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Icy Desert Ladakh Turns Up the Heat on Modi Ahead of Indian Elections

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Icy Desert Ladakh Turns Up the Heat on Modi Ahead of Indian Elections

The loss of their grazing lands to Chinese incursions and Indian corporations has prompted Ladakhis to oppose the BJP government’s top-down governance model.

Icy Desert Ladakh Turns Up the Heat on Modi Ahead of Indian Elections

Climate activist Sonam Wangchuk (left) on his 21-day fast to highlight the need to protect the fragile ecosystem of Ladakh and its people, Leh, India, March 26, 2024.

Credit: X/Sajjad Kargili

A group of mostly tribal protesters in Leh, the capital of Ladakh and one of India’s highest towns at an altitude of 3,500 meters, are braving sub-zero temperatures for a month to draw the government’s attention to two issues that have the potential to upset Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral campaign — national security and promise fulfillment.

Campaigning for the general election has begun, with the first phase of voting scheduled to start on April 19. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which appears to be on course to win its third straight term in power, is campaigning vigorously on the fulfillment of election promises. “Modi’s guarantee means fulfillment of every guarantee,” is the BJP’s campaign slogan.

But in Leh, in north India’s cold desert of Ladakh, protesters – from teenagers to senior citizens – are thronging in the thousands to protest against the BJP turning its back on a major promise that helped the party win elections.

Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election and the October 2020 local election in Ladakh, the BJP promised that Ladakh would be given autonomous tribal district status according to the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. This would have allowed locals to have a say in land and resources management. In August 2019, Ladakh was made a Union Territory (UT). UTs are federally controlled administrative units.

More recently, on March 4, Union Home Minister Amit Shah told a delegation from Ladakh that some other mechanism instead of the Sixth Schedule was being considered. Protesting this “betrayal,” climate activist and educator Sonam Wangchuk, a Magsaysay awardee, sat a 21-day fast, following which local women joined the protest with a 10-day hunger strike that will end on April 6.

About 300-400 people have been sitting at the protest venue, even at night when the temperature drops to as low as minus 12 degrees Celsius.

The Ladakhi protests are intensifying. Wangchuk has announced a march on April 7 to the China-bordering Changthang area, intending to highlight how Ladakh is losing thousands of acres of pastoral grazing land to Chinese incursions and Indian corporate interests. This can cause the Modi government even greater embarrassment.

While Wangchuk has remained the face of the movement, it is backed by organizations like the Apex Body, Leh (ABL) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), the socio-political umbrellas representing the two districts that compose the UT of Ladakh.

“On April 7, we expect a few hundred people to reach Changthang. We plan to build awareness among local nomadic tribes about how China is occupying our land from the north, while the government is grabbing pastoral grazing land in the south in corporate interest,” ABL member Jigmet Paljor told The Diplomat.

The China Factor 

Sandwiched between Pakistan to the west and China to the north and east, Ladakh is geopolitically sensitive and strategically important. Changthang, the highest plateau in India, shares its borders, peaks, and characteristics with China’s Tibet region.

National security is a sensitive issue. The BJP has consistently targeted Congress and other opposition parties for compromising national security and sought credit for building a robust security system under Modi.

Changthang is home to the Changpa tribe – the Pashmina herders who produce Kashmere, one of the finest fibers in the world. It has a long history of pastoral nomadism going back over 3,000 years.

In a video message recorded from the protest venue, Wangchuk said he feared the government would try to stop them from marching to Changthang and China-bordering areas.

“If they have nothing to hide, they should let us roam freely. If they have things to cover up, they will stop us,” he said.

Wangchuk alleged that Chanthang’s nomadic pastoralists are of late selling their goats and yaks because “thousands of acres of prime pastoral land are being encroached on.”

The Congress, India’s main opposition, has expectedly jumped on the issue, sensing an opportunity to corner the Modi government on two of their main allegations – nexus with corporates and infirm China policy.

“Ladakh is not being given its democratic rights. You know why? Because there are thousands of crores [a crore is 10 million] of solar potential in Ladakh and large Indian corporates want access to that,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is heard saying in a campaign video released by the party.

The video also shows Gandhi raising concerns about China occupying Indian territories in Ladakh.


Ladakh was part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) until August 2019, when the Modi government – three months after returning to power for a second term – revoked J&K’s statehood and bifurcated the state into two UTs, J&K and Ladakh. J&K is to have a legislature but not Ladakh.

Muslims are Ladakh’s majority community, with a 46.4 percent share of the total population, followed by Buddhists (39.6 percent) and Hindus (12.1 percent).

Initially, most of Ladakh’s Buddhist population, who live predominantly in the Leh district, welcomed the bifurcation and UT status, while the Muslim-dominated Kargil district largely opposed it.

However, in recent months, even residents of Leh have turned against the government and allege that the situation has worsened, as the rights enjoyed as part of the J&K state are no longer available, KDA leader Sajjad Kargili told The Diplomat.

“It has become clear to the Leh people now that they have lost whatever rights they used to enjoy as long as the erstwhile state of J&K enjoyed its special status,” he said, adding that “The people of Leh and Kargil are now together in fighting for full statehood with its own legislative assembly and inclusion to the Sixth Schedule.”

“Under the Sixth Schedule, land and resources cannot be taken away without consulting the local people.”

In September 2019, the National Commission for the Scheduled Tribes (NCST), a government-funded autonomous institution, recommended that the Modi government include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule.

At that time, the BJP was still promising Sixth Schedule status.

In October 2020, the BJP’s Ladakh unit said, “Complete constitutional safeguards under the provision of 6th Schedule is promised” and that the BJP “assures people of Ladakh about the continuation of developmental works and constitutional safeguards to Ladakh under the provision of 6th Schedule.” However, it started diluting its position soon after. In 2021, the local BJP MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal merely referred to “Constitutional Safeguards for Ladakh on the line[s] of 6th Schedule.” (emphasis added)

During the March 4 meeting, Shah said that a High Powered Committee is discussing and examining “modalities to provide such Constitutional safeguards.” In the government’s communique, Sixth Schedule and Statehood found no mention.

Paljor and Kargili told The Diplomat that Shah gave no reason for the change of stance.

Climate Politics 

One of the reasons for locals stepping up their demand for Sixth Schedule status since 2022 is the development model the federal government appears to be pursuing. Wangchuk has said that the “top-down model of governance” is unfit for the Himalayan region.

In 2023, the Solar Energy Council of India (SECI) floated tenders for conducting soil investigations at proposed sites for renewable energy of 13GW capacity. For this, at least 20,000 acres of land have already been earmarked.

While the government describes the land as “free from wildlife issues,” organizations like ABL and KDA allege that nomadic pastoralists have been using these lands for grazing for many centuries.

Several large hydroelectric projects are also in the pipeline.

According to Paljor and Kargili, the government’s “aggressive bid for resource extraction” prompted all communities to join hands to protect land and resources.

The ABL and KDA had also opposed the newly framed Ladakh Industrial Land Allotment Policy 2023, which they allege bypasses the existing elected representatives in the local self-governance.

Ladakh faces multiple threats from climatic changes, including glacial melt and changing rainfall patterns. Known as a “rain shadow area,” it is already witnessing climatic changes like increased rainfall.

The climatic changes make it all the more necessary that the locals have the right to decide on the course of development, agitators have argued.

In India, environmental activism has rarely impacted elections. But the trouble in Ladakh is not just another governance issue.

First, it challenges the Modi government’s claim of creating a situation where “every child in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh is born with a clean canvas” and “development, democracy and dignity have replaced disillusionment, disappointment and despondency.” Second, it brings up the issue of Chinese aggression, something the Modi government is not fond of discussing.