Little did the people of Ladakh realise that they would be caught in a bubble of history which would last for 185 long years when the forces of Zorawar Singh overran Ladakh and made it part of Gulab Singh’s fiefdom in 1835. Ladakhis struggled with their identity, having nothing in common with their rulers, neither the Dogras nor the Kashmiris, in terms of language, religion, food, dress or even physical features. It was a gunshot marriage which ended on October 31 when Ladakh finally became a Union Territory. This historic moment will be celebrated by all Ladakhis, and specially by its architect, former MP Thupstan Tsewang, whose lifetime goal will see fruition.
Had it not been for Zorawar’s adventurism, Ladakh’s trajectory in history could have been quite different and more akin to the other Himalayan kingdoms of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. It had been an independent kingdom with a glorious history. It peaked during the reign of Gyalpo Singhe Namgyal (1616-1642) with its borders stretching up to Nepal and Tibet in the east and north and included the present district of Lahaul Spiti in Himachal to the south. The Gyalpos of Ladakh had defeated the Tibetans and even annexed the rich and fabled kingdom of Guge in Western Tibet for some time. The historic and strategic importance of Ladakh, linking the rich plains of India and Punjab through Mandi, Kullu, Lahaul and Leh with the Silk Route through Karakoram was very critical to the British for its shawl wool trade as well as success of the Great Game.
This jubilation amongst Ladakhis about its newfound status as a UT is not difficult to understand. In 1990, on visiting Ladakh, people voiced their deep sense of alienation vis a vis their government in Srinagar. Apart from a diesel genset, there was no electricity supply while at the same time in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh electricity had reached every nook and cranny. Also, many villages remained unconnected by road and the existing pukka roads were mostly courtesy the Indian Army. Since then many changes have taken place, especially after the creation of the Autonomous Hill Council and the boom in tourism. Budget allocation remained a sore point throughout, about which, Jamyang Namgyal, the young MP from Ladakh, effectively spoke in his maiden speech before the Parliament.
Till now Ladakh’s communication route remained principally through Srinagar and Jammu. All this is set to change. The Manali-Leh axis will become more important since it will not only be shorter but safer as well in comparison to the Kargil-Srinagar road. With the tunnel below Rohtang being commissioned shortly and another one being planned under the Shinkun La, travel time and distance between Manali and Leh will reduce substantially. In the foreseeable future, journey by road from Chandigarh to Leh could be a day’s affair. The proposed 365 km Bilaspur-Manali-Leh railway line will not only strengthen the country’s defence requirements but will also enhance people to people contact between Ladakh and Himachal in an unprecedented way. For this to materialise, the Government of India will have to up its game to match with that of China’s which has deployed Fortune 500 Companies to build road and other infrastructure on the other side of the border.
Ladakh and Himachal have a shared past. Many of the Gyalpos, erstwhile rulers of Ladakh, married from the ruling families of Lahaul and Spiti. Several important Gompas (monasteries) in Lahaul are affiliated even today to Hemis and other Gompas in Ladakh. Ladakh is indebted to Himachal for coming to its rescue in 1948 when two of Himachal’s brave officers Major Prithi Chand (MVC) and his cousin Major Khushal Chand (MVC) and 16 other soldiers of the 2nd DOGRAS, mostly from Lahaul, Kinnaur and Kangra crossed the formidable Zoji La in the dead of winter and repulsed the armed Pakistani and tribal intruders. The local militia they motivated and trained later metamorphosed into the famous Ladakh Scouts which played a stellar role in defence of Ladakh in 1962 and in the Kargil operation of 1999. An ornate Chorten standing next to the Khalatse bridge which Major Khushal Chand destroyed in 1948 stands today as a joint symbol of solidarity and courage of the people of Lahaul and Ladakh.
There are other areas as well where Ladakh and Himachal can collaborate and learn from each other. Tourism is one such area where the Ladakhis would do well to avoid the mistakes committed in Shimla and Manali. The recognition of Bhoti as a scheduled language by the Government of India is another important area which both can help galvanise along with other Himalayan states like Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. This will not only lead to the emotional integration of borderland people with the rest of the country but also strengthen our claim to these areas as an integral part of India vis a vis that of China.
As the initial euphoria dies down, the realities of a UT have already started to sink in. The most important aspect is working out a harmonious working relationship between the two constituents of the UT, that is, the Shia Muslim majority in Kargil and the Buddhist majority in Leh. The realisation that now outsiders can buy land in Ladakh has sent alarm bells ringing and there is already talk of putting in place mechanisms as in Himachal Pradesh which hinder outsiders from buying land whether as agricultural or tribal lands. It is also taking time to accept that there will be no legislature for Ladakh, an MP being their sole voice before the Government of India. Last and most important, will the mandarins in North Block prove to be more sensitive than the ones in Srinagar? Only time will tell.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 1, 2019 under the title ‘The remaking of Ladakh’. The writer is former Secretary GoI, Ministry of Human Resource Development.
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