The demand for Union Territory status has been the central axis around which the politics of Ladakh (mainly Leh) revolved ever since Independence. A lot has been talked and written about this long, persistent demand. Therefore, this demand became the dominating agenda often projected by political leaders, discussed by the educated and talked about by the common people. The UT demand has been viewed as a sole aspiration Ladakhis have and for which they are ready to do whatever it takes. So very few bothered to ask questions like, is it an inclusive demand? Are we serious about this demand? Has it been a mere rhetoric used by politicians? Isn’t it lacking the consensus of the whole region (entire Ladakh)? Is this the sole demand Ladakh has?
The BJP’s coming to power in 2014 with a promise to give a solution to the conflict-ridden Kashmir issue created a sense of hope among the people of all the three regions of the state. Moreover, wining the Ladakh constituency of the parliamentary election by the BJP, which advocated for the UT status for Ladakh all through the election campaign, reinforced the hope. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s promising speech at Leh and later the visit of the Home Minister to Ladakh further encouraged socio-religious organisations and political parties in Leh to raise the demand once again, spearheaded by the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), the main banner holder of the UT status demand. But the strong opposition to the UT demand posed by organisations and political parties in Kargil during the Home Minister’s visit once more (even more clearly this time) reflected the exclusive nature of the demand.
Furthermore, the demand for Greater Ladakh, an idea propounded by a Kargil leader, seems to have taken the position of Kargili political stand. Interestingly, in between these two big demands, the less popular demand for divisional status for Ladakh (advocated by a group of leaders) seems to have been lost.
The Union Territory status demand for Ladakh is no doubt the oldest that could be traced back to 1947. But the fact is that it is a demand which has its genesis and support mainly in Leh district. Major political movements in Leh, including the UT demand, have been spearheaded by the LBA. So the UT status for Ladakh remained somehow a Buddhist demand for a major part of history. The reasons for a religious organisation like the LBA becoming a key player in the politics are many in the history of the political movement in Ladakh.
In the very beginning, a neo-Buddhist organisation in Kashmir under the name of Kashmir Raj Bodhi Mahasabha (KRBM) founded in the early 30s mobilised the people of Ladakh (mainly Buddhists) to demand representation for Buddhists of Ladakh in the state government. Succeeding KRBM, the first Ladakhi organisation was created under the name of the Young Buddhist Association (YBA) to provide political leadership to the people of Ladakh. The present LBA being the successor of the YBA started leading political movements in Ladakh (mainly Leh). Therefore, the LBA became the vanguard of the UT status demand.
The demand for UT status is the product of the perceived Kashmiri Muslim domination over Buddhist-majority Ladakh. The perception about Ladakh being a Buddhist dominant region is ill-founded because it is neither the Buddhists nor the Muslims in majority in Ladakh. Both the communities have almost equal population. So, from its inception, the UT status demand has been affiliated with the aspiration of the Buddhists of Ladakh, tending to acquire an exclusive nature. Another justification for UT status demand cited by the supporters is the alleged discrimination faced by Ladakh under the Kashmiri dominated government and administration. This justification can also be viewed as an effort from leaders to give it a secular shape and make it an inclusive demand of Ladakh as a whole region. Despite this effort from the leaders of Leh, the UT status demand still lacks consensus and united support.
The LBA spearheading the UT demand, the linkage between 1989 agitation and UT demand and politicians of Leh using it as political rhetoric in electoral politics are few factors impeding the UT status demand from taking inclusive shape. Over and above these challenges, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has a problematic position in relation to the Indian Union. Moreover, keeping in view the confused and difficult situation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the demand for UT status does not seem as easy as some BJP ministers think.
Nevertheless, in this movement for Union Territory status for Ladakh, we cannot overlook two important things. First, we have to look for a way to make this demand an inclusive one by gaining the confidence and support of the people of whole Ladakh, including Kargil. If change is needed in the leadership (provided by the LBA) for the movement, we should do so to make it strong and, more importantly, secular.
Secondly, the amendments in the Constitution of India, as well as that of Jammu and Kashmir State, are needed with the consent of the State Assembly in both the cases. A big struggle may be needed for that to happen and, for that, we are not yet organised to present a strong and united Ladakh as a whole.
Similar rhetoric has been developed in Kargil in the form of Greater Ladakh demand. This demand is being propounded as a counter to UT status demand projected by Leh based leaders. It is also based on an ill-founded perception that the Buddhist-dominated Leh will subjugate Muslim-dominated Kargil in the government and administration of the Union Territory, if granted. Leaders of Kargil are playing the same tactic as that of Leh leaders in garnering the support of the people by mobilising them on so-called counter UT status propaganda and the demand for Greater Ladakh. The demand for Greater Ladakh is even more difficult to get fulfilled than the UT status demand, because the proposed Greater Ladakh demand has a stake in the disputed Skardu and Gilgit areas.
Covering all these facts, leaders of both Leh and Kargil have been promoting these demands as something easy to achieve. Moreover, they project them as a panacea for all the grievances the region has. Therefore, these demands not only remain an empty rhetoric but also tend to gloss over all the other concerns of the region in primary fields like education, public health, agriculture, communication, etc. Moreover, these demands (especially UT status demand) have become so dominating that people, as well as leaders, got inclined to avoid all other genuine issues.
As a result, the demand for divisional status for Ladakh seems to have lacked the popular support of the people. This demand has been confined only to a group of political leaders and the majority of the people seem even oblivious to the fact that a demand for divisional status for Ladakh has also been going on. Unlike political goals such as UT and Greater Ladakh, the divisional status is a demand for a greater administrative status within the state and Art 370.
The former two demands are long-term political ambitions whereas latter one is a short-term political objective. So, in the long run, attainment of divisional status can prove a stepping stone in our endeavor to achieve any greater autonomy for Ladakh. But the irony lies in the fact that though a resolution was passed by the state Assembly in favour of divisional status for Ladakh few years ago, our leaders have not only failed to appreciate the passage of such a resolution but some even criticised it. Whatever the politics may be, the consequences of such politics had to be borne by Ladakh as a whole. So, unless our politicians stop politicking on every agenda for selfish political mileage, Ladakh will not find its path forward.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of this organisation. The writer is a Scholar at University of Jammu. You can send your views and comment at firstname.lastname@example.org