Ladakh : Citizens and Their Long Due Needs

by April 30, 2019 0 comments

Notwithstanding its strategic and geographical significance, this region has not received the attention it deserves. Ladakhis have genuine demands. And the Government must act, now

The trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh with Zanskar ranges in the south and Karakoram ranges in the north, bordering both Pakistan and China, is strategically important and vital for India’s national security. At the time of Partition, it formed a part of the princely State of Jammu & Kashmir, which acceded to India in October 1947 after the State was attacked by Pakistan-supported tribal raiders. Large parts of the region, including the strategic Gilgit, which during the Maharaja’s rule formed the Frontier district and Frontier ilaqas, remain under illegal occupation of Pakistan. Islamabad has divorced these areas from Pakistan-occupied Jammu & Kashmir and refers to them as Gilgit-Baltistan (former Northern Areas), which are administered directly by the federal Government over there. A portion of the area, including the Aksai Chin, has been illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. The famous China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing’s most important strategic initiative in this region, also runs through areas under illegal occupation of Pakistan. It is a land-locked area comprising the trans-Himalayan ranges, mainly the ranges of Zanskar,   Ladakh, Pangong and Karakoram.

Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield with Saltoro Ridge as the vital ground, is a part of this region. This further enhances the strategic importance of the area; the occupation of Siachen has provided the Indian Army a strategic advantage. The Saltoro Ridge, an extension of the Karakoram Range, which dominates the glaciated region, is in complete command of the Army. Despite many desperate attempts, the Pakistan Army has not been able to secure even a toe-hold on the Ridge. Its occupation enables the Indian Army dominate the ambitious CPEC, whose strategic and military exploitation by China and Pakistan is a cause of concern for the nation. It also prevents the possibility of a pincer move by combined forces of Pakistan and China to cut off the Nubra Valley and subsequent capture of Ladakh. The strategic significance of Kargil area is well-known.

Ladakh is are a very proud race, who take pride in being nationalists. They consider themselves to be the guardians of India’s northern frontiers. They have been resisting Kashmiri hegemony from the time the administration of the State was transferred from the Maharaja to Sheikh Abdullah in 1949. In the first reorganisation of the State, Ladakh was made a district of the Kashmir Division, ignoring its ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences. Ladakhis felt that they had been made an appendage of Kashmir, which gradually proved true. Sheikh Abdullah’s first Cabinet did not have any representative from Ladakh. The Sheikh abhorred the Opposition and, hence, the National Conference was the sole political party comprising mainly of Kashmiri Muslims. Ladakh had only two seats in the State Assembly. Thus, “majority rule” virtually became “Kashmiri Rule.” Land reforms initiated by the Sheikh did not exclude the Gompas and drew strong opposition from Buddhist monks, who enjoyed a considerable clout. It was at the intervention of Prime Minister Nehru that the Gompas were exempted from the provisions of the Land Reforms Act.

The situation became grave when Urdu was made a compulsory language for the Ladakhis. The grant-in-aid given by Dogra rulers to three primary schools run by Shias, Buddhists and Sunnis was unilaterally withdrawn. No allocation was made for Ladakh in the annual Budget. In fact, separate allocation for the region began only in 1961. Biased and discriminatory policies of Kashmiri leaders pushed the Ladakhis to the wall and they started demanding separation from Kashmir to ensure development of their backward areas and preserve their religion and cultural identity.

One of the main reasons of the under development of the area was the flawed policy of the Nehru Government, which continued to treat the border regions as frontier areas. The Government of the day failed to recognise the difference between the two. While frontier regions were supposed to be dynamic, temporary and a buffer zone subject to give and take; border regions, defined by a boundary line, are fixed, sacrosanct and static. While the latter looks inwards, the former looked outwards. Since India had no expansionist designs, it should have concentrated on developing its border regions rather than keeping them under-developed under the false pretext of denying readymade road axis to a potential aggressor. Thus, neither the Union Government nor the State Government paid much heed to the development of infrastructure in this remote trans-Himalayan region, leading to anger and alienation among the people.

Growing alienation initially led to the demand of a Central administrator followed by the call for internal autonomy, regional autonomy and direct Central administration, as was done for a year after 1962 and finally veered around the demand for a separate divisional status for the region. The onset of secessionist activities in the Kashmir Valley once again rang alarm bells for the Ladakhis and a demand for a Union Territory gained popularity since the late 1980s under the banner of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA). An agreement was reached in October 1989 for the formation of an Autonomous Hill Council on the pattern of the Darjeeling Hill Council. The Kashmir-centric State Government was not in favour of the same. After much dilly-dallying, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act was enacted by the Union Government in May 1995, granting an Autonomous Hill Council each for Leh and Kargil.

Despite the formation of the Hill Councils, empowerment remained a bone of contention between the Ladakhis and subsequent Kashmir-centric State Governments. Suspicious of the intent of Kashmiri leaders, LBA once again raised the demand of a separate Union Territory. Coupled with this is the growing resentment in Zanskar against the step-motherly treatment to Kargil district administration and gerrymandering of the Assembly constituency of Zanskar.

It goes to the credit of the Modi Government that the long-pending demand of empowering the autonomous hill councils was conceded when the Governor’s administration approved the Ladakh Hill Development Council (Amendment) Bill, 2018, making the councils much stronger administratively as well as financially. It was followed by the establishment of a cluster university to give impetus to better education. Finally, in February this year, the Government also conceded the demand for a separate division for Ladakh, making it a separate administrative region like the Kashmir and Jammu regions.

As has been said earlier, the region is very important for national security due to its strategic location. Therefore, it is essential that the people inhabiting the border areas are kept happy and satisfied by the Government so that they play their role well as the guardians of the nation’s borders. Ladakhis have a few genuine demands which need attention and cannot be ignored as disgruntlement among locals can endanger national security as well. Population in the border areas forms an important centre of gravity, which always remains in an adversary’s radar, who would always prefer dissension and trouble in these areas. Such dissension can be exploited by the adversary to threaten vulnerable lines of communication in case of  conflict. The people of Kargil contributed and supported immensely in evicting the Pakistan Army, leading to the Kargil victory as acknowledged by the Indian Army.

Apart from holistic development of the entire region with particular preference to border areas, there’s a need to improve connectivity through building a direct rail link, road network, including the much-delayed Darcha-Padum-Neemo-Leh road and an airfield at Kargil. A strategic road linking Jammu region with Leh via Kishtwar is also needed. Widening and macadamisation of Kargil-Zanskar road and the opening of the Panikhar-Pahalgam road should also be completed on priority. The Zozila tunnel is a strategic necessity.

The establishment of professional colleges and higher education institutions, including a separate cluster university for Kargil, should be a priority. Inclusion of Bhoti language in the Eighth Schedule is a long pending demand. Both Kargil and Leh should be developed as centres of excellence for religious research and education. The discrimination in recruitment of Ladakhis in the civil secretariat and Government offices also needs to be looked into. The attempt to disturb the demographic balance in Leh needs to be aborted. Instead, emphasis must be laid on developing communal harmony. The Kashmir-centric leadership in the past has depended on the formula of divide and rule by pitting Kargil against Leh. The hardship faced by the people of the region, especially during harsh winter months, needs to be understood and addressed. The tendency of successive Kashmir-centric Governments to treat the people as second class citizens needs to end.

Ladakh was opened to tourists in 1974. Initially, tourism was limited to mountaineering and trekking. Gradually, with the Valley being disturbed, Ladakh has grown into a major tourist attraction centre. While modernisation of tourism industry, including the development of tourist infrastructure, is required for the improvement of the local economy, the aspect of environmental degradation also needs to be kept in mind. The region has tremendous hydro-electric potential which needs to be exploited.

(The writer is a Jammu-based political commentator, columnist and strategic analyst. The views expressed here are personal)

Writer: Anil Gupta

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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