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the the UT administration’s decision to celebrate Sindhu Mahakumbh at the same scale as the Kumbh Mela was met with public outrage, which resulted in the cancellation of the event. Likewise, in January of this year, the renaming of health centers in the villages to “Ayushman Arogya Mandirs” had to be rolled back due to public resentment. 

A LAHDC councilor also raised concerns recently over attempts to build permanent Hindu worship structures at Skurchuchan and Hanuthang, the latter under the purview of the Indian Army. 

More recently, on February 6, four additional tribes (the Gujjar, Bakkarwal, Gadd, and Sippi) were included in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Ladakh when the Indian Parliament passed the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023. These tribes are neither indigenous to nor permanent residents of Ladakh. With 97 percent of the population of Ladakh belonging to Scheduled Tribes, the inclusion of these tribes, which have a total population of about 1.1 million, on the list of groups receiving special protective privileges will render the indigenous peoples of Ladakh more vulnerable

Endless Cycle of Protests and Inconclusive Talks 

These issues have compelled Ladakh to demand constitutional safeguards in the form of inclusion in the Sixth Schedule, statehood, job reservations for locals, and two parliamentary seats for Ladakh. In August 2020, veteran leaders of Ladakh made their first combined call for Sixth Schedule protection for Ladakh. A month later, in September 2020, the first mass protest and complete shutdown of Ladakh took place, with protesters warning that Ladakh would boycott the first-ever LAHDC election if New Delhi did not take heed. 

Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah immediately called for talks, and the protest was subdued after the meeting based on the promise that 15 days after the elections the government would take steps toward meeting the demands. Four months later, in January 2021, a second meeting with Shah took place, where it was decided to constitute a committee under the MHA to discuss Ladakh’s demands in detail. 

However, with New Delhi remaining unresponsive, two mass protests were carried out on December 6, 2021, and November 2, 2022. This resulted in the first formal meeting between representatives of Ladakh and New Delhi on January 3, 2023 when the High Powered Committee (HPC) was constituted. Before the second formal meeting on December 4 of last year, the protest to demand Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh reached New Delhi. However, the second formal meeting remained inconclusive; Ladakh’s demands were neither accepted nor rejected. 

Consequently, Ladakh witnessed one of the largest-ever protests on February 3 of this year. Only then did third formal meeting of the HPC follow on February 19, where it was decided to form a subcommittee to discuss the issues on February 24. Although there was some optimism after the February 24 meeting, the next meeting on March 4 – followed by a face-to-face with Shah for the first time since 2020 – “did not result in any positive outcome,according to Ladakh representatives.

The councils of Leh and Kargil will “devise future course of action after consultation with the people of the two districts,” they said in a statement after the unsuccessful meetings.

In short, Ladakh today is facing a two-front insecurity challenge. Apart from the military threat from the Chinese army in eastern Ladakh, there is daily insecurity in the region owing to New Delhi’s policy, which takes precedence over the needs of local people. With an unending cycle of protests followed by inconclusive meetings with New Delhi and an unresolved India-China border dispute in eastern Ladakh, the fate of this region of the western Himalayas remains up in the air.