Ladakh now wants statehood

Ladakh now wants statehood

At face value, the Ladakh region seemed to be the main beneficiary of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act

The demand for Ladakh as Union Territory is an old one and goes back to 1949. Credit: PTI Photo

This August 5 marked two years of the picturesque cold desert of Ladakh as a Union Territory, with complete separation from Jammu and Kashmir. Situated along the Line of Actual Control with China and the Line of Control with Pakistan, the Ladakh region, with a population of nearly 300,000, was nearly two-thirds of the geographical area of the former state of J&K.

At face value, the Ladakh region seemed to be the main beneficiary of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act as there was sentiment against being ruled from Srinagar or Jammu. However, after two years, the region is politically largely dissatisfied with the status quo.

The demand for Ladakh as Union Territory is an old one and goes back to 1949. It was first spearheaded by the legendary Kuskh Bakola, who was India's Ambassador to Mongolia. Coinciding with the beginning of militancy in the Valley— it later spread to Jammu province— the demand for UT status had become a mass-based movement in Buddhist-majority Leh. In 1989, the agitation started by the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) lasted for four months. The administration was paralysed by a month-long strike by Buddhist employees. The agitation had taken a violent turn with three LBA activists killed in police firing on August 27, 1989. The UT demand was predicated on the grounds of alleged discrimination by the J&K government, governed from Srinagar in summers and Jammu in winters, and that “the people of Ladakh were treated as second-class citizens in the matter of services and other related spheres.”

Finally, on October 10, 1993, the central government announced an autonomous hill council status. However, it is to be emphasised that the demand for UT was limited to Leh district of Ladakh and excluded Kargil district. As per the 2011 Census, Ladakh is nearly 46.4 per cent Muslim, 39.7 per cent Buddhist and 12.1 per cent Hindu. In 1995, while the state was still under President’s rule, former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao executed the decision to give Leh the hill council status. Kargil, a Shia Muslim-majority district of Ladakh, which had originally opposed the demand, got a similar council in 2003 under Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

On the day Ladakh attained its UT status, there were protests in Kargil as people in the district demanded that the capital of the new UT should rotate between Leh and Kargil. However, the current arrangement has left both Leh and Kargil dissatisfied and the reasons are not hard to understand. The region is presently controlled by a Lieutenant Governor, appointed by the federal government, and the elected bodies of Leh and Kargil come under the L-G’s authority.

Breaking the past practice of articulating separate demands, the political leadership in both Leh and Kargil have now collectively demanded statehood for Ladakh and restoration of Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) kind of arrangement to protect their identity. One of the critical aspects of Article 370 was the provision of PRC,  given to people whose ancestors had lived in J&K for at least 10 years before May 14, 1954. Those with PRC could buy land and get local jobs.

Ladakh lies at the strategic crossroads of Asia. The eastern part of Leh faces China-controlled Tibet, with whom it shared the same form of Buddhism. The last two years have been marked by military tensions between India and China in this tract. Kargil, via Gilgit-Baltistan, falls on the old route of South Asia’s connectivity with Central Asia. 

In the midst of these developments, there are changes anticipated across the Line of Control in Pakistan-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan, which was earlier a part of undivided J&K and in ethnic terms closer to Kargil district. Reports suggest that the Pakistani government has finalised the draft of a constitutional amendment to grant provincial status or statehood to the region. In March 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had ordered that the Northern Areas, the previous name for the region, be given the same political, economic and administrative rights as given to the other provinces of Pakistan. There were also local demands for provincial status, to end the rule from Islamabad.

With a population of at least 1.4 million, the Pakistani establishment had earlier been reluctant to grant provincial status as this would weaken its stance on J&K in international fora. De jure, Pakistan has kept Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied  Kashmir (POK), with Muzaffarabad as capital, separate from Pakistan’s provinces. However, de facto, Islamabad wields veto powers over the political, administrative and financial issues relating to the two regions. While proposals of POK becoming a province have been shot down by Pakistan PM Imran Khan recently, Gilgit-Baltistan, which also adjoins China’s restive province of Xinjiang, is on the way to becoming a province. The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is critically dependent on the region.

(The writer is the author of ‘Across the LoC’, published by Columbia University Press)