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Explained: Why Is Ladakhi Icon Sonam Wangchuk Threatening Fast Unto Death Again, What Are Demands Of Ladakh?

Ladakh-based leaders and organisations are engaged in negotiations with a high-powered committee set up by the Centre to look into their demands.

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Members of the Ladakh Students Association Delhi during a mass protest demanding the 6th schedule for the Union Territory of Ladakh at Delhi. Photo: Getty Images
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Ladakhi innovator and social icon Sonam Wangchuk has threatened to go on a fast unto death from February 26 if the talks with the Centre do not bear fruits.

Ladakh-based leaders and organisations are engaged in talks with the Centre over a range of demands, such as statehood for Ladakh and constitutional safeguards for the region's culture and environment. Wangchuk was initially supposed to start the fast unto death from Tuesday, but he called it off after the ongoing talks appeared to gain momentum.

The Ladakhis have been protesting for more than two years over their demands. The demands stem from the Narendra Modi government's decision in 2019 to abrogate Article 370 and carve out Ladakh as a union territory (UT) from the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state. While J&K was made into a UT with legislature, Ladakh was not given a legislature.

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Here we explain what the Ladakhis are demanding, the status of their talks with the Centre, and what Wangchuk has said about the fast unto death.

What Are Ladakh's Demands?

The people of Ladakh have been raising a number of demands for more than two years now. These demands pertain to the sociopolitical representation of the Ladakhis and the constitutional safeguards for the region.

Firstly, the people of Ladakh are demanding that the union territory should be granted statehood which would also bring a legislature assembly.

Until 2019, when the Modi government carved out Ladakh as a UT without legislature out of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the region was represented by four MLAs in the erstwhile J&K assembly. The region also has just one Lok Sabha seat and the demand is that there should be two seats for the parts of the region: Leh and Kargil.

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Secondly, the people of Ladakh are demanding that the region should be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The Sixth Schedule stems from the Article 244 of the Constitution of India. It paves way for the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs), which have some legislative, judicial, and administrative autonomy within a state. The Indian Express explains: "ADCs have up to 30 members with a term of five years, and can make laws, rules and regulations with regard to land, forest, water, agriculture, village councils, health, sanitation, village- and town-level policing, inheritance, marriage and divorce, social customs and mining, etc."

In Ladakh, the demand for the inclusion of the region under the Sixth Schedule is linked to the quest to safeguard their land, employment, and cultural identity, particularly after the abrogation of Article 370. Earlier, Article 370 and Article 35-A ensured that the rights of those from outside the regions were limited in property or employment matters, but, after the abrogation, there are fears over the dilution of such long-held protections.

Moreover, there are fears that the opening of the region for the industry could also harm the local environment and geology. There are fears among the locals that Ladakh could also see a fate similar to Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, which have seen widespread deaths and destruction in recent years from landslides and mudslides aggravate by rampant construction.

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The Ladakhis are also demanding the setting up of an exclusive public service commission for Ladakh and more job opportunities for the locals.

What's The Status of Ladakh-Centre Talks?

The Centre on Monday agreed to discuss threadbare the demands of Ladakh's state, the inclusion of the region in Sixth Schedule, and the setting up of an exclusive public service commission for Ladakh.

In the talks with the Centre, Ladakh is represented by a 14-member delegation of the Apex Body of Leh (ABL) and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA). They are engaged in talks with the High-Powered Committee (HPC) formed by the Centre to look into the region's demand, which is headed by Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai. As per the PTI, the HPC was formed "with a mandate to discuss the measures needed to be taken to protect the region's unique culture and language, taking into consideration its geographical location and strategic importance".

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Following the Centre's acceptance for a threadbare conversation on the demands, NDTV quoted Wangchuk as saying, "We will wait till the February 24 meeting of the sub-committee and the return of our leaders to Leh on February 25. We will call a very big public gathering the next day in Leh city to either thank the government for meeting our demands or start our fast unto death in case the talks fail."

Separately, ABL and KDA said in a press release that they have set up a joint sub-committee for the upcoming round of talks.

"We have, accordingly, set up the sub-committee with the following members: Thupstan Chhewang, Chering Dorjay Lakrook and Nawang Rigzin Jora, representing the ABL, and Qamar Ali Akhoon, Asgar Ali Karbalai and Sajjad Kargili, representing the KDA...All members of the sub-committee are in Delhi and we look forward to fruitful discussions at the next meeting," said ABL and KDA in the release.

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Fears Of Marginalisation In Ladakh

As part of the erstwhile state, while Ladakh often felt sidelined because of the focus being largely on Kashmir, now the region as a union territory is having another kind of anxiety. In the absence of Article 370 or 35-A, there are fears of demographic shifts.

"Inside the region, Ladakhi leaders have deep-seated fears of marginalisation by powerful corporate interests and a possible influx of the mainland population. With the loss of the protective cover of Article 370, which safeguarded its land and people, Ladakh now faces an uncertain future, overshadowed by concerns of exploitation and demographic shifts," noted Naseer Ganai in an article for Outlook.

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Praveen Donthi, a senior analyst with Crises Group India, was quoted as saying in an earlier article for Outlook that after the reorganisation of the erstwhile J&K state into two Union Territories, though the central government has consistently assured J&K of restoring statehood at an opportune time, no such promise was made to Ladakh. He further said that with the safeguards under Article 370 gone, the people of Ladakh soon realised that the territory, its land, culture and fragile environment are at a greater risk due to the possible influx of outsiders.

As for the possible position of New Delhi regarding Ladakh, Donthi further told Outlook, "One of the reasons why the government didn’t go for a trifurcation of J&K in 2019 is probably because it didn’t want to concede space and voice to Kashmir’s political aspirations. The same could be true of Ladakh as well, as it shares religious and cultural heritage across the border with Tibet. A nation state is always weakest in its peripheries hence they would like to exercise more control over those territories."

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