Saturday, Jun 03, 2023

Sonam Wangchuk Brings Back Focus On Ladakh


Sonam Wangchuk Brings Back Focus On Ladakh

Sonam Wangchuk’s fast in Leh has drawn attention to the plight of the ecologically fragile Ladakh region like never before

Taking a Position: Sonam Wangchuk on hunger strike Photo: Sonam Wangchuk/Instagram

Ladakh ki mann ki baat sunlo deshvaasion
(Listen to the heart of Ladakh, my compatriots)
Hai kaisa raaj jis main bolne ka bhi haq na ho
(How’s this a kingdom where one cannot even speak)
Yunhin na bolte hum ki khatre mai hamaara ghar
(We aren’t just blabbering about the risk our home is in)
Na dekha ho toh ja ke dekhlo YouTube par
(If you haven’t seen, go and check on YouTube)

On January 27, Ladakhi rapper Ladoll sat down to pen the words to this rap song titled ‘6th schedule for Ladakh.’ By the next day, she had completed writing it, by the 29th, she had finished the song’s videography in Leh and posted it on YouTube, attracting instant views online and catching the attention of the people of the region. “When I saw Sonam Wangchuk fasting for Ladakh, it moved me. It was not an ordinary fast. He was fasting in the cold of Ladakh, with the temperature dipping to minus 20 during the night. He was posting his videos on why the Sixth Schedule is important for Ladakh. I know we have freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution of India and we have every right to speak up. And I thought I should contribute my bit to his struggle and the Sixth Schedule demand through my music,” says the 25-year-old rapper, speaking to Outlook.

On February 1, Ladoll was among a large number of people gathered at the Polo grounds in Leh to thank Wangchuk on the completion of his five-day fast for the demand to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into two Union Territories— J&K and Ladakh—the latter has seen many political agitations for the inclusion of the region into the Sixth Schedule but none of them havecaught the media’s attention as much as the gathering to ‘thank’ Wangchuk did. “I am told this was the largest gathering ever in Leh, despite the cold,” says Wangchuk.

Wangchuk and other political leaders of Leh had initially welcomed the abrogation of Article 370, calling it a ‘liberation for Ladakh’ from Kashmiri rule. But now, nearly four years down the line, they are ironically seeking demands that resemble those which Article 370 guaranteed. Under Article 370, J&K had had a separate constitution called the ‘Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir’, and under Article 35A, not only were outsiders prohibited from buying property in the state, jobs were reserved for locals who were defined as ‘permanent residents.’ Like in J&K, Ladakh’s land and jobs were once protected under both articles. With the abrogation of Article 370 and the Sixth schedule nowhere in sight, Wangchuk’s fast in the icy cold winter under the open sky at his Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL) has attracted the attention of students, religious leaders, singers, Buddhists, Muslims and the media.

Changes At The Grassroots

For the past three years, the Leh Apex Body and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), an amalgam of political, religious and social groups of Leh and Kargil respectively, have been seeking constitutional safeguards on the lines of the Sixth Schedule to safeguard the demography, environment, and unique culture of Ladakh. Since its formation in 2020, the KDA has been speaking up against the bifurcation of J&K state and had desired the reunification of Kargil with the erstwhile state. It has allied with the Leh Apex Body and both political groups are speaking in unison. On January 7 this year, the groups put out with the following four demands: statehood for Ladakh, constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule, the formation of a Public Service Commission and the creation of two separate parliamentary constituencies for Leh and Kargil.

“The two Hill Councils are clear that their historic unity is based on a political agenda and not on rivalry in religious differences, making it difficult for the BJP to deploy that tactic.” professor Siddiq wahid

In a joint protest in Jammu, both groups sought the inclusion of the four demands as part of the dialogue with a High Power Committee of the Government of India. The Committee, headed by Minister of State, Nityanand Rai, was constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on January 2 to “ensure the protection of land and employment” for the people of Ladakh. The earlier focus of the Leh Apex Body, formed after much political debate in 2020, was on seeking protection of jobs and the land of Ladakh through the extension of the Sixth Schedule. Under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution, the Sixth Schedule gives autonomy to the state on legislative, judicial and administrative matters.  With no response to their demands from the central government, the political groups have now raised the bar. Wangchuk’s entry has given a new direction to Ladakh’s political movement, currently led by the Leh Apex Body and the KDA.

A Cry For Autonomy

On January 21, Wangchuk announced that he would go on a ‘five-day climate fast,’ saying people hoped that under the Sixth Schedule, there would be a provision for declaring Scheduled areas where tribal populations exceed 50 percent. “Now Ladakh is more than 95 per cent tribal, so people were sure that they will be given these safeguards,” he says.  He argues that business houses have started influencing Ladakh’s lower bureaucracy as they don’t want the Ladakh Valley and mountains to be kept free their exploitation. He also asked the country to remember the sacrifices of the people of Ladakh against China and Pakistan in various wars since 1948. He says that in contrast to “Tibet and Gilgit-Baltistan,” the country has the added advantage of the people of Ladakh acting as soldiers for the country who will go to any lengths to defend the nation.

A Historic Unity

Professor Siddiq Wahid, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi and a fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, says the key features of Ladakh’s pushback to the central government’s casual approach and/or domination by it are that it is founded on rectifying the divisive politics between Leh and Kargil which began 42 years ago and was exacerbated a decade later. “The two Hill Councils are clear that their historic unity is based on a political agenda and not on rivalry based on religious differences, making it difficult for the BJP to deploy that tactic,” says Prof Wahid.

“The Leh Apex Body and the KDA have concretised their demands by focusing on the protection of local economic security, local political rights and the uniqueness of the local cultural identity. In doing the above, Ladakh has set the agenda, rather than New Delhi; that is no mean accomplishment,” he adds.

(This appeared in the print edition as "All Eyes on LADAKH")

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