Unrest in Ladakh: Challenges and Voices for Autonomy Amidst Political Turmoil

After Manipur, now, it seems, it is Ladakh. Simmering unrest stalks this beautiful and sublime landscape of peaceful people, many of them Buddhists, and most of them taken for a jolly bad ride by the BJP regime in the Centre.

The grand promise of a new world after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, the literal takeover of every square inch of Srinagar and other towns by an armed military, the dissolution of an elected assembly and imprisonment of hundreds of citizens in the Valley, including political leaders, the prolonged ban on internet and imposition of curfew, has led to nothing but stark suffering, prolonged unrest, and entrenched alienation across the sensitive region. Perched on the border of Pakistan and China, a unhappy bad faith stalks the entire region, while the PM and his home minister, yet again, seems to have left this sensitive area to its own condemned destiny – like a ravaged Manipur, still hurting, its wounds simmering.

After 21 days of fast and satyagraha, which was backed by almost the entire civil society here, Gandhian Sonam Wangchuk had called for a march to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Chungathung border. This was basically to point out the persistent headache in Ladakh since recent times. The fact is, as highlighted by national security analysts, the Chinese forces have penetrated and captured certain positions inside the buffer zone, a fact which has been willfully overlooked by the muscular political establishment in Delhi.

Wangchuk simply wanted to push through this fact which has also been deliberately ignored by the loyalist media in Delhi. The Chinese intrusion inside the Indian territory of Ladakh is a burning issue in the area, apart from other issues, many of becoming centre-stage after 2019.

There have also been a lot of anxious moments here since Wangchuk had called for a unique ‘Pashmina March’ highlighting the plight of the nomadic tribe called Changpa in the region. They have been traditionally rearing goats whose wool is legendary for the precious pashmina industry. Besides, the Chinese intrusions, local allege, have impacted upon the grazing rights and livelihood issues here.

Along with Wangchuk, Gandhian, entrepreneur, teacher and social activist, the Kargil Democratic Alliance, the Leh Apex Body, women’s groups and students too have been asking far-reaching and long-standing reforms for the people of Ladakh. Their peaceful protests have seen thousands participating in Leh. Apart from statehood, they are demanding the Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh with important constitutional protections and autonomy, an elected legislature which is independent and can take its own decisions,  Lok Sabha constituencies for Leh and Kargil, and an effective and impartial recruitment mechanism for jobs in the government sector.

The BJP regime, having botched up badly in J&K, has turned a blind eye to all its demands, as well as to this protracted non-violent protests. So much so, it laid an armed siege with its law enforcement forces when the march for the LoC was announced.

An anguished Wangchuk said on Twitter: “Leh is being turned into a war zone with disproportionate force, barricades, smoke grenades. Attempts to arrest peaceful youth leaders, even singers, continue. Seems they want to turn a most peaceful movement violent and then brand Ladakhis as anti-nationals… The government seems worried only about Ladakh’s effect on their votes and on mining lobbies… not the people here, nor even national security.”

There are uncanny and deep-seated fears about corporate and powerful outsiders, with connections to the BJP regime, coming in here to occupy their land with total backing by the Centre and its forces. Massive tourism projects threaten to destroy its fragile economy and degrade its pristine ecology. According to a think-tank based in America, Polis Project, “The Modi government has launched massive tourism, infrastructure and development projects even as the Ladakh movement gained momentum. Since the effective repeal of Article 370, the Indian government has approved eight hydropower projects on the Indus River and its tributaries in Ladakh. In October last year, the Power Grid Corporation of India was entrusted with a green energy corridor project for generating and transmitting 13 GW renewable energy from Ladakh’s Pang region, at a cost of Rs 20,773 crore. The State-run ONGC is drilling a 1,000-metre well into Ladakh’s Puga valley, to build India’s first geothermal plant. Meanwhile, the Geological Survey of India is conducting mine exploration activities to exploit Ladakh’s lithium ore reserves.”

The research group alleges that the “Border Roads Organisation has also been constantly announcing massive road construction projects—in December last year, the union ministry for road transport and highways announced 29 projects totalling Rs 1,170 crore in Ladakh. The government has also completed the survey for a proposed Bilaspur-Manali-Leh railway line, which would travel through 62 tunnels in the region, and cost nearly Rs 100,000 crore. The construction of the first all-weather road to Ladakh, a 298-kilometre road from Manali, in Himachal Pradesh, to Zanskar, in western Ladakh, also includes the world’s highest tunnel at the Shinku La Pass at 16,580 feet.”

All these multi-crore mega-projects is a bad omen for this fragile Himalayan landscape, with fears stalking the people. They are reminded of the environmental devastation caused by organized religious tourism, as in Joshimath and other sacred, Hindu  pilgrimage sites,  and the ‘Char Dham Yatra’, the PM’s favourite project, in Uttarakhand. All these projects have caused widespread destruction and long-term threats to the ecology of this small hill state. The tunnel disaster near Uttarkashi, in which scores of miners were trapped, is just a tip of the ice-berg.

Meanwhile, while statehood is still being denied to J&K, in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP has shied away from even contesting a key constituency in the Jammu region, its so-called stronghold. The INDIA alliance of National Conference led by Omar Abdullah and the Congress are contesting Udhampur, Jammu and Ladakh Lok Sabha seats, while the NC have put up candidates in Anantnag, Srinagar and Baramulla. Predictably, BJP is not contesting the three Lok Sabha seats in the valley.

“I want to formally announce that the NC and Congress will jointly contest the elections in J&K and Ladakh with three candidates for each of the two parties,” Abdullah said, “The NC will support Congress candidates in Udhampur, Jammu and Ladakh seats.”

Witness the bizarre scenario in the Anantnag-Rajouri constituency. It is a large area with 18 lakh plus voters that extends from Anantnag in south Kashmir to Poonch in Pir Panjal. The 18 assembly segments are interspersed in a difficult terrain. NC’s Mian Altaf and PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti are in a direct contest for the Anantnag-Rajouri seat.

Abdullah made a dig on the BJP for backing out of a real contest despite its relentless and muscular rhetoric that all is well in J&K. Instead, the BJP seems to be supporting ‘proxies’ like the discredited Peoples Conference and Apni Party.

Meanwhile, female rapper LaDoll, also known as Padma Ladol, famous in Ladakh and now the main singer of the peaceful movement, is singing raps which are becoming big hits in the region: Ladakh ki mann ki baat sun lo, ay desh waasiyon… Chalo bata dun kya hai Sixth Schedule do line mein…

She takes a dig at the so-called ‘national’ media  based in Delhi:  “Haan tum pehle mantriyon ka jashan manalo/Janta ke kafan pe baad me aa jana/Haan tum pehle Ambani ki shadi cover karlo/Insaano ke barbaadi pe baad mein aa jana.”

She is politically articulate and vocal. She says that the BJP MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal has chosen compulsive silence in the face of mass protests and has failed the people. In an interview with ‘The Telegraph’ of Kolkata, LaDoll says, “Our beautiful but fragile environment should not be compromised in any way. People say there are no jobs here and if there are more industries, we will get jobs. But, at what cost? We cannot give Ladakh to industrialists in the name of development! Our population is just around three lakh. We can think sustainably. That is why we want the right to decide for ourselves. We won’t let Ladakh become the next Joshimath.”

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