Ladakh Battles For Identity More Than 4 Years After Abrogation Of Article 370

After the abrogation of Article 370, Ladakhi leaders hoped the government would act to protect their tribal identity


Photo: Getty Images
Coming Together: Sonam Wangchuk addresses protestors Photo: Getty Images

Thousands of Ladakhis thronged the iconic Polo Ground at Leh earlier this month in the dead of winter. Temperatures had dropped to -20 degrees Celsius, but people kept streaming onto the open snow-covered grounds of one of the highest polo facilities in the world on February 3. For them, the pressing concern of preserving the region’s tribal identity far outweighed the challenging subzero temperatures.

With Ladakh boasting a 97 per cent tribal population, Sonam Wangchuk, a renowned Ladakhi innovator, passionately championed the cause amid the mind-numbing cold, making a case for what he believes is a “battle for truth”.

At the Polo Ground that day, Wangchuk addressed thousands of Ladakhis, emphasising the importance of preserving tribal identity, resources and mountains. He highlighted the Aryan Valley, home to the Brokpa tribe, stressing the need to safeguard their culture through the Sixth Schedule, which protects them from all threats, including internal ones. Legend has it that the Brokpa are descendants of Alexander the Great’s lost army who chose to stay on after the Macedonian king’s conquest of the Indus River Valley.


In late January, Ladakhi leaders objected to renaming health centres as mandirs, just a few months after the central health ministry decided to rename Ayushman Bharat Health and Wellness Centres to Ayushman Arogya Mandirs. The Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) and prominent Muslim organisations in Kargil opposed this decision. Chering Dorjey, the acting president of the LBA, criticised the central ministry’s decision as disrespectful to Ladakhi sentiments. “If your language, culture and identity are not safe, what is left?” argued Karbali.

An old lady at Darchinpa village in Leh
An old lady at Darchinpa village in Leh Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Soon after the abrogation of Article 370, murmurs to safeguard culture, language and tribal identity surfaced in the region. Ladakhi leaders hoped the ruling National Democratic Alliance government would act to protect their tribal identity. This hope arose, in particular, from the 119th meeting of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes in September 2019 in New Delhi, which discussed the inclusion of the Union Territory of Ladakh under the Fifth or Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India.


The Commission’s report highlighted that Ladakh, as a newly created Union Territory, is predominantly tribal, with Scheduled Tribe populations ranging from 66.8 per cent in Leh to over 99 per cent in Zanskar. Scheduled Tribes in the region include Balti, Beda, Bot or Boto, Brokpa, Drokpa or Dard or Shin, Changpa, Garra, Mon and Purigpa.

The Commission noted that prior to Ladakh becoming a Union Territory, certain agrarian rights and land ownership restrictions existed to preserve Ladakh’s cultural heritage. It recommended placing Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule to decentralise power, safeguard cultural identity, protect land rights and accelerate regional development.

Nand Kumar Sai, chairperson of the Commission, wrote to the Union Home Minister and Union Tribal Affairs Minister, recommending the inclusion of the Union Territory of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. “That was the last we heard of the Commission. After that, nothing substantial came out,” says the councillor of Chushul, Konchok Stanzin.

Temperatures had dropped to -20 but people kept streaming onto the open snow-covered grounds of one of the highest polo facilities in the world on February 3.

A vocal councillor, he is known to fearlessly address the issues of Chinese incursions along the Line of Actual Control and Ladakh’s internal political challenges. Following the abrogation of Article 370, he advocated for Ladakh’s constitutional protection. As an advocate for Ladakh’s rights, he urges the Army to permit Ladakhi shepherds access to traditional grazing lands near the Line of Actual Control, asserting India’s territorial rights.


After the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019 and the creation of the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, the Ladakh region has seen two major developments—the development of road infrastructure and the formation of the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA).

The Centre is investing heavily to upgrade roads in Ladakh, mirroring Chinese infrastructure across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Since Ladakh became a Union Territory five years ago, road development in Kargil and Leh has surged. Even in sub-zero temperatures, construction persists in remote areas like Nyoma, 167 km from Leh. Workers from Nepal and the North East work tirelessly despite the freezing conditions. “We’re here to work and earn,” says one labourer.


The formation of the LAB in 2020 marked a significant political development in Ladakh. Led by Thupstan Chhewang, formerly a Parliament member from Ladakh, the LAB advocates for Ladakh’s inclusion in the Sixth Schedule. In Kargil, political parties formed the KDA in 2020, opposing the allegedly unconstitutional abrogation of Article 370 and seeking reunification with Jammu and Kashmir. Notably, KDA leaders Qamar Ali Akhoon, Asgar Karbali and Sajad Kargili were among those who petitioned the Supreme Court against the abrogation.

In the last two years, the KDA and the LAB have aligned their demands, presenting a joint plan. This four-point formula includes—statehood for Ladakh, its inclusion in the sixth Schedule of the Constitution, establishment of a Public Service Commission with job reservations for locals and allocation of a parliamentary seat each for Kargil and Leh.


On February 2, Stanzin, who won from the Chushul constituency in the most vital Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Leh polls of October 2020, left his constituency with his band of followers to participate in the rally organised by the LAB and the KDA at the Polo Grounds in Leh.

“It was very cold during the night, as cold as it can get in Ladakh. If we had started on February 3 from our constituency, it would have been difficult for us to reach the protest venue at the Polo Ground at Leh,” Stanzin says.

On February 3, Stanzin found himself engulfed in a sea of people attending the public meeting. Attendees had journeyed from various regions, including Nobra, Western Ladakh, Eastern Ladakh and even those residing near the Chinese border. “People had come from every corner of Ladakh. I have never seen such a big protest in Ladakh for the past several decades,” he adds.


Stanzin explains that ongoing talks between the Indian government, Ladakhi representatives and the High Powered Committee, have failed to yield progress, frustrating both Ladakh’s leadership and its people, ultimately leading to the massive demonstration.

On January 2, 2023, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) established a high-powered committee, led by Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai, to address key concerns in Ladakh. The committee’s meeting was scheduled for February 19 in New Delhi. Ahead of the meeting, both LAB and KDA were requested to submit their demands in writing. Last month, both local bodies presented their four-point demands and concurrently called for protests in Ladakh on February 3.


At the protest, Thupstan Chhewang reminded the government of its promises regarding the Sixth Schedule for Ladakh, even as Wangchuk displayed BJP manifestoes pledging the Sixth Schedule. Both leaders have announced a Gandhian fast unto death from February 19 onwards, if their demands aren’t met.

All attention is now focused on the meeting on February 19 in the national capital, with the ball resting in the central government’s court.

Wangchuk has already issued a stern warning, stating that the region could witness significant political turmoil if anything untoward happens to Chhewang during his fast, which serves as a poignant symbol of Ladakh’s fervent plea to preserve its identity.


(This appeared in the print as 'Ladakh Battles for Identity')