LEH-LADAKH. That is what you say in Delhi right? But what is Ladakh? It’s Leh and Kargil. Everyone has forgotten that,” says Yunus, 29, sitting with his two-year-old daughter at his home in Saliskote village in Kargil district.
A businessman who travels across J&K for work, Yunus is home for Eid, but has been “holed up inside the house”. Since Article 370 was revoked, and Ladakh separated from J&K and made a UT, there have been protests in Kargil and large parts remain under heavy security. All schools, shops and banks are shut and Internet services curbed.
Venturing out into the barley fields in his village, Yunus says, “The UT status is being forced on us. Unlike Leh, Kargil has always demanded a Greater Ladakh region with Gilgit-Baltistan (now administered by Pakistan). Many of us have family there. It’s a sentimental issue for us. What will we do with a UT?”
At 8,780 ft above sea level, Kargil is the second largest town in Ladakh. The ubiquitous paramilitary presence is a constant reminder of the region’s sensitive position. Now, it is also a reminder of the growing divide between Ladakh’s Muslim-dominated Kargil and Buddhist-majority Leh, a divide many fear will be exacerbated by the government’s move.
Kargil has always felt closer to Kashmir due to the Muslim link. Leh, for it, is the privileged half, enjoying prestige as a “tourist destination”.
“I went to Nubra Valley a few years ago. It is very beautiful. Ghumne ke liye gaye the (went for sight-seeing). But I go to Srinagar at least once a year for health check-ups, to sell my produce,” says Mohammad Hasan, a 53-year-old farmer in Silkche village, 20 km from Kargil town, sifting through a large pile of dried apricot on the roof of his house.
Worried over the blockade hitting his apricot sales — nearly half of J&K’s apricot production is in Kargil — Hasan adds, “We have always supported India. During the Kargil War, my family and I spent nights in shelters. But, we didn’t leave. However, the UT decision has left us confused. We don’t want to be divided.”
Apart from market for its produce, Srinagar is also a preferred destination for youth of Kargil seeking higher studies. The lack of good government colleges and schools means that, like Leh, there are few options at home. Many go to Delhi and Chandigarh, but Srinagar is the first choice.
“There is just one satellite campus of Kashmir University in Kargil, and it only offers courses in Botany, Arabic and Information Technology. We have never faced in problems in Kashmir… They are trying to divide and rule us,” says Ghulam Mohammad, 26, who is doing post-graduation from Kashmir University.
“I had to sneak out at night a few days ago to get here from Srinagar. At least 20 students from our village study there. Now we don’t know if we can finish our course,” he says. Three of his six siblings study in Kashmir as well.
Joining in, Yunus says the youth of Kargil are “education refugees”. “In Delhi or Chandigarh, we are mocked as ‘Ladakhi Chinki’… In the process we are losing our language, culture. Like my Purki (the local dialect) is not very good. I speak better Hindi and English. What will I teach my children?”
If that fear is common with Leh, so is the worry that the already scarce jobs will dry up once “outsiders” arrive. “There is so much unemployment in India, but in Kargil we always got government jobs. Now all the unemployed will come, take over government posts, positions in our LAHDC,” says Mohammad.
A member of the LAHDC, Kargil, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “So far all our members are from Kargil, even our staff… The Centre has assured us, but there is a lot of confusion.” The LAHDC, Kargil, was set up in 2003, eight years after Leh got a similar body.
As per Kargil District Magistrate Baseer Ul Haq Choudhary, people of the region are not against the UT status but just “insecure” about their future. “They have concerns about employment, education, their land, culture. Slowly all these issues will be addressed and people will come around. You can see more people on the streets already,” he says.
There are those who agree, like Ijaaz (he doesn’t want to give his last name), a 35-year-old hotel owner in Kargil, who believes investment from outside will help business. The town currently has a couple of hotels and shops along the Suru river. “Groups such as Taj have hotels in Srinagar. Now they will have them here too. And hotels like ours can increase our tariff. Earlier tourists only visited Leh.”
However, even among those willing to give the UT a chance, what rankles is that the Centre did not consult them before the drastic move. “We don’t want any confrontation, but people of Kargil feel humiliated. No one asked us about the bifurcation, about the UT status, about taking away our legislature. All our four MLAs are gone. We are being told this decision is good for us… We are a cold desert shut for six months. If a J&K government couldn’t help us, how will people in Delhi?” asks Sajjad Kargili, a youth politician who contested the Lok Sabha polls from Ladakh earlier this year.
Naseer Hussain, general secretary of the Joint Action Committee, a religious-political group that is leading the protests against the Centre’s decision, concurs with Kargili. “We are all stakeholders, the decision cannot and should not have been taken from Delhi. It is about our freedom of expression and our rights,” he says, while adding, “We are still open to discussion.”
Hailed in Leh for his speech in Parliament, BJP MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal doesn’t have many fans here. “The MP said Kargil is not just a small stretch of road in the middle of the market, and then went on to name Buddhist areas such as Zanskar to claim people of the region are happy with the bifurcation. But the fact is 70% of Kargil’s population lives around that small stretch of road,” says a 19-year-old student, who was a part of the protests.
For Hasan’s wife Sakeena Bano, there are more immediate matters, like depleting food with Eid a couple of hours away. “The village has a big celebration, but we don’t even have oil. Fortunately we have our own goat,” she says.
Daughter Zahra, 17, wearing a headscarf and clutching her books, is more worried about when her school would reopen. “All my friends want to be with Kashmir. I just want to go back to school,” she says, squishing open an apricot between her fingers. Momentarily distracted, she smiles, “You can eat the seeds too, they are like baadam (almond).”
As the sun sinks behind the imposing mountains, 26-year-old Mohammad fears the consequences of August 5 on “our entire generation”. “Kashmir is used to curfews, hartaals, they know how to survive. In 2016, after (Hizbul commander) Burhan Wani’s death, the region was shut for six months. Kargil is not prepared for this,” he says.
That is the fear in the air at the Anjuman Jamiatul Ulama Islamia School too, a few metres from a protest site, where about 50 students have just offered their namaaz. “We have never had stone-pelting or big protests in Kargil ever… Kargil was peaceful even during the war. But the Centre’s decision has driven a wedge between the Buddhists and Muslims, we can’t support that,” says a student, refusing to be identified.