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Ladakh's Historic Post-Article 370 Election: Massive Turnout, Identity In Spotlight, Climate Change Worries Take Center Stage

A year after the abrogation of Article 370, the political landscape of Leh changed and the region saw the formation of the Apex Body of Leh, a coalition of various political and religious parties of Leh.

The view of Ladakh.
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A metallic road leads up to the Hundurman hamlet, which marks the last settlement approaching from the Kargil side of the Line of Control.

On October 4, the day marked for casting ballots in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Kargil elections—a local elected body overseeing the civil governance of this strategically vital hill region—residents descended from their brick-and-mortar homes to the polling station at the government middle school Hundurman to participate in the democratic process.

A 70-year-old woman, Kulsum, was sitting outside her one-story house. Her face, etched with wrinkles, would light up when asked a question. She would smile and then turn her gaze towards her son, Ali, 47. She would seek clarification from him. Ali would patiently listen to the inquiry and then translate it into Urdu, the language more widely spoken and understood in the region.

Kulsum belonged to the category of those voters who preferred to cast their votes early.  "I have exercised my vote," she says. "I've been voting all along my life. I hope this time our elected representatives will take action to address the issue of water scarcity," she says.

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The voters stand in queue to cast their vote. Outlook Photo/Naseer Ganai

Kulsum was born and brought up in a village called Bilargo in Skardu located across the Line of Control in Pakistan-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. While pointing towards the mountain, she says the village lies behind the mountain. In 1970, she entered into wedlock with Akhon Ibrahim, a resident of Hundurman village. At that time, Hundurman was with Pakistan. However, during the 1971 war, the Indian Army gained control of the village from Pakistan.  Ali says his mother has not had the opportunity to see her siblings since 1971. But quickly moved the conversation to the polls. Ali has a pressing concern – the region's dwindling snowfall during winters. He points towards his residence and explains that only four years ago, the area would receive heavy snowfall, with accumulations of up to five to six feet, outside his house. This abundant snowfall served as a vital water source for drinking and irrigation throughout the year. However, in recent years, snowfall has reduced to just three inches during the winters, leading to water scarcity in the summer months. "We are all suffering due to the lack of water. There is a severe water shortage," he adds.

Ali’s younger brother Nasir Hussain, 39, who is also a farmer like Ali, stepped in, saying the water crises in the region are due to global warming and the receding of glaciers.

Ali says following the abrogation of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, people are concerned about their identity. They are advocating for the restoration of the statehood or separate statehood for Ladakh. "This is a major political issue in the Kargil region," he says.

The Hill Councils

The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDC) in the Leh and Kargil regions are having distinct historical backgrounds. The LAHDC Leh was established in accordance with the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act of 1995, during the tenure of the PV Narasimha Rao government. Its inaugural election was held in 1995. Subsequently, during Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's PDP rule in 2003, a similar council was established for the Kargil district. Both the Hill Councils were enjoying considerable autonomy in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir.

LAHDC elections are held every five years. Traditionally, the LAHDC Leh has been dominated by the Congress party. However, a significant shift occurred in October 2015 when the BJP secured 17 out of 26 council seats, while the Congress secured four seats, and the National Conference won two.

Demand for the Sixth Schedule

However, after the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the politics changed in the region. Initially, there was support in the Leh region for the revocation of Article 370 as Ladakh became a separate Union Territory. The decision was responded to with celebrations in Leh town. However, concerns soon appeared, leading to demands for special status for the Union Territory of Ladakh, such as the Sixth Schedule, to safeguard its demography, land, environment, and culture.

A year after the abrogation of Article 370, the political landscape of Leh changed and the region saw the formation of the Apex Body of Leh, a coalition of various political and religious parties of Leh. The Apex Body called for constitutional safeguards for the local population of the region under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. They even threatened to boycott the LAHDC Leh polls of October 2021 if these safeguards were not granted. Following a meeting with the Central Government in Delhi and receiving assurances in this regard, the Apex Body Leh withdrew the poll boycott call, and the BJP emerged victorious in the elections. On September 3, 2021, the BJP-led LAHDC Leh passed a resolution seeking safeguards under Article 371 of the Constitution of India, the Sixth Schedule, or domicile laws to protect the tribal rights of the indigenous people of Ladakh.

Since the abrogation of Article 370, the Ladakh Union Territory has witnessed several political agitations for the Sixth Schedule, but this year's February agitation in support of climate activist Sonam Wangchuk's fast saw a huge gathering. Wangchuk is seeking the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution for Ladakh. Under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution, the Sixth Schedule grants autonomy in legislative, judicial, and administrative matters. Wangchuk and other political leaders in Leh initially welcomed the decision of August 5, 2019, and viewed it as a "liberation for Ladakh" from Kashmiri rule. However, nearly four years later, they are ironically seeking guarantees similar to those provided by Article 370.

Kargil politics 

In contrast, Kargil witnessed massive protests against the revocation of Article 370 and the transformation of Ladakh into a separate Union Territory. Political parties in the Kargil region later formed the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), which is a coalition of various political and religious parties. They advocated for the reunification of Kargil with Kashmir.

Since its formation in 2020, the Kargil Democratic Alliance has consistently opposed the bifurcation of the Jammu and Kashmir State and sought the reunification of Kargil with the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. On January 7 this year, the KDA and Leh Apex Body jointly presented a four-point demand, which includes 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. Historically LAHDC Kargil has remained with the National Conference and Congress. On November 25, 2022, the Council passed a resolution seeking Statehood for Ladakh, and protection of the rights of locals under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

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Prominent politicians from Kargil, including Sajad Kargli and Kamar Ali Akhoon, were among the petitioners in the legal challenge against the revocation of Article 370. 

Kargil polls

Over the years, the village has developed with people having wooden and rock houses, then mud houses, and now building brick and mortar houses.

In the village Kaksar around 13 km from Kargil, there were long queues of voters on October 4 morning. The polling booth was at the Government High School Kaksar. Outside the booth, Muntzair Mehdi, a graduate student, was uncertain about his future in the Ladakh Union Territory. He says after the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir was dismembered and the new Union Territory of Ladakh came up, the government has not devised any comprehensive policy about employment. He says despite being from the border area, the government has no policy about the LAC category, leaving students and candidates of the Ladakh region in confusion.

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Kaksar is the village close to the Line of Control, and the village has seen extensive shelling during the Kargil war in 1999. For Mehdi, unemployment among Ladakhi youth is a major issue. However, he is not sure if the Ladakh Hill Development Council, under the present setup, can resolve it.

“The UT of Ladakh is fine but the government of India must extend the sixth schedule to Ladakh. It will provide safeguards to our lands, jobs, and our identity,” Mehdi says. The village of Kaksar has also witnessed drought for the past few years, and there is an acute shortage of water in the village.

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In 1975, Najaf Ali, an elderly local resident, says, the water pipe was laid in the village, and since then, the government has done nothing to ensure water availability around the year. He says since the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the people of the Kargil region are concerned with the present political arrangement. “We never asked for the Union Territory. That is why we are asking either Ladakh should be made a full-fledged state or Kargil should be made a part of Kashmir. Kashmir is our mother, and I feel we have been kept away from our mother,” Ali says.

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“No one can accuse us Ladakhis of being anti-nationals. In every crisis, we have joined the army to defend our country. But the present political arrangement is not to our liking,” he says.

For 73-year-old Fida Hussain, a retired police official and BJP worker, the National Conference and Congress are the real culprits of Ladakh’s, what he says, “political tragedy.” “Both the parties have not worked on the development front over the past several decades. If you are facing water crises today, it is because past governments have not taken this issue seriously,” says Hussain, who has served in different parts of the Kashmir Valley as a cop.

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He says the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir State shouldn’t have been done as it did not serve any purpose. “We have centuries-old relations with Kashmir, and the government should have sought opinions from people before taking such a decision,” he adds.

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The elderly man holding National Conference flag in Ladakh. Outlook Photoi/Naseer Ganai

Mohammad Hamza, who is a travel agent and had come all the way from Delhi to cast his vote, speaks fluent English. "Kargil is far behind Leh in every respect, particularly in education. I am hopeful that the newly educated young councillors will be elected this time, and they will focus more on education," says Hamza.

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"Politically, we are also very weak as compared to Leh. We have long been looking forward to bringing educated people into politics, but it didn't materialize due to the involvement of religious politics. We don't want religion to mix with politics," Hamza adds. As both Kargil and Leh regions have been dominated by religious schools, Hamza says there is a dire need to bring new modern, educated, visionary people into Kargil politics to move forward.

Hamza was in Delhi when Article 370 was abrogated on August 5, 2019. He says he has been supporting the demand for a separate Union Territory for Ladakh, but the way it was done was not decent. "I was very happy to see Ladakh become a UT but also sad about the way it was done," he adds.

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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 favor 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 the process of elections had almost been completed, and now only polling remained to be held. The Apex court should set aside the High Court's order.

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However, the Apex Court rejected the plea of the Ladakh administration, saying it would categorically emphasize 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 Apex Court judgment created political euphoria in the Kargil region, which celebrated the decision with songs of "Lehra Ae Kashmir Ke Jhande Lehra" (Wave, O flag of Kashmir, wave; Let the flag of the diligent ploughman wave). It is a patriotic song in the Urdu language written by the National Conference leader, Moulana Masoodi, in 1952. The song was recited in the Constituent Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir for the first time in 1952.

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Experts here say the BJP had a chance to win a few seats in the region if it had not made the NC flag an issue. They say once the government turned the flag into an issue and subsequently lost the battle in the Supreme Court, it raised the morale of the National Conference cadres. They say it is for the first time the National Conference song "Lehra Ae Kashmir Ke Jhande Lehra" dominated the election campaign across the Kargil region.

For National Conference leader and former Chief Executive Councillor, LAHDC (Kargil) Haji Hanifa Jan, 54, the fight for the flag was essential for the National Conference. Haji Hanifa, who was the petitioner for restoring the flag to the party,  was in the Baru area of Kargil. Haji Hanifa says the intent behind not giving the National Conference its flag was to make NC candidates fight the polls as independent candidates, and it becomes easy to win over independent candidates after the polls. It was also a move to erase the identity of the National Conference, which symbolises the larger identity of the erstwhile state of J&K. “We understood the game very well, and we made it a point that our flag should be restored to us,” soft-spoken Haji Hanifa says. He says after the restoration of the flag, the whole Kargil region erupted in joy.

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Haji Hanifa says his priority is to ensure water supply to Kargil, especially the Baru region, which is now facing drought for the past few years. He says for the past ten years, there has been a massive drop in snowfall leading to water crises. “Once we will form the government, we will ensure that the lift irrigation scheme takes off, and farmers don’t lose their produce to the drought,” he says. He says the water crises, education, and the health sector will remain a priority of the new council if the NC comes to power.

Talking about the political aspirations of the region, Haji Hanifa says when Article 370 was abrogated and two Union Territories were carved out of the erstwhile State of J&K on August 5, 2019, he was at his home in Baru Kargil. “I was in shock. I never thought this would happen. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I was in pain and in tears,” Haji Hanifa says.

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He says he completely agrees with National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah’s statement that the Kargil elections would be a referendum on decisions of August 5, 2019. During his rallies in Kargil, Omar Abdullah asked voters to vote for the National Conference candidates. Omar stated if the party wins from Kargil, it will indicate that the people of the Kargil region are not in favour of the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the erstwhile J&K state.

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Sajad Kargilli Outlook Photo/Naseer Ganai

Sajad Kargili, who belongs to the influential Islamic School of Kargil, says development and dignity are two issues. “You can have development in regions where there is no democracy. In our country, democracy and development are in sync with each other. You cannot say we have given you development, now democracy can wait,” Kargili says.

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Sitting at the Islamia School premises in the heart of Kargil, Kargili since Ladakh has become a UT, the Ladakh region as a whole has lost its representative character. “We used to have a voice as cabinet Ministers, MLAs, and MLCs. That has gone. Now you cannot say we have given you good roads, and you shouldn’t talk about democracy,” he adds. He says even the Ladakh Hill Development Councils both in Leh and Kargil are feeling powerless. He says since 2019, two batches of the Jammu Kashmir Administrative Service Officers have been recruited in J&K UT, but in the Ladakh UT, the Public Service Commission has not even been established yet. “For the past few years, different areas of the region are witnessing water scarcity and drought, and the government is not doing any intervention to address the issue,” he adds. He says the region is grappling with political issues, and the developmental programs should be in sync with people's aspirations.

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At Drass, the second coldest place in the world after Siberia, elderly Abdul Majid was at a tea shop. For the next six months, he says,  there will be no work. “We have now enough stock to live the winter,” he adds. Majid worked as a porter for the Army during the Kargil War.

He says Ladakh and Kashmir have centuries-old relations, and the government shouldn’t have “partitioned” J&K the way it did. “We have family relations and houses in Kashmir and how come you expect us to be away from Kashmir? Kashmir is so near, Leh is far away from here,” he says.

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Haji Abdul Qayoom, the NC Drass president, was sitting outside a hotel that also acts as the NC office. He has all hopes on the Apex Court. “We are all waiting for the decision of the High Court on the petition of Article 370,” he adds.

For the past few years, the Ladakh region has seen unprecedented development in the road infrastructure, all roads are metallic and power supply continues for 24 hours without any cut. New hotels have come up, and there are more cars on the streets. However, people are complaining about the lack of jobs and are concerned about identity politics. The result on October 8 will lay the path for the future political course for the Ladakh region.

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