West indian culture

Ladakh struggles against centralization to save identity culture

With the formation of the union territory of Ladakh in 2019, there was a sense of satisfaction in the Buddhist-majority region of Leh that its longstanding demand had finally been met. Even when Kargil protested, Leh celebrated. However, two years later, there is a lot of anxiety and turmoil not only in Leh but all over Ladakh. This concern relates to the rights of the natives of Ladakh in relation to employment and land; on the influx of foreigners and the erosion of local culture, ecology and heritage; and above all, the lack of political representation.

That all is not well in Leh was made clear in September 2020, when most Leh-based social and political organizations called for a boycott of the elections for the Ladakh Hill Autonomous Development Council (LAHDC) until that the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution be granted. for Ladakh and each of the two districts is assigned councils on the model of the Autonomous Territorial Council of Bodoland in Assam. In pursuit of this demand, all Leh-based parties – including the BJP, Congress and AAP – formed the People’s Movement for the Sixth Schedule. Since then, not only have the protests intensified, but there have also been qualitative changes in the very nature of the demands and the methods pursued. The Leh Apex Body (LAB) of the People’s Movement has joined the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) for a common struggle. This is quite unprecedented since Leh and Kargil have a history of bitter opposition to each other’s goals and the two take conflicting positions on UT’s request. These two bodies, leaving behind the traditional rivalries of Leh and Kargil, launched a common front with four major demands: a full-fledged state with constitutional guarantees, residence certificates on the model of state subjects in people instead of domicile, two seats in Lok Sabha and one in Rajya Sabha for Ladakh, and immediately fill government vacancies. In support of these demands, the LAB and KDA jointly launched a call for closure in December 2021, which received an overwhelming response in both Leh and Kargil.

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An analysis of the Ladakh struggle as it evolved in the post-reorganization phase makes for very interesting reading. Compared to the previous fight for UT, two important changes can be noticed. First, the exclusive nature of UT’s claim to only represent Leh Buddhists (excluding Kargil Muslims) gave way to a more inclusive policy. Instead of a sectarian basis of Ladakhi identity and its division between Leh Buddhists and Kargil Muslims, a secular pan-Ladakhi identity was asserted. Second, for the first time, a federal twist was given to Ladakhi politics. This despite the fact that the movement for UT has been long.

It is pertinent to note that the demand for UT in Ladakh did not have a federal basis and, on the contrary, was born out of the logic and impulse of centralization. Seeking to confront Ladakh’s neglect and powerlessness vis-a-vis the center of state-level power, the Ladakhi rulers (the Buddhists of Leh) had demanded the separation of J&K, mainly from Kashmir. UT’s demand, although raised during the 1989 agitation led by the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), was linked to its decade-old aspiration to be separated from Kashmir and instead be directly controlled by the center. Articulated in the context of a binomial established between Buddhists and Muslims on the one hand, and the anxieties of the conflicting politics in which Kashmir was involved, on the other hand, the Ladakhi Buddhist leaders had made a direct representation to the Maharaja Hari Singh in 1947 by giving three preferences – that Ladakh be ruled directly by the Maharaja; or that it be merged with the Hindu majority areas of Jammu or that it be allowed to join eastern Punjab. Through another representation to Nehru, the Ladakhi rulers had demanded the separation of Ladakh from Kashmir on the basis of the separate identity of Ladakh and its people. When Ladakh briefly came under the direct control of the Center during the China War, there was a demand for the Center to maintain control. Ladakhi Buddhist leaders continued to make demands on the central administration of Ladakh along the lines of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA).

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With the separation of (Muslim) Kashmir as the basic logic of UT’s demand, the politics around UT’s demand suffered not only from its need for centralization but also from its sectarian base. It is a chain reaction of this claim on a religious basis that the politics of Kargil also acquired a sectarian logic. Fearing that a separate UT for Ladakh would marginalize Kargil’s Muslims, Kargil sought Kashmir’s support and the comfort of being part of “Muslim-majority” Jammu and Kashmir.

It was after the formation of the UT of Ladakh in 2019 that the limitation of the logic of centralization could be measured by the Ladakhi leaders. While a sense of vulnerability suddenly arose after the removal of Section 35A protections (particularly the privileges enjoyed by Ladakhi as permanent residents of the J&K state in terms of land ownership and state employment), a sense of powerlessness has developed due to the lack of political representation. Unlike J&K UT, Ladakh UT has no legislature.

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Under J&K, Ladakh was fairly represented in the state – aside from one MP, there were four MPs and two MLCs and invariably one minister in the state government. And as party members, Ladakhis were also represented in various other state bodies. After the formation of UT, there is only one Member of Parliament through which people are linked in political decision-making. The new system offers centralized and remote administration. Apart from the Lieutenant Governor, all decisions related to Ladakh are directly at the level of the Home Minister of India. Hill councils exist, but they have become ineffective in the context of greater bureaucratization and centralization.

It is in this context that one can appreciate the federal shift in Ladakh’s politics, based on the demand for greater control over resources and greater influence over development. Adopting a pan-Ladakhi identity, its politics not only lost its sectarian character, but took root in the sense of partnership between Leh and Kargil, the two main sub-regions of Ladakh. The limited success of this policy is already visible as it has prevented the Center from introducing the kind of central laws that have already been extended to J&K UT (including the new Domicile Law and the new Land Policy). Rather than extending these laws to Ladakh, the central government has almost recognized the sanctity of the permanent resident certificate by reserving non-governmental jobs for Ladakh residents. The Ladakh Resident Certificate Ordinance, 2021 clearly defines persons as residents of Ladakh who possess or are eligible for the permanent resident certificate. In the present state of things, of the two newly created UTs, it is Ladakh which fights most successfully against the processes of centralization.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Sharp U-turn in the Hills”)

(The opinions expressed are personal)


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Rekha Chowdhary is Senior Researcher, Center for Multilevel Federalism, Delhi

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