The centre’s August 5th decision was well received by some people in Leh, especially the reorganisation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. It was touted as the ‘1st Independence Day’ by the people and by the banners that were put up in the- recently renovated and beautified- ‘main bazaar’. These banners had the endorsement and support of multiple local groups and organisations. Scenes of celebratory dances from Leh hit national television, presented as a vindication of the centre’s move.
As the euphoria simmered, the unheard voices started coming to the fore. These voices weren’t of joy, rather, they were of concern and apprehension. Two realisations dawned on people: on the one hand, it seemed immoral and uncompassionate to celebrate something that came at the cost of pain and misery to other human beings. On the other hand, after reassessing what was actually gained from this move, people realised it was not too substantial.
The people of Leh have been demanding separation from J&K, to be constituted into a new UT of Ladakh for a very long time, with tall leaders, like Bakula Rinpoche, ex parliamentarian Thupstan Chhewang, and others, at the forefront. But this has never been a single isolated demand, to be fulfilled by the central government, in shape and form convenient for itself.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. Rendering Article 370 inoperative, abrogation of Article 35A and the reorganisation of the state into two UTs, all without ensuring any safeguards for the mostly tribal (96% approximately) population of Ladakh, was an act of betrayal and a violation of the people’s trust.
The demand has always been for a UT with its own legislature. Not just that; people expected to have continued safeguards of land, employment, etc., as had been the norm under Article 35A, to be provided by including the UT of Ladakh, in the 6th Schedule of the Indian constitution.
This expectation is neither unfair or opportunistic, as it might seem; because, a federal entity with such a high proportion of tribal population rightfully deserves such a safeguard. Even a memorandum was submitted in this regard to the Union Tribal Affairs minister, by the MP of Ladakh. And, the NCST (National Commission for Scheduled Tribes) found a broad agreement on the idea of declaring Ladakh as a tribal area. However, no further action was visible in this direction.
The apprehensions of erosion of language, culture and environment, which were only murmurs in the bazaar, gradually turned into worry and fear as the date of implementation of the new laws neared. Prominent personalities and learned people started discussing these concerns on local public platforms.
Delegations were sent to other UTs, Himalayan States, and states with significant tribal population to observe and gain a better understanding of merits and demerits of a UT without a legislature, and the other constitutional safeguards available. The perspectives that the members of the delegation came across, weren’t uplifting either.
This situation prevailed for a while, and subsequently, the MP from Ladakh started backtracking on his earlier stand and started to dismiss the genuine fears of the people as unfounded. He claimed that the Hill Councils (under LAHDC Act, 1997) of Leh and Kargil were empowered enough to safeguard the land etc. But people soon realised it to be obfuscation and an attempt to digress.
By then, the Winter Session of Indian parliament had come to an end; many issues were raised, but safeguarding UT of Ladakh under the 6th Schedule wasn’t one of them.
The new laws were implemented, the Lieutenant Governors took office. The all-new UTs of J&K and Ladakh were still in a daze. An ominous silence engulfed the valley and a ruthless and unforgiving cold had set in the dry mountains. Meanwhile, the rest of India had moved on and had already felt an invigorating jolt, in the form of protests against the amendments to the Citizenship Law (CAA), and the National Registration of Indian Citizens (NRIC). As the centenary year of the Non-Cooperation Movement approached, another mass movement started taking shape.
Protests erupted in Assam and other North-Eastern states, as they were to be disproportionately affected by these laws, because of geographical (proximity to Bangladesh) and historical (influx if illegal migrants) reasons, especially Manipur and regions of Assam and Tripura.
Interestingly, Manipur state legislative assembly’s bill, regarding the Inner line Permit (ILP), received the president’s approval, insulating it to some extent, from the fallouts of these laws. Again, without any such kind of safeguards, the largely tribal population of Ladakh, also found itself in a vulnerable position.
The central government has promised to ensure protection, as well as the development, of both, the newly created UTs, and in that regard, the ‘fifteen-year residency rules’ have caught people’s attention.
In order to allay fears of the people about land and employment, deliberations on these rules seem to have been taking place. Apparently, a person will have to be a continuous resident of the newly formed UTs, for a period of fifteen years, to be able to acquire immovable property or for the purpose of employment. But the exceptions provided to these laws, especially for industries, seem to render them rather meaningless.
At a time when the temperature is below freezing, people in Leh are mobilising, led by various student bodies, even carrying out hunger strikes, in order to protect the unique lingual, cultural, and ecological identity of Ladakh, protestors are demanding strong constitutional safeguards, instead of ineffective and perishable statutory ones.
It becomes imperative for the government to take confidence-building measures, and to involve the people of Ladakh in any further decision-making process. This can go a long way in restoring people’s trust. Also, it would be unwise to have the sentinels of one of India’s most geo-strategically important regions feeling betrayed and resentful.