Unlike Kashmir's political silence where political parties have been waiting for Assembly elections for the past six years, across the great Himalayan barrier, Ladakh Union Territory is brimming with political activities. All eyes are on the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Kargil elections which are scheduled to be held on October 4, where an alliance between the Congress and the National Conference represents a significant political collaboration, even as the BJP continues to oppose it.
While the National Conference and Congress are fighting against each other in the constituencies where no BJP candidate is contesting, they are in the fray against the BJP in constituencies where the BJP has fielded its candidate.
"We are working with a great understanding in Ladakh," says Congress leader Ghulam Ahmad Mir. "We believe that in today's context, every election is important, whether it is municipal or hill council, assembly, or parliamentary," Mir says. Mir alleges that the BJP has been avoiding polls for the past five years in Jammu and Kashmir, which makes the Ladakh elections even more important for the parties of the INDIA alliance.
For the 30-member LAHDC (Kargil), polls were scheduled for September 10, and the results would have been declared four days later. However, the Ladakh administration denied the plough symbol to the National Conference, forcing the latter to move to the High Court against the decision. The High Court ruled in favour of the NC. The Ladakh administration appealed against the High Court's judgment before the Supreme Court. As the case came up for hearing before the Apex Court in September, the Ladakh UT argued that as the process of elections was almost completed, and now only polling remained to be held, the Apex court should set aside the High Court's order.
The Apex Court rejected the plea of the Ladakh administration, saying it would categorically emphasise that no litigant should have even an iota of doubt or an impression (rather, a misimpression) that just because of systemic delay or the matter not being taken up by the courts, resulting in the efflux of time, the cause would be defeated, and the court would be rendered helpless to ensure justice to the party concerned. "It would not be out of place to mention that this court can even turn the clock back if the situation warrants such dire measures. The powers of this Court, if need be, to even restore the status quo ante, are not in the realm of any doubt." The Court directed the administration to allow the NC to have its party symbol and announce new dates for nomination and polls.
"The use of a symbol, be it a donkey or an elephant, does give rise to a unifying effect among the people with a common political and economic program and ultimately helps in the establishment of a Westminster type of democracy, which we have adopted with a Cabinet responsible to the elected representatives of the people who constitute the Lower House," the Apex Court said.
"It was a battle worth fighting for," says former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah when he addressed the people in Drass on Saturday with the National Conference election symbol, a plough, and party flags displayed all around. After the Supreme Court judgment, NC flags have become a common sight in the Kargil region of Ladakh.
"I have been fighting elections for the past 25 years; it is the first time I have heard that the name of a candidate contesting the polls shouldn't be mentioned in the election rally," Omar says while addressing the people. "It is strange," he says.
Omar linked the poll result with the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir State into Union Territories on August 5, 2019, saying that the result in favour of the NC would be an indication that voters of the Ladakh region rejected decisions of August 5, 2019. "On August 5, 2019, J&K was not only bifurcated and turned into Union Territories. That day, they wanted to erase centuries-old relations between Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir. They wanted the people of the region to cut off all relations," Omar says. Alluding to the BJP, he says, "They hate our flag so much that they tried everything to ensure we wouldn't get our flag and plough symbol in Ladakh."
"It is sad to see that there will be no MLA, no MLC, no cabinet Minister from Ladakh,” Omar said as the UT of Ladakh is currrently without legislature. “On October 4, while voting for the Hill Council, we have a chance to show the world that we are not going to accept injustice and the decisions of August 5, 2019," Omar said.
However, the BJP alleged that some forces in the region are provoking people against the party. "They are provoking people against the BJP, saying it is a Hindu party. Some religious leaders have started issuing fatwas. This shouldn't happen. A voter is an independent entity. He should be left free to vote for anyone," BJP general secretary Ashok Koul said.
Islamic school Kargil, one of the influential organszations, has asked people to vote according to their free will. "We are all political parties. We are all selling merchandise. Let the voter decide whose product is good. There should be no fatwa in it," Koul said.
However, in early September, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, a Lok Sabha member from the BJP, made a statement invoking the Battle of Karbala. He likened voting in favour of the National Conference or the Congress to supporting Yazid against Imam Hussain. Namgyal had stated that both the NC and Congress have let down Muslims, including the Shia community, which forms the majority in the Kargil district.
Kargil district, with a total population of 140,802 as per the 2011 Census, is predominantly inhabited by Muslims, primarily Shias, constituting 76.87%, followed by Buddhists at 14.29%. There are 85 candidates in the contest, with 22 representing the Congress, 17 from the NC, 17 from the BJP, four from the AAP, and 24 Independent candidates.
Namgyal says the BJP is fighting the polls on the plank of development. "We are a good option for the people of Kargil. The NC and Congress have ruled Kargil so far in the Hill Council or as the Ministers in erstwhile J&K government but they have not given anything to the Kargil region,” he says. “If Kargil is backward with low employment and corruption, it is because of these two parties,” Namgyal says. “Kargil people should give one chance to the BJP and we will ensure development reaches every home,” he says.