When the Indian government last year abrogated the special status and partial autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir and divided the region into two federal territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – the Buddhists in Ladakh cheered the move.
A year later, that sense of celebration in Ladakh has given way to uncertainty and apprehension among residents of the Himalayan desert. The euphoria over becoming a federal territory has been replaced by a fear of losing lands, jobs and identity.
Buddhists and other non-Muslim communities in the Himalayan region had long demanded a union territory status, alleging they were discriminated against by the politicians and bureaucrats in the partially autonomous Jammu and Kashmir, which was the only Muslim-majority state administered by India.
Situated at an altitude of 5,730 metres (18,799 feet) above the sea level, Ladakh is home to nearly 300,000 people living in two districts – the main city of Leh which is predominantly Buddhist, and Kargil, which is mainly Muslim.
On August 5 last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government scrapped Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which provided a degree of autonomy to the part of the disputed Kashmir region that India administers, while Pakistan administers the other part. Both countries claim Kashmir in full.
The resolution also bifurcated the state into two union territories, effectively bringing the region under the direct control of Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
A day later, on August 6, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, a BJP member of parliament from Ladakh, praised the move in a fiery speech in parliament, saying his community had long called for it.
“If Ladakh is today underdeveloped, then Article 370 and [the opposition] Congress party are responsible for it,” the 35-year-old leader said, drawing compliments from Modi, who called it “an outstanding speech” that presented the “aspiration of our sisters and brothers from Ladakh”.
Article 370 ensured the protection of jobs, land and culture of Jammu and Kashmir. Its accompanying provision – Article 35A – barred outsiders from buying land or applying for jobs in the semi-autonomous region.
With the special status gone, even Ladakh’s BJP leaders are furious.Dorge, who resigned from the Hindu nationalist party in May, says the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), an elected body that controls public land in Leh, had been reduced to a “toothless tiger” after the region was turned into a union territory.
“Currently the state land rests with the council, not with the union territory administration and we fear that this land may be transferred to industrialists or the army without the consent of the council,” he said.
Amid such fears and anxieties, Ladakh residents are demanding constitutional safeguards.
In a surprise move last month, the BJP’s Leh unit passed a resolution in the LAHDC, seeking the protection of jobs, land rights, businesses, environment and cultural resources for the locals.
That protection, they say, can be ensured either by their inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of India’s constitution, which gives special rights to the country’s tribes or by extending Article 371, which provides a degree of autonomy to the tribal regions mainly in India’s northeast.
According to official data, 97 percent of Ladakh’s population is tribal.