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Ladakh fought for India but lived in J&K’s shadow. Modi govt has now given people their due

The Narendra Modi government's move will allow resource-rich Ladakh to realise its huge potential.

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The jubilation and euphoria in Ladakh over its separation from the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is a clear signal that what the Narendra Modi government has done is right. By abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution and making Ladakh a separate Union Territory, the government has finally given its people their due. No wonder the decision has received such widespread support in Ladakh, which has largely been ignored by the Jammu and Kashmir governments of the past.

A quick look at historical anecdotes from India’s wars reveals the contribution of Ladakh and its citizens in maintaining New Delhi and the Indian Army’s control in the region.

Ladakh during wartime

Brave citizens of Ladakh led by 17-year-old Chewang Rinchen put up stiff resistance against the ‘tribal raid’ in 1948. (Rinchen later became a Colonel in the Army.) Their resistance allowed the Indian Army to reach in time and push back the Pakistani soldiers masquerading as tribal raiders. The locals led by engineer Sonam Norbu also established a makeshift airfield at Leh without any major earthmoving equipment, which became a vital airbase and ensured that the raiders were completely pushed back from the track connecting Srinagar to Leh. Even more significantly, in 1971, Ladakh Scouts, led by then-Major Chewang Rinchen, liberated over 800 square kilometres of territory in Baltistan from Pakistan.

The people of Ladakh have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Indian troops during the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the India-Pakistan War of 1965, and the Kargil conflict of 1999. They also contributed immensely in helping the Indian Army maintain its control over the world’s highest battleground, the Siachen Glacier, when Pakistan cunningly tried to occupy the strategic heights. Ladakh is the only territory in India, which shares borders with both Pakistan and China and almost its entire border is contested.

In spite of showing exemplary heroism in times of crisis, citizens of Ladakh never got their due from the government in Srinagar. It comprised almost 60 per cent of the territory of the former state, but the region has been still largely ignored because of its sparse population and remote location. Moreover, the disquiet in the Valley ensured that even the central government was largely preoccupied with its focus on Kashmir to the detriment of Ladakh. This resulted in scarce development, despite enormous resources and potential in the region. Its unique ethno-linguistic identity was allowed to wither away, until popular movement forced the government to establish Autonomous Hill Councils.

Also read: In new J&K, Waqf properties to become schools & colleges, Ladakh to get ‘Hunar hub’

Loss of trade and commerce

Historically, Ladakh has been one of the five Himalayan kingdoms and was an important trade junction connecting Tibet with different parts of South Asia and Central Asia. Consequently, a majority of the population depended directly or indirectly on trade. There were regular trade convoys between Leh and Lhasa. High altitude and low precipitation restricted agriculture to river valleys; however, pastoralism was widely practised in the countryside. Ladakh was also on one of the important pilgrimage routes to Kailash Mansarovar, which crossed into Tibet from Demchok. In fact, the Kingdom of Ladakh owned a village Minsar well inside Tibet, whose tax revenue was used to maintain the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. Once Ladakh became part of Maharaja Gulab Singh’s territory, the principality of Minsar also came under his sovereignty.

After the Independence and the tribal raid, China banned trade convoys from Nubra Valley into Xinjiang in 1949. This seriously impacted the livelihood in Ladakh. Chinese occupation of Tibet further worsened the situation. Consequently, Ladakhi residents, who primarily depended on trade through the region, were reduced to penury. The region, which had been one of the highest commercial junctions of the world, was left to languish in complete isolation. Although the first flight had landed in Leh as early as 24 May 1948, civilian flights were permitted only in 1977.

The construction of a road from Srinagar to Leh began only when the Chinese threat became imminent in 1962. Even though the construction was completed by 1964, civilian traffic remained restricted for the next decade. Consequently, the people of Ladakh, who have always been enterprising, were confined to an isolated and inaccessible corner of India. Government jobs, primarily in the Army and security forces, remained the only avenues for livelihood besides limited agriculture and pastoralism.

Also read: Tracing history of Ladakh’s dynamic borders — from Tibetan empire to Sikh rule to J&K state

Srinagar’s influence on education

Although the Moravian Christian mission had opened a school in Leh in 1889, very few locals joined it. The government schools affiliated to Jammu and Kashmir Board taught students from the perspective of Kashmir and in a language alien to the Ladakhis. Their first English-medium school was started in 1973, and the only college in 1994. The region had inadequate health and education facilities until the establishment of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Council in 1995. Avenues of livelihood that began emerging after the region was opened up for tourism in 1974 really took off only when the council was established. However, various provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir’s now-defunct constitution prevented investment in this sector, which holds enormous potential. These provisions also ensured that the market space was captured by Valley-based shopkeepers.

UT status creates new avenues

With Ladakh now a Union Territory, new offices will need to be created, possibly in a new capital, which should trigger huge investment in construction. The region desperately needs new urban centres as both Leh and Kargil are overcrowded. New government jobs will be created and central grants and investments will come to the region, without any dangers of it being diverted to Srinagar. The tourism sector will see investment, especially in the field of high-end tourism. With Ladakh connected to the national grid, winter tourism now has enormous potential. The annual footfall will increase manifold because many places have remained inaccessible until now. The region has enormous potential for solar power and wind energy, which require large investments. In days to come, corporate sector could invest in a big way in these two sectors. Similarly, there is scope for pharmaceutical, food processing and hydropower industry. Cool and dust-free environment of Ladakh could also support electronic and information technology industry. However, they may require special incentives and establishment of Special Economic Zones.

Also read: Modi govt’s move to make Ladakh a UT reopens an old front with China

The Union Territory status will also help preserve the unique ethno-linguistic and religious identity of the region. A large section of Ladakh’s population follows different schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, widely practised in the Himalayan regions. Their cultural identity was facing erosion under educational institutions governed from Srinagar. Similarly, among the Muslim population, most people adhere to Twelver Shia Islam or Nurbakhshi sect, which is prevalent only in Baltistan. Nurbakhshis often complain that other major sects are invariably poaching their followers. So stark is their sense of insecurity that some villages in Turtuk region have not allowed mobile phones or cable TV in their villages. With the region coming under the direct control of the central government, such diverse religious and cultural identities will be better preserved. Radical ideologies from the Valley, which were trying to radicalise the region’s youth, will now lose steam.

The Modi government’s move will allow the resource-rich region of Ladakh to realise its huge potential. It will also ensure that the Kashmir issue and cross-border terrorism do not cast their shadow on this peaceful region. If the circumstances permit and the geopolitical environment improves, a road link could be established from Karakoram Pass to Kandla through Leh, to revive the historical trade routes.

Alok Bansal is Director, India Foundation, and a Member of Jammu Kashmir Study Centre. Views are personal.

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  1. For once I am in favour of scrapping of 370 , Kashmiris have been fed on a diet of Hate India by trio of Farooq, Mufti and Lone and the ring leader Abbas Ansari.
    Because of the Hate India diet fed to them an average Kashmiri never aligned himself with India while expecting Indian army to help them whenever they were in trouble. How can these idiots think that they can make Kashmir an independent country with economy based on Apple, Akhrot and tourism with a fox like neighbour Pakistan.
    Though I am not a BJP fan but I stand by their move on this count.

  2. It may be a good move. There were reasons to be part of J&K in the initial stages. It is important that it should not be turned into another Shimla Manali etc. One hope their culture is maintained and does not get cocktailed by RSS.

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