BJP is missing the plot in Ladakh; It could be too late, too soon

26th September 2020

26th September 2020

BJP general secretary Ram Madhav in Ladakh

An earthquake measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale rocked Ladakh on Friday afternoon. The tremors were felt in Leh. A short message in a WhatsApp group announced, around 6 pm on Friday evening.

No report of any damage to human life or property had been received from anywhere till then. By all means, it seemed like the earth shaking a bit briefly and then calming down. However, potentially a far more potent political earthquake is building up in most parts of Ladakh region, particularly the Buddhist-dominated Leh district. It can have serious repercussions for the BJP, and derail the RSS plans for Ladakh.

Cutting across party lines, the demand for granting Sixth Schedule protection to the Union Territory (UT) of Ladakh is gathering momentum. Ironically, less than carefully deliberated comments from BJP organization secretary Ashok Koul have given it an added impetus. As Koul, accompanied by Ram Madhav, landed in Leh, the student community carried placards of "Koul go back".

(Apparently, Koul was quoted by ThePrint that call for Sixth Schedule was “bakwas.” But he has now told a news channel that ThePrint misquoted him: “We are with all the demands of Ladakh..)

Leading the political mobilisation is former BJP MP from Ladakh Thupstan Chhewang who is widely respected. It may be recalled that Chhewang had resigned from his post before the parliamentary elections in 2019 for the BJP's failure to grant UT status to Ladakh.

The BJP had then fielded a young party leader and managed to win the Leh Lok Sabha seat. On August 5, 2019, barely two months after its victory, the Central government had converted Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh into two separate UTs. This was thought of as a master stroke by Modi government as it had virtually ended the hegemony of Kashmir over Jammu and Ladakh regions.

Celebrations in Ladakh followed, punctuated by demands for protecting its culture and demographics. Still earlier, some Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) members had informally articulated the need for some sort of "370 within 370" to protect the way of life of the Buddhists. Their argument was that Article 370 afforded the Scheduled Tribes (STs) of Ladakh no protection against influx of people from Kashmir, or Jammu.

They were not wrong in their diagnosis that if Jammuites and Kashmiris kept moving into Ladakh, the Ladakhis would soon be outnumbered. It may be mentioned here that 370 didn't bar the Permanent Residents from Kashmir or Jammu from settling in Ladakh. Due to extreme cold climate prevalent in Ladakh, far lesser people from Jammu chose to settle in Ladakh. However, of late, Kashmiris had become more ubiquitous in the region, not the least because of silent but strong backing from Kashmiri ruling class.

Among those attending all-party meetings in Leh nowadays are local BJP cadres, three time MLA Nawang Ragzin Jora, Chhering Dorjay, a former BJP MLC and minister. What is particularly worrisome for the BJP is that announcement for elections to Ladakh Autonomous Hill District Council (LAHDC) have already been made. However, a "Boycott LAHDC Polls" campaigns is gaining ground.

So far, no BJP leader has dared to defy boycott call given by Chhewang and others. BJP councillor from Saspol has already resigned from LAHDC and joined the movement led by Chhewang.

Reports received from Leh are reminiscent of days in the run-up to the 2002 Legislative Assembly elections. An organisation named Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF) had then issued a fiat that no political party will contest the elections.

It had then nominated Nawang Rigzin Jora from Leh and Sonam Norbu from Nubra as its candidates. Both were thereafter declared elected unopposed to the assembly. Jora had joined the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed ministry later. He enjoyed the reputation of being squeaky clean nonsense man both as a minister and as a legislator.

Meanwhile, Union Minister of Sports Kiren Rijiju started back-channel dialogue with Thiksay Rinpoche, a powerful lama playing an important role in mobilisation of people for demanding Sixth Schedule protections for Ladakhis. Another senior leader Chhewang confirmed the development at a press conference in Leh. He added that the movement is firm on its demand for boycott of LAHDC elections.

The UT of Ladakh came into existence on October 31, 2019, as per J&K Reorganization Bill, 2019, passed on August 5, 2019. Under its provisions, the Central government has one year to bring changes in various laws and rules applied to J&K as also Ladakh.

The Centre brought new domicile laws for J&K in May 2020 and scrapped the earlier laws pertaining to Permanent Residents. In case of Ladakh, however, new domicile laws have not been notified till date.

An overwhelming majority of Ladakhis are presently opposed to domicile rules similar to those enacted for J&K to be applied to them also. It seems the Centre may have erred in its assessment of mood of the Ladakhis regarding settlement of all Indians in Ladakh under new domicile laws.

In its heyday, the writ of LUTF in Ladakh, particularly amongst Buddhists, was so strong that even sitting MLA of National Conference from Nubra Tsetan Namgyal had refused to contest. Incidentally, Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country but social bonding among miniscule Buddhists is very strong.

The demand made by the organisation led by Chhewang, which has the backing of powerful Buddhist religious organizations, have been simple. The banner that forms the background whenever Chhewang and others address media, or hold public meetings, says "Constitutional Safeguards For Ladakh Under Sixth Schedule".

Under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution, tribal areas of several states have been granted varying degrees of autonomy. Laws and rules akin to those granted to some North Eastern states is what Ladakhis have sought.

Sant Kumar Sharma, a seasoned journalist, is an authority on Jammu and Kashmir. Two of his books on Article 370 and Delimitation are already out. The third one on Indus Waters Treaty is now out and could be bought here.

Sant began as a teacher but after six years, joined the Indian Express, Chandigarh in 1990, the year when terrorism was taking its first step in J & K and soon there would be exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He subsequently worked for The Statesman, The Times of India and Star News among others. He is based in Jammu since May 2000.

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