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Ladakh Welcomes Verdict On Article 370 But Sticks To Statehood Demand

While the Union Territory has welcomed the abrogation of Article 370, it is demanding Sixth Schedule status and full statehood

The Hills are Alive: Following the revocation of Article 370, Leh has witnessed a shift in its political landscape
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Celebrations erupted at the main market in Leh on August 5, 2019, soon after the BJP government in Parliament announced the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into Union Territories—J&K and Ladakh. While Kashmir reeled under a curfew-like situation, the atmosphere in Leh was different. Residents gathered at the main chowk in Leh to commemorate the event. At the time, the Ladakh Buddhist Association thanked the BJP government for turning Ladakh into a Union Territory and fulfilling the long-standing aspirations of the people.

However, on December 11, when the Supreme Court of India gave its verdict on the bunch of petitions challenging the scrapping of Article 370, upholding the abrogation and granting Ladakh the status of a Union Territory, there were no such celebrations in Leh.

Thupstan Chhewang, a former MP and now the president of the Leh Apex Body, also called the People’s Movement for 6th Schedule for Ladakh, however, hailed the Supreme Court’s verdict. He described the verdict “as a strong step in the direction of strengthening national integration”, but at the same time, he called for granting statehood to Ladakh. The Leh Apex Body, which is an amalgam of various religious and political organisations of Leh district, including the Ladakh Buddhist Association, welcomed the Supreme Court’s observations about the early restoration of J&K’s statehood and holding polls in J&K before September 2024.

Chhewang hopes that the Union government would now reassess the situation and give Ladakh its due “by elevating it as a full-fledged state”. “The large area—where highly patriotic people are waiting for due recognition and faster development—with its strategic location and distinct ethnic and cultural identity, eminently entitles Ladakh to be made a state,” says Chhewang.

After the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A and the bifurcation of J&K state into two Union Territories, it was widely believed in Leh that the BJP government would grant special status to Ladakh and bring the region under the ambit of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to protect the small population and unique environment of the region.

It was widely believed in Leh that the BJP government would grant special status to Ladakh and bring the region under the ambit of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. But no such announcement was made.

But as no such announcement was made, Ladakh’s famous inventor and Ramon Magsaysay and Rolex Award winner, Sonam Wangchuk, in a widely-circulated video in October 2019, stated that “the people in the region have even started asking whether the status of a UT was granted for others to exploit the vast resources of Ladakh”. In January this year, on Republic Day, the Ladakhi innovator observed a five-day climate fast for Ladakh’s inclusion in the Sixth Schedule category and got a huge response in the region.

Until its abrogation, Article 370 granted J&K and Ladakh a distinct status with its constitution known as the Constitution of J&K. While Article 35A imposed restrictions on non-residents from purchasing property in J&K and Ladakh and ensured job reservations for permanent residents, Article 35A also gave the government of J&K the authority to identify “permanent residents”, and enabled the government to grant them special rights and privileges in matters concerning public employment and the acquisition of property within the state.

In 2021, following the revocation of Article 370, Leh witnessed a shift in its political landscape, marked by the formation of the Leh Apex Body. This body advocated for constitutional protections to safeguard the local population, pushing for the implementation of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The body exerted so much pressure that on September 3, 2021, the BJP-led Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Leh passed a resolution calling for safeguards under Article 371, the Sixth Schedule, or domicile laws to ensure the preservation of tribal rights for Ladakh’s indigenous people.

However, Kargil, from day one, opposed the abrogation of Article 370 and the division of the former J&K state. Earlier this year, the Kargil Democratic Alliance, a group of religious and political parties of Kargil formed after the abrogation of Article 370, aligned with the Leh Apex Body. Together, they had four demands—full statehood for Ladakh, constitutional protections under the Sixth Schedule, the establishment of a Public Service Commission and the creation of separate parliamentary constituencies for both Leh and Kargil.

In Kargil, the response to the court verdict has been sharply critical. While no one from Leh moved the Supreme Court to challenge Article 370, three prominent politicians from Kargil—Asgar Ali Karbalai of the Congress, Qamar Ali Akhoon of the National Conference and Sajjad Kargili representing the influential Islamia School, Kargil—were among those who filed petitions before the Supreme Court to challenge the removal of Article 370.

“We are disheartened by the verdict of the Supreme Court. We were expecting that the abrogation of Article 370 would be rejected and the erstwhile state of J&K would be restored,” says Kargili. He says he concurs with the demand of full-fledged statehood with the legislature for the Ladakh region as stated by the Leh Apex Body. “But it doesn’t mean we have given up our struggle for the restoration of Article 370,” adds Kargili.

Strategic Implications

China says that it does not recognise the Union Territory of Ladakh set up unilaterally and illegally by India. “India’s domestic judicial verdict does not change the fact that the western section of the China-India border always belonged to China.” In 2019, China had termed the “reorganisation” of J&K state as “unacceptable”, while referring to the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh.

Analysts say that while the Supreme Court’s verdict is a “domestic legal closure that ratifies the central government’s decision to scrap Article 370, its international significance remains limited”. “Though Kashmir is largely seen as a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India by most domestic and international observers, China remains an equally important player due to its claims over the Ladakh region. India and China do not even agree on the length of the LAC because China disputes the LAC in Ladakh,” says Praveen Donthi, a senior analyst for the Crisis Group. “In August 2020, China, at the UNSC, said that India’s actions “challenged the Chinese sovereign interests” and that it is “not valid in relation to China”. “So Beijing’s reaction is not a surprise. Because China is also a party to the dispute as it is in possession of the Shaksgam Valley, a part of J&K that Pakistan ceded to it in 1963,” adds Donthi.

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(This appeared in the print as 'Ladakh Wants More')

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