Seeking Inspiration From Gandhi, Wangchuk Announces Pashmina March

Renowned environmental activist has announced the march to the Changthang region on April 7 to highlight the issue of land grazing in Ladakh and to press for the Sixth Schedule

 (PTI Photo)
Education reformist and climate activist Sonam Wangchuk with actor Prakash Raj during the hunger strike, in Leh, Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Sonam was on the hunger strike for the statehood of Ladakh and the protection of the fragile Himalayan ecology. (PTI Photo)

On March 26, the day Ladakhi innovator Sonam Wangchuk ended his 21-day climate fast, he announced that the people of Ladakh would continue to protest. While Wangchuk went back to his village to rest, women decided to go on a hunger strike for the next ten days to remind the government of its promise made to the people to extend the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the Ladakh region.

Wangchuk returned to Leh on April 2 and stood alongside the women who were fasting. He announced that after the women, the youths would join the climate fast, and then the monks and elderly would follow. He mentioned that he would return to participate in the climate fast. Ladakhi innovator says this fast aims to remind the government of its promise to protect Ladakh’s culture and environment and extend democracy to Ladakh.

He also announced a border march and named it the Pashmina March. The march, Wangchuk says, will be towards the Changthang region to raise awareness about the depletion of grazing lands of Ladakh. He alleges the grazing lands are being taken over by big Indian industrialists and also by the Chinese.

Ladakh offers some of the world's finest Pashmina, with fibres averaging 12-15 microns. This Pashmina is distinguished by its pure quality, as there is no blending involved. The entire production process is meticulously handmade, devoid of any machinery.

Wangchuk linked the Pashmina March to Gandhi’s Dandi march. “Gandhi started the Dandi march for the salt law to raise awareness among people about it. In the same way, we have started the Pashmina march to spread information about how the grazing lands of Ladakh’s shepherds are being taken away by big industrialists,” Wangchuk says.

Changthang, located around 300 km from Leh, is situated at an average elevation of 4,700 meters. The region experiences harsh winter temperatures ranging from -6 to -35 degrees Celsius. The journey to Changthang, characterised by its cold, arid landscape and rugged terrain, would be challenging.

Earlier, while addressing people, Wangchuk said, “Some called us anti-national when we talked about going to the border. Just like Gandhi went for the Dandi march, we will go to Changthang and show the country what has happened. If the government is truthful, it will allow Indians to visit Indian lands in Changthang.” He added that if the government tries to stop the march, it will send a clear message and reveal to the rest of the country that there are issues with the grazing lands of Ladakh.

Wangchuk repeatedly invokes Gandhi and says: “We want to make people aware of how much land is being taken over by the big industrialists in Ladakh without any consultation with the locals.” He adds that if the Sixth Schedule was in place in Ladakh, no one would have taken the land.

In Srinagar, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah emphasises that the people of the Ladakh region should persist in their demand for the Sixth Schedule and statehood. He urges them to convey to the government of India that if their demands are not met, they should be reintegrated with Jammu and Kashmir. Omar says long before the abrogation of Article 370, he warned those advocating for Union Territory status in Leh that they might regret it later. He explains that he tried to persuade them to settle their grievances with the Kashmir government instead of pursuing UT status. However, when UT status was granted, it led to division within Ladakh. "While Leh celebrated and perceived it as freedom from Kashmir, Kargil was discontented and reluctant to be separated from Kashmir,” Omar says.

He adds that over time, Kargil has remained steadfast in its refusal to accept the decision of August 5, 2019, while Leh has gradually realised that they were deceived by what they received.

Soon after the abrogation of Article 370, Leh celebrated the decision. However, a year following the repeal of Article 370, the political landscape in Leh underwent significant changes with the formation of the Apex Body of Leh, a grouping of various political and religious parties of Leh. The Leh Apex body started advocating for constitutional safeguards to protect the local population, seeking the implementation of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

Later on September 3, 2021, the BJP-led LAHDC Leh passed a resolution urging for safeguards either under Article 371 of the Constitution of India, the Sixth Schedule, or domicile laws to uphold the tribal rights of the indigenous people of Ladakh. However, Kargil has consistently opposed the abrogation of Article 370 and the division of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir.

In January last year, since its establishment in 2020, the Kargil Democratic Alliance joined with the Leh Apex Body to present a four-point demand. The demands include full statehood for Ladakh, constitutional protections under the Sixth Schedule, the establishment of a Public Service Commission, and the creation of two separate parliamentary constituencies for Leh and Kargil.