The joy of witnessing the long-cherished dream of Ladakh becoming a Union Territory didn’t last for long when the people of the region realised that the new setup has certain drawbacks. The region, with a population of around three lakh people and a unique identity and culture, cannot withstand an inflow of people from across India. Ladakh’s residents are now living with the constant fear of losing their land, culture, jobs, identity, and fragile environment.
Although Ladakh’s Union Territory status ensures development and prosperity, there is chaos and confusion among the people. After one year, Ladakh’s residents are now realising the importance of having a constitutional safeguard under the Sixth Schedule. This was initially sensed by the student community of the region, leading to protests, hunger strikes, and rallies in the cold winter months. But their voices were not given much heed, and as a result, the movement was suspended.
After 29 August 2020, a wind of change started blowing in the region when veteran political leaders came together on one platform to demand constitutional safeguards for Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule. The demands got stronger and louder with the election of the sixth Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh approaching on 22 October.
Political tension increased when the apex body of the People’s Movement, an umbrella platform of Ladakhi leadership, called for a boycott of the upcoming Hill Council election, demanding constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule on the lines of Bodo Territorial council. The boycott was called off after Home Minister Amit Shah assured he would hold talks with all stakeholders within 15 days of the LAHDC elections being completed. Whether the assurances were made to fulfil promises or to keep the election process going is yet to be ascertained. But the people are hopeful that the Narendra Modi-led government will consider their demands.
Rift in the BJP
The preparations for the sixth LAHDC election are now in full swing in the Leh district. This year, the tussle for the 26 seats is not just between the two major political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also in the game.
Since 1995, Leh’s Hill Council has always been ruled by one party. But this time, there is uncertainty about whether the Hill Council will be formed with the full majority of one party with several political ups and downs in the last few days.
There has been hue and cry over approaching polls and selection of candidates, especially in the BJP — and many party workers at different levels, including the executive councillor and councillor, have resigned. BJP’s Upper Leh councillor, Ven Lobzang Nyantak, and its former executive councillor, Tsering Wangdus, both considered senior leaders of the party, have alleged that the party is sidelining them.
This kind of sidelining, along with interference of outside leaders in local matters, has been a contentious issue for a very long time. It is one of the prime reasons for the resignation of the BJP’s senior-most leaders, including the faces of the party such as former MP Thupstan Chhewang and former BJP Ladakh Chief Chering Dorjay.
The pressure on the BJP to win the election with full majority this time is even higher now, because the internal rift within the party and the fight for power has worsened the situation. Many who have worked for the BJP for more than 20 years and are expecting to win are anguished over decisions of the party leaders, and have filed nomination papers as independent candidates — Tsering Namgyal Kushu from Upper Leh, for instance.
Despite all the speculation, the BJP is hopeful that it will sweep all Leh Hill Council seats. But the people of Ladakh have more options now.
More political options
The three parties — the BJP, Congress and AAP — are promising a lot to Ladakh.
The BJP has a list of developmental activities and announcements read for Ladakh. These include a new medical college, central university, and developmental packages, but the party’s drawback is that it has not been vocal about the demand for the Sixth Schedule. The Congress, which has failed to play a strong opposition role in these past five years, seems to have benefitted from the Sixth Schedule movement. While the AAP, which is newly formed in Ladakh, is offering hope and promises to the Ladakhi people. The party claims that it will replicate the development model of New Delhi in Leh, with a focus on eliminating corruption.
This time there are definitely more political options available to the people of the Leh district when they cast their votes at the end of October. What’s new about this upcoming Hill Council election is that it is being held at a time when people’s resentment at not having a constitutional safeguard is at its highest.
The author is the editor of Reach Ladakh Bulletin, a local fortnightly English newspaper. Views are personal.