Nearly 10 years ago, Tashi Lamo was in Delhi for a religious trip when she was invited to participate in a protest. She remembers 50 of them gathering at Jantar Mantar shouting, “We want UT! We want UT!”. Sitting at her home in Leh district’s Shey village, dressed in traditional Ladakhi kuntop, her face creased by the harsh mountain sun, she laughs, “Aaj meri awaaz se UT mil gaya (My voice helped Ladakh become a Union Territory). But I don’t know how that will help me, a 74-year-old who only looks after her grandchildren!”
On August 5, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government abrogated Article 370 that grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and bifurcated the state into the two Union Territories of Ladakh, and Jammu & Kashmir. While the latter will have a legislature, the two districts of Ladakh, Leh and Kargil, will be governed directly by the Centre.
The highest plateau in the erstwhile J&K state, and one of India’s most sparsely populated regions — cut off from the rest of the country for over six months every winter — Ladakh has often complained of unfair treatment by the state government on funds and employment opportunities. Bound by the ragged Himalayas, its rough terrain also limits its development opportunities. The demand for UT, going back several decades, stems from these factors. In 1989, three youths had died in police firing during an agitation.
Like Lamo, most people in Shey village see the August 5 decision as a fruit of their protest; like her, they have little clarity on what the future holds.
“I am hoping the pay scale of government employees improves, since now we will get funds directly from the Centre. I also hope that there are more government jobs so that my older son who is studying in Delhi University can come back,” says Lamo’s 43-year-old daughter-in-law Tsering Yang Chan, who works as a clerk with the district’s Education Department and earns Rs 45,000 per month. She has three children, ages 19, 14 and 11. “Most children here go to Chandigarh, Jammu and Delhi for higher studies. I hope that changes too,” she says.
With a population of over 2,000, 86% of them tribals, Shey is one of the most populated villages of Leh district. Like most villages, it suffers from drinking water shortage, poor roads and patchy phone connectivity. But, with a literacy rate of 79%, the overriding concern is the lack of jobs. Modi’s promise of vikas, in his address to the nation after the J&K announcement, has hit the right notes.
“I don’t know what will change, but there should be development. We have been under Srinagar for long, for the smallest of paperwork we had to go and bribe officials,” says Sonam Dorjey, general secretary of the Shey panchayat.
Chan’s husband Tsetan Larghil, 45, a dairy farmer who earns around Rs 20,000 a month, is still raving about Ladakh MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal’s speech in Parliament, and sharing it over WhatsApp. “He was praised by the Speaker as well. Finally, Ladakh got a voice in Delhi.”
The MP’s 20-minute speech, detailing the “discrimination” faced by Ladakh and criticising the Congress’s “wrongs”, has gone viral. While Namgyal remained unavailable on phone, he has been tweeting and sharing pictures of “celebrations” back home.
Unlike the concern of many that outsiders would now purchase land in Ladakh, Larghil believes it will benefit residents. “I own 20 kanals, but it’s hardly an asset. I can cultivate it for only six months. With more competition in the market, I can sell it for more,” he says, sipping tea in his newly renovated eucalyptus-wood home.
Some of the questions Shey raises find echo in Leh town, where an event was organised by the local press club on August 7 to “understand UT without legislature for Ladakh”. Most people asked the panelists, which included former MLAs and ministers, about “the threat to Leh’s heritage and culture from outsiders” now. A group of Class 12 students from Lamdon School in Leh asked if the leaders will push to include the region’s Bhoti language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution (making it one of the official languages). “With more outsiders coming in, won’t we lose our language?” asked Thinles Norbu, 18.
Others wanted to know if the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh, would continue to hold its autonomous status, while others were sceptical about an increase in funds without a legislature. “Will we have to go to Delhi for everything now?” asked a local journalist.
“Hum Ladakh ke log bhi doodh ke dhule nahin hain (We are not saints either). There will be more transparency in land deals now… Yes, we need to maintain our cultural identity and this is our chance to do that,” said former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan P Stobdan, one of the panelists.
While the lack of a legislature has many worried, Nawang Rigzin Jora, one of the four MLAs from Ladakh in the erstwhile J&K Assembly, says Ladakh will get its due “once the details are thrashed out”. Elected on the ticket of the Congress, which is hedging its stand on Article 370 given divisions within and realities on the ground, Jora says, “I am not bothered about losing my seat because this decision is for the larger good. I would have to earlier force leaders to even visit Ladakh. They only visited Jammu and Srinagar.”
However, he adds, “We have to see if the LAHDC stays, how much power the lieutenant governor has, how the funds are disbursed… How these issues converge and conflict will decide the fate of Ladakh… The view now is that Marwaris will come and build hotels. But things won’t be that simplistic.”
In the erstwhile Assembly, for which elections were held in 2014, the Congress held three seats from Ladakh, while an Independent won from the fourth.
But in a sign of the BJP’s growing clout, it won 17 of the 26 seats in the Buddhist-dominated LAHDC, Leh, in 2015, ending the Congress reign, while in 2018, it won its first-ever seat in the LAHDC for Muslim-dominated Kargil district. In its previous term, the Modi-led NDA government had given more powers to the LAHDC, as well as created a separate division for Ladakh, at par with Kashmir and Jammu divisions.
A kilometre away, in the main Leh town, where dust clouds the air because of the renovation and construction works undertaken in the summer months, Stanzin Yangdol, 21, is one of the first to arrive at Eliezer Joldan Memorial College for second-semester exams. As she pores over her notes, her phone beeps constantly. “It’s YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp notifications. The updates on the UT status haven’t stopped.” But while her family is celebrating, Yangdol is not so sure. “With lack of proper coaching, we could barely compete for jobs in the state public service commission exams, and now we will have to appear for UPSC. I don’t think I can get a government job,” says the 21-year-old dressed in ripped jeans and T-shirt.
There is another confusion on Yangdol’s mind. “Do I also need to change all my identity papers like Aadhaar,
PAN Card, driving licence?”
With the UTs to take shape only by October 31, the details are not likely to be fleshed out anytime soon.
With approximately 90% of its population tribal, Ladakh has long demanded extension of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to it. This legislation makes special provisions for the administration of tribal-dominated areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
An official of the LAHDC, who is not surprisingly unenthusiastic about a UT, says, “The council may just become a recommending body with the final powers going to the L-G. The J&K Reorganisation Bill, 2019, says the LAHDC Act stays. We have to see.”
He adds, “In 1995, we had got the Hill Council in lieu of the UT. An entire generation had been a part of that struggle. But the new generation does not know about their sacrifice. It is also very confused about UT. All they now want is for Ladakh to come under the Sixth Schedule because that will safeguard their jobs, land and heritage.”
Educationist Sonam Wangchuk, whose story is said to have inspired Aamir Khan’s character in the 2009 film 3 Idiots, is hopeful UT status will do that and more. He sees strengthening of the local education system, helping keep students at home, and infrastructure growth. “Ladakh is very different from J&K. We are a high-altitude cold desert and all our services should cater to that… In the past, all policy was focused on J&K.”
Leh District Collector Sachin Kumar refused to comment, saying, “I have joined recently. Give me some days.”
At the BJP office in Naushera Gali, party Leh district president Dorije Angchuk is tired after “dancing in the market for two days”. “Bohot naacha (I danced a lot). You must have seen on TV,” he beams.
Sitting on a couch, underneath framed photographs of PM Modi and Jan Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee — who was among the first to call for abrogation of Article 370 — Angchuk says, “I didn’t know the UT decision would come so soon… Ladakh is very happy. We are located at a strategic position, and we must be made strong. We now want delimitation, and more MPs from the region.”
Talking about the reported resentment in Kargil district, Angchuk says, “The Shias, who form about 65% of the district’s 77% Muslim population, are happy. They are not accepted in Kashmir and they have backed the decision. Also, while Buddhists account for 20% of Kargil’s population, they occupy 70% of its area. They all support the UT decision. Kargil will also get the benefits… And as for outsiders coming in, it’s not like we didn’t have them earlier. Eighty per cent of the fruits and vegetable shops in Leh are run by Kashmiris.”
Apart from Leh town’s Fort area, dominated by Kashmiri shopkeepers selling shawls, jewellery and artefacts, Choglamsar, on the town’s outskirts, has approximately 250 aluminium ware and vegetable shops owned by residents of Kashmir. The decision to abrogate Article 370, along with no contact with families in Kashmir, has left vendors here worried. “I think we will have to go back. That is what people of Leh want. But then who will do all the work we do here; they don’t have the skills,” says Zohram, 25, who makes aluminium trunks and has been working in Leh since he was eight. He adds that while earlier he had no fear, recently there had been protests against them. “All our raw material also comes from Srinagar, there has been no delivery. A lot of people have already left. They took night taxis…,” the father of two young daughters back home in Kashmir says.
A few metres away, Irshad Ahmad, 24, sits behind a pile of fruits and vegetables that have started to go bad. “This is the last supply I got from Srinagar. I cannot continue any longer, I will have to go back to Kupwara,” he says. Since the extreme winter and ragged terrain make agriculture difficult in Ladakh, a large part of its food produce comes from Srinagar and Jammu.
“People here believe we are taking their jobs, but who in Leh wants to sell fruits? They are all well-educated and have government jobs. We are not taking away those,” says Ahmad.
Back in Leh, another set of ‘outsiders’ are concerned. At the Golden Bakery, one of the many bread outlets popular among tourists and locals, nearly 95% workers hail from West Bengal and Bihar. “I came here 18 years ago from Malda. No one has ever created any trouble for us. Yet. All the daily wage jobs in Leh are done by people from Bengal and Bihar,” says Ranjan Sarkar, 34, the manager at the bakery.
Walking around the factory, where several men are working amid a cloud of flour, Sarkar echoes Ahmad, “You don’t see any unemployed people here. All Ladakhis have good jobs, they also go out to study. I don’t think they mind us doing these menial jobs,” says Sarkar, while wondering whether he should go home for Durga Puja like every year.
How the debate goes could well be decided by monastries, which hold considerable sway on the nearly 40% of Leh’s population that is Buddhist. The monasteries, plus the Ladakh Buddhist Association, have backed the UT move for now.
Taking a stroll around the Lamayuru monastery, situated 11,500 ft above sea level, one of the oldest in the region, senior monk Konchok Tharchin, 45, says, “Will people from all over the country now squat here? I don’t know… Any future endorsement will depend on the kind of benefits our people get. Let’s wait and watch.”
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