Don’t let Ladakh go adrift

A year later, the Union Territory needs more than a mention in the Sixth Schedule

Don’t let Ladakh go adrift

Not enough: After having been designated as a UT, the region cannot be treated as a municipality town to be governed by bureaucrats alone.

P Stobdan

Strategic Affairs Expert

Amidst mounting Chinese pressure at the border, some mischievous contrivances to stir up trouble in Ladakh have recently begun. A day after China stated that it ‘does not recognise the Union Territory of Ladakh’, a foreign media outlet Al Jazeera quickly had a write-up with the title ‘Ladakh Buddhists who hailed India’s Kashmir move not so sure now’.

The UT status must be complemented with political empowerment to strengthen democracy and defence.

As the first anniversary of Ladakh UT falls on October 31, 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 follow suit. The narrative is, while the Muslims of Ladakh are dismayed by the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, Buddhists, too, who initially rejoiced at UT status, are now having second thoughts. They convey the impression that people in Ladakh are unmoved by the border standoff. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ladakh’s separation from J&K last year 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 UT was a historical re-enactment of Ladakh’s profile – restoration of its identity and dignity as a formidable western Himalayan region of India.

October 31, 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, the UT is at an infancy stage, facing some teething problems of transition, especially when people are voicing apprehensions relating to their identity and land protection. Such fears have given birth to the idea of demanding constitutional safeguards i.e. inclusion of the UT in the Sixth Schedule of the 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 this demand. 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 overtones 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 standoff, 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 October 26. Ladakhis instantly lifted their boycott call and also denounced China’s statement.

At the heart of their demand is power. The UT status came without a legislative council, and instead, even the existing powers of the 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 the Sixth Schedule of Article 244(1). 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 and customary law.

Bestowal of Sixth Schedule entails advantages, yet others contend that it comes with 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 oppose J&K’s bifurcation and reject UT formation. However, Ladakhi demand is much more than reasonable. There is a mismatch between the existing governance structure (UT without a legislature) and the expectations of the people after being stripped of the safeguards. The expectation gap must be bridged.

The government, however, needs to tread carefully and avoid having a 'cut and paste' tribal policy for Ladakh. To set the clock back, reviving the old feudal socio-economic hierarchy is even more unnecessary. Any misguided notion of approaching Ladakh with a ‘civilising’ mission may have negative consequences.

At the same time, the Sixth Schedule demand also appears imprudent — 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. 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 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 and also address the demand so as to bring about a necessary law by 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 UT, the region cannot be treated as a municipality town to be governed by bureaucrats alone. The UT status must be complemented with proper political empowerment to strengthen democracy and national defence.

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