Ladakh News

Union Territory (UT) inspires hope, concern, questions

By Tashi Lundup, Murtaza Fazily and Sunetro Ghosal, Stawa 09-19

On 9 August, Government of India declared that the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 will come into effect on 31 October. In his televised address to the nation on the issue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed the abrogation of Article 370 as historic. “The people of J&K and the people of Ladakh were denied rights…Both Article 370 and 35 A were being used a weapon by Pakistan against India. No one could say how these two articles were helping the people of J&K and Ladakh and there was never any discussion on how these articles were having negative effect on the citizens of the state. Both J&K and Ladakh have not seen much development,” he explained. He also tried to assuage concerns with assurances that J&K will not remain a UT for long. “As J&K will see more and more development, I do not think it will remain a UT for long. Ladakh will remain a UT,” he added.

In Ladakh, the response continues to be mixed. MP from Ladakh, J.T. Namgyal said that the development has restored the cultural identity of the people of Ladakh. Speaking to All India Radio, he said, “There is not a single person in Ladakh who has not been part of the movement for UT status. Finally, Ladakh has been freed from the rule of the Kashmiris. Article 370 had put a doubt on our identity as Indians. Secondly, laws and schemes launched and implemented in India were not extended to J&K and Ladakh due to Article 370. There were 106 central laws that were not implemented in the state. This impeded the development of the state.”

CEC of LAHDC, Leh, Gyal P Wangyal said he is elated. “I do not have words to describe how happy the people of Ladakh are today. We have been demanding freedom from Kashmir for the last 70 years,” he added.

Former Ambassador, P. Stobdan termed the development as ‘a divorce between Ladakh and Kashmir’. He said, “We should be happy about divorce with Kashmir and celebrate. We got the UT without a fight or arguments with Kashmir. It isn’t an ugly divorce and we should be happy about it. We must be clear that the granting of UT did not happen just because the people of Ladakh wanted it, but also due to national interest. The centre had to strengthen the place because of India’s relation with China and Pakistan.”

The response in Kargil was starkly different. Kargil remained shut for many days till Eid and section 144 of CrPC has been imposed in three tehsils of the district with severe restrictions on the internet. CEC of LAHDC, Kargil Feroz Ahmad Khan said, “We opposed the reorganisation of the state and our demand was divisional status. Article 370 was meant to safeguard our interest. Now, our safety and security have been diluted. We have been protesting as we never demanded UT and do not favour the bifurcation of the state.”

His views echoed that of former CEC of LAHDC, Kargil, Qamar Ali Akhone, who said, “Our identity is related to Article 370 and it safeguard our rights. We are nationalists too. When the Principal Secretary visited Kargil, he asked us why there were protests. We replied that we are against the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A. There was no need to impose section 144 as Kargil is not a troubled area and we were protesting peacefully.”

This was echoed by President of Islamia School, Kargil and Chairman of Joint Action Committee in Kargil, Sheikh Nazir Ul Mehdi, He said, “Our main connectivity with the outside world is through Kashmir. Each time faces chaos, we also get affected. The Principal Secretary mentioned that Kargil has a reputation of being peaceful. We replied that we could not understand why we are always ignored. If our demands are taken into account the situation will improve.” He criticised the imposition of Section 144 of CrPC in Kargil. “There is social unrest and disorder when people are deprived of their rights. We wanted to protest peacefully but Section 144 was imposed in Kargil. We don’t even have the opportunity to protest. Who will be responsible if the youth turn to sloganeering and stone-pelting as the government deprived us of the right to protest peacefully?”

Others like former MLA from Kargil, Asgar Ali Karbalai said this is the first time in history that a state has been reduced to UT. “We have already lost a lot land and families due to Partition and we don’t want further divisions. We are shocked that the centre implemented UT without even consulting and understanding our aspirations. The alienation of the state should be stopped before anger turns into hatred,” he added.

He criticised J.T. Namgyal for distorting facts in his speech in the Parliament. “He mentioned that Buddhists are in majority in Ladakh and has communalised the region. According to the last census 50% of Ladakh’s population is Muslim. He said that 70% of Kargil are in favour of UT, which is not true. He also knows the reality but gave the speech to please his lords,” Karbalai added.

When asked about this, J.T. Namgyal said, “During my speech I said a majority of the people of Ladakh, including Kargil district, are in favour of UT. Just because few percent of people do not favour UT does not mean that the whole region is not supporting it.”

A youth from Kargil, Najum Ul Huda hoped for a more judicious approach to the issue and called for a critical evaluation of UT. “It appears desirable now but its drawbacks may emerge later. We live in a democracy and have the right to disagree. We must use legal channels to protect our rights and understand all the issues at stake.”

The questions of disagreements

There are misgivings about UT in Kargil and it has observed several rounds of protests. Assistant professor at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Muzaffar Hussain argues that the lack of dialogue on UT between Leh and Kargil has led to misunderstandings, “Fissures appeared in the movement due to electoral competition. After the hill council was empowered, UT became electoral rhetoric. A dialogue was needed between the two districts but it never happened and the movement never gained a pan-Ladakh appeal. Kargil has been presenting its own counter rhetoric of ‘Greater Ladakh’ to mark its distinct presence in wider political discourses on the issue of J&K. Ladakh remains divided in its political aspiration and its articulation.”

Qamar Ali Akhone lamented the lack of clarity on various issues. “Things would have been different if the state had remained a state. Now Ladakh has become UT and we will have to protect our interests. We will lose institutions like the hill council if we go with J&K as it is also a UT. We have many reservations and need to understand how UT will impact us. We have framed a Joint Action Committee in Kargil to understand these issues and discuss Kargil’s future course of action. This committee has representation from all political, religious and social organisations in the district,” he added.

Kargil-based journalist Sajjad Hussain explained that Kargil has always had to fight for its rightful share. “We were cheated during the university issue. We demanded a central university and Leh was given the cluster centre. The same thing happened with divisional status. We have been forced to demand our rightful share. As we look back, the divisional status was a fraud and it has been dissolved before it was established.”

However, fissures are starting to emerge in Kargil’s political unity. In a significant development, senior leaders from J&K People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Kargil hailed the abrogation of Article 370 as they joined BJP at an event in New Delhi on 26 August. This included MLC chairman, Hajja Anayat Ali; EC Mohd Ali Chandan; Councillor; Mohsin Ali; President of Municipal Committee, Kargil; Zahir Hussain Babar; District President of PDP Kargil, Kacho Gulzar Hussain, PDP Youth President, Asadullah Munshi; and senior PDP leader Mohd Ibrahim.

When asked, Kacho Gulzar Hussain explained that it was done for the development of Kargil. “It’s a hard reality that the decision [Article 370] cannot be revoked and in the current political landscape, BJP seems to be the only viable option for the development of Kargil. PDP has an illustrious history bit it has lost its importance. We want to begin a new chapter of development in Kargil.”

The question of legislature

Most people are concerned that Ladakh will be a UT with legislature. Former CECof LAHDC, Leh, Rigzin Spalbar said, “Everything announced by the Home Minister was fine, except that we did not get a legislature. Now it will still be hard for us to frame our own rules but we will fight for it.”

According to Article 240, President of India has the power to make regulations for a UT without legislature. A UT with legislature elects it MLAs, but does not have a Vidhan Parishad or upper House. The final decision rests with Lieutenant Governor, who is appointed by the centre.

Former President of District Congress Committee, Leh, Tsering Samphel feels that UT with legislature would have been better for Ladakh. “We were demanding UT with legislature. However, getting UT is a historic decision. Now, Ladakh will get equal opportunity to represent and express views in building the nation.”

Former Cabinet Minister, Tsering Dorjey Lakrook explained that UT with legislature would have created more problems between Leh and Kargil. “The government did not want a repeat of the protests seen after divisional status was granted to Ladakh.”

Former MLA from Leh Nawang Rigzin Jora hailed the decision to keep the LAHDC intact. “It would have been a cherry on the cake if we were given UT with legislature. Thankfully, we still have the hill council. It is important that we chalk out the powers of L-G and CECs to avoid a power struggle.”

Najum Ul Huda felt there is a lot of ambiguity on these issues. “We must study case such as the rift between the L-G and the elected governments in Delhi and Puducherry. We need to understand it better and find ways to safeguard our rights.”

When asked about representation, J.T. Namgyal responded that the absence of a legislature will be compensated by the presence of the hill council. “The LAHDC Act will be amended soon to define the roles of the CEC and L-G,” he added.

The question of protection

People in Ladakh have also expressed concern over land transfer and ownership, which J.T. Namgyal acknowledged. “There is concern over land transfers under UT. I can assure you that the LAHDC will be intact and the power to transfer land rests with it.” We checked the LAHDC, Act, 1997 and Section 42 under chapter VII says, “Save as otherwise provided in this Act, all land within district, on the constitution for the first Council, shall stand transferred to such Council.”

There is still remain fears of potential misuse. Sonam Angmo, who is pursuing a PhD from Jammu University, explained that centre can still order land transfers. She explained, “If big industries ask the centre for land, it could tell the L-G to force the LAHDC to comply.”

Furthermore, several companies have declared their intention to invest both UTs. Similar Maharashtra government has stated that it will build a resort in Ladakh, while individuals are exploring the possibility of buying land in Ladakh.

When asked about protection of land ownership, J.T. Namgyal said Ladakhis fear that investors from outside will hurt their business. “If Ladakhis feel that they can sustain tourism on their own then it’s fine. However, business is not limited to tourism. We also need to encourage other sectors. We can always add a clause that land cannot be sold to outsiders and ensure that they employ a certain percentage of locals. But saying that we won’t let them enter Ladakh will hurt us,” he added.

Stanzin Phuntsog, a teacher by profession, spoke about his concern for the environment. “We are ecologically fragile. What will happen to our environment if we allow industries and mining?” he asked.

J.T. Namgyal has given assurances that future projects will have to be ecologically sustainable. “The concerns are genuine and we are collecting feedback to prepare policies. Every scheme or policy that will come to Ladakh UT will have to sensitive to its ecosystem. Otherwise we will not encourage them,” he added.

There are similar concerns about employment opportunities with several people wondering if they will now have to compete at the national level. J.T. Namgyal dismissed these fears, he explained, “The competition for UPSC will remain the same. However, competition for the district cadre will now be limited to Leh and Kargil districts.”

In addition to concerns, the current vagueness has become a fertile ground for rumours and misinformation. For instance, there were reports by Press Trust of India that a Group of Ministers (GoM) has been constituted by the centre to look into development, economic and social issues of the two UTs. Later, an official spokesperson said the information was incorrect. Even later J.T. Namgyal said that a committee will be constituted once UT comes into effect to oversee division of resources between the two UTs. He said, “The committee will study this issue for six months and submit a report to Home Minister, who will then issue an order within a month.”

In response to the concerns being raised by people LAHDC Leh issued a circular on 17 August to constitute a committee to consult stakeholders and prepare a report for the centre. The committee includes CEC Gyal P Wangyal, Deputy CEC, Tsering Sangdup, ECs Phuntsog Stanzin, Mumtaz Hussain, and Konchok Stanzin, MP Ladakh, J.T. Namgyal, former Cabinet Minister, Tsering Dorje Lakrook, former Ambassador; P Stobdan, former IG of Police, T. Phunchok, and Councillors Phuntsog Dorje; and Tsering Angchuk. Also from 2 September, it is also sending a team of councillors, politicians, government officials and NGOs officials to visit UTs and consult experts.

The question of identity

After the centre’s failure to give UT with legislature, there is a growing demand to declare Ladakh as a tribal area. CEC of LAHDC, Leh said, “Our only demand is that Ladakh be brought under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution so that our land is protected.”

On 17 August, J.T. Namgyal submitted a memorandum to Union Minister Arjun Munda stating Ladakh is a tribal area where 98% of the population are recognised as scheduled tribe and demanded recognition under the Sixth Schedule. The minister has promised to look into the matter.

J.T. Namgyal said, LAHDC will have the authority to transfer land. However, recognition as a tribal area under the Sixth Schedule will help protect our land business.”

His view was echoed by Sheikh Nazir Ul Mehdi who said, “Our land and employment opportunities must be protected as a tribal area. Whatever benefits we derive from UT will be irrelevant if we are not able to protect our identity and culture.”