Why India’s Ladakh is witnessing growing discontent

Earlier this week, the region of Ladakh, a Himalayan desert in Indian-administered Kashmir that borders China and Pakistan, witnessed an unprecedented shutdown to demand statehood and protection of land and jobs.

The rare strike held on Monday was jointly called by two groups based in the two districts of Ladakh: the Apex Body of Leh and the Kargil Democratic Alliance, both campaigning for the residents’ rights in the tribal-dominated region and preservation of their cultural identity.

The two groups were formed after New Delhi in 2019 unilaterally scrapped the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir and divided the disputed region – also claimed in its entirety by Pakistan – into two federally governed territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

On August 5, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, legislation that had provided Indian-administered Kashmir with a degree of autonomy and denied property rights to outsiders from other Indian states.

Ladakh is home to nearly 300,000 people living in its two districts: the main city of Leh which is predominantly Buddhist, and Muslim-majority Kargil. Situated at an altitude of 5,730 metres (18,799 feet) above sea level, 97 percent of the region’s population is tribal.

And for the first time in decades, the two Ladakh districts are on the same page in pressing the government for their demands for statehood and protection of rights.

New Delhi’s controversial 2019 move was immediately rejected by most residents in Kargil, who wanted to remain with Indian-administered Kashmir, home to nearly 13 million people, more than 68 percent of them Muslim, according to a 2011 census.

Nearly seven million of those people live in the Kashmir Valley, where 97 percent of the residents are Muslim and which has been a hotbed of rebellion against Indian rule for decades.

Constitutional safeguards

In Leh, however, the Modi government’s 2019 decision was initially received with jubilation and hope. Buddhist and other non-Muslim communities in the district had long been demanding a separate status, alleging discrimination by politicians and bureaucrats from the Muslim-majority valley region of Indian-administered Kashmir.

But that initial euphoria soon gave way to anger and uncertainty over fears of losing land, livelihoods and the cultural identity of the Himalayan region. As a result, both Kargil and Leh regions are now seeking more constitutional safeguards, including statehood, with an elected legislature empowered to make laws for its people.

On Tuesday, a day after the shutdown in Ladakh, its Member of Parliament Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, who belongs to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), raised the issue in parliament, demanding the safeguards provided by the Sixth Schedule of India’s constitution, which allows for greater political autonomy in the tribal-dominated areas in India’s northeast.

“I urge the government to amend the Ladakh Hill Development Council Act, passed in 1997. It needs to be defined what will be the role and responsibility of the central government, the Union Territory administration and the Lieutenant-Governor,” Namgyal said.

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