By P. Stobdan
The Government of India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and reorganize Jammu and Kashmir State has, undoubtedly, been most unprecedented and is going to have many implications on several fronts. While, events in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) will take time to settle down locally and regionally, the global implications will be limited unless Pakistan and China jointly wreck up the issue at the international platform.
Clearly, the time was ripe to deal with the status quo and widespread shortcomings relating J&K that were not without detrimental to national interests. Abrogation of 370 and withering away of J&K is a welcome move.
The case of separating Ladakh from J&K to make it a Union Territory (UT) is certainly a political masterstroke.
Certainly, Ladakh is going to lose the very constitutional safeguards enshrined under Article 370 and 35A that protected the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh until now. But at the same time these provisions also created impediments for Ladakh to carve out its own political space, identity as well as the economic incentives that were needed to develop the region. By separation from J&K, Ladakh can shape its own destiny in terms of identity and economic development. It should integrate Ladakh fully with rest of the country as an equal stakeholder in building of the nation.
The situation around Ladakh has changed rapidly in the past 20 years; the people have their own aspirations. The people of Ladakh are rejoicing that their demands are being fulfilled after seventy years of struggle. The new arrangement should help preserve Ladakh’s Himalayan identity which is more distinct by any yardstick compared to Jammu and Kashmir.
Clearly, Ladakh’s problems could not have been addressed without the engagement and ideas, thoughts, actions and wisdom of the people themselves to be able to reflect their own regional distinctiveness and aspirations. The bifurcation should help remove the prolonged political neglect of Ladakh by putting the key issues on the forefront of national attention. The UT status should cater to the rising expectations of the people especially the younger generation to prevent them falling adrift; to exploit the full political potentials and economic interests of Ladakh.
It is true that the Indian state has thus far paid little attention to Ladakh – the strategically most critical part of the country – as compared to the attention it has focused on the Northeast, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir itself. India’s primary concerns and actions for Ladakh have mainly remained external security driven and they are being dealt only with robust defence preparedness.
For decades, Indian intelligentsia – political, academic and policy making elite – looked at Ladakh from a romantic prism of the Himalayan hermitage, Shangrilaworld. In the recent years, the tendency has been to look at the region through the tourism prism. There has been complete lack of a political and economic outlook. Had the country pursued a strong and decisive Ladakh policy, India’s problems with China and Pakistan, including the nature of the Kashmir problem would have been quite different from what they are now. The Chinese have not looked at their borderland from a military perspective alone.
A Lost Himalayan Kingdom
This geo-military dimension apart, Ladakh undoubtedly had an unambiguous politico-historical personality of its own and survived as a Western Himalayan Kingdom for eleven hundred years despite all constrains. It had loosely defined boundaries with neigbouring Tibet, Sinkiang, Nepal, Mustang and Kashmir and maintained customary or tributary relationship with them until 1834 when the Dogras subjugated the Kingdom through repeated military conquests. Ladakh’s relationship with Kashmir and rest of India had its genesis only through the Dogra subjugation – a violent episode that lasted until 1948 when the Maharaja’s rule collapsed.
India’s political claim over Ladakh would have been more tenuous than it has over Kashmir. After all, there was a history of legality about Kashmir falling in the hands of the Dogras from the Sikhs. Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan (LGB) was a case of subjugation through force. The Dogra rule and their tyranny over LGB are well recorded in history. Therefore, the case for the restoration of Ladakh to join the Himalayan Kingdom like Nepal, Bhutan and others could have arisen long before but for the simple reason of choice of the Ladakhi clergy to be a part of the land of Buddha.
Nehru’s Ladakh Folly
In the aftermath of the Maharaja’s rule the only semi-political organization the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) firmly rejected joining the unitary state of Jammu & Kashmir. Instead, the LBA had sought complete merger of Ladakh with India and had even opted for joining then East Punjab. The logic given was that Ladakh had a bond with Jammu through military conquest and not with Kashmir. In any case, the legal link between Ladakh and J&K had ceased to remain operative with the Maharaja’s fall in 1948.
India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, however, spurned the LBA’s demand; instead he left the fate of Ladakh to be decided by Sheikh Abdullah who astutely contrived the case by placating the head Lama of Ladakh Kushok Bakula to join the J&K Constituent Assembly in the early 1951. Bakula was signatory to the formation draft constitution that envisaged a unitary state. As such the fate of Ladakh was sealed and rest is only history.
With the exception of Kushok Bakula who initially opted for joining Tibet, the people of Ladakh made no political assertion or showed any irredentist tendencies even though their case for a separate entity far outweighed the one put up by Kashmiris. There still is no ambiguity about their choice. Soldiers of the most decorated wing of the Indian Armed Force Ladakh Scouts continue to battle cry kikisoso-laargalo to defend the land of Dhamma.
However, the cruel irony is not lost on Ladakh. Its political status in the country commensurate to neither the glorious history nor does it correspond to the geopolitical reality. This is notwithstanding the strategic importance of Ladakh and contribution of its people to India’s defense and national security; especially their standing up against all the hostility and threats posed by adversaries, has been unequivocal. Yet it endures prolonged political marginalization, neglect, and apathy in the country. This amounts to political injustice. Surely, adequate answers are hard to come by, but it is not a good sign for a mature democracy and it is going to backfire sooner or later.
Why Ladakh is overlooked
The reasons for Ladakh’s tragedy though may have been numerous – physical remoteness, disconnect with the world outside, relative backwardness and lack of awareness possibly may also have contributed to its seclusion. But the most convenient alibi cited for denying justice for Ladakh is its demographic deficiency. This extremely flawed mindset and the contestable argument has led to a diminishing role for Ladakh even in J&K despite its accounting for almost 60 percent of State’s territorial size. It is an irony that demographic scarcity is considered as a liability than bliss, whereas primacy for territoriality has never factored into India’s national thinking and decision-making process. The absence of it has, in fact, led to vast borderland areas vulnerable to encroachment by external adversaries. It is not a good statecraft.
Ladakh also never carried a strong political weight in terms of electoral politics. Lone voice of a single Member of Parliament from the region is not heard seriously to make an impact on the national scene. Unlike in Northeast and Kashmir the people of Ladakh have never resorted to violence because of the benign nature of their culture – only to indicate that democracy and non-violence are not compatible to each other.
Most importantly, Ladakh does not hold much importance to national economy in terms of resources and industrial activities. Its mineral resources are yet to be explored. Like Tibet, Ladakh has enormous water resources from Zanskar, Suru, Dras, Shayok tributaries of the Indus basin. However, the entire water resources of Ladakh are only benefited by Pakistan. The Indus diversion is not yet thought of and this is yet another strategic folly.
Lastly, Article 370 may have come in the way of investments flowing into Ladakh for economic project. Tourism industry has become unsustainable due to closure of borders with China and Pakistan. Absence of land connectivity restricts the flow of tourist traffic from Europe and Asia. All these factors among others probably prohibited Ladakh coming into the national spotlight.
Ladakh’s Aspirations & New Delhi’s Dilemma
For New Delhi, Ladakh’s destiny is unfortunately linked with and complicated by the Kashmir dispute. So far, Ladakh’s elusiveness towards Kashmiri cause including its call for Azadi was being viewed as serving New Delhi’s viewpoint of providing contrasting case to debilitate the Kashmiri demands. This may not be the correct assessment though and deserves further analysis. The people of Ladakh, lacking some political parties, remain somewhat ambiguous (neither supported nor despised) to the ongoing Kashmiri separatist demands. Their approach has been somewhat nuanced; to watch from a distance and isolate themselves from the negative impact, though some attempts had been made by a few Kashmiri elements to enlarge the conflict to include Ladakh. Surely, there are no takers for extremism and terrorism in Ladakh.
Instead, Ladakh had been voicing its own demand for “separation from Kashmir” either in the form of a ‘centrally controlled administration’ or for a Union Territory (UT) status. In fact, Ladakh’s demand is the oldest perhaps predated the Telangana demand. But the State managed to kill every intermittent movement that had erupted in Ladakh since early 1950s.
Owing to an intensified agitation launched by the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) in 1989 over a communal issue, the Union Government had to agree for setting up an Autonomous Hill Development Council for Leh in October 1993. The Council came into being in October 1995. The J&K government reluctantly passed the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Act in 1997 with substantive power for them to run their affairs. However, the dubious nature of breaking the territorial unity of Ladakh was not lost sight of. The then Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed brought Kargil District in the ambit of LAHDC by creating a separate Hill Council for Kargil that came into existence in July 2003. Earlier in 1979, Sheikh Abdullah separated Kargil from Leh to make a separate administrative district apparently soon after the Iranian Revolution.
The Hill Council status resulted in gaining some semblance of dignity and justice for Ladakh. It had paved the way for empowerment of grassroots and entailed self confidence within and relation to outside. At least, the popular anti-Kashmiri sentiments began to wane since then.
On the eve of 2014 parliamentary election, the BJP leadership promised abrogation of article 370 to facilitate UT status for Ladakh. Obviously this was not to be so and the BJP lost all four seats in the subsequent Assembly elections held in November 2014. With the BJP haven’t got the absolute seats in J&K Assembly, the desired constitutional changes seem unattainable and this leaves the UT case for Ladakh in limbo. Since the matter is perceived as linked with Kashmir problem, neither Srinagar nor New Delhi seems in a position to take a bold stand on Ladakh.
The situation, especially in the past two decades, has changed rapidly. Retrospections were fast underway and the old model was simply not working. As things unravel and facts are coming to fore, the imperatives for identity politics has been on the rise. Not apparently visible, Ladakh was silently sliding from the national politico-pluralistic matrix. A semblance of serenity there by no means was to be mistaken for peace. A pent up frustration was simmering; divisive elements have been already creeping in to fuel internal divisions; traditional social cohesion was weaning, and confusion among people was palpable. Fear has been that Ladakh too will soon regress into needless disorder, social upheaval and chaos.
There has been increasing quest for an alternative political thinking that would truly reflect Ladakh aspirations. A growing trend towards rejecting complete embrace or over-identification with the larger political trend could be heard. They realized that the pattern of juxtaposing Ladakh’s distinct problems onto the wider political spectrum or vice versa may have certainly served the vested interests, but the practice has adversely impacted Ladakh’s interests.
Craving for change and new political discourse was visibly greater among the younger generation. They sought fresh perspectives; willing to stand ground, prefer to think and act locally than to dance on others’ tune in perpetuity. They wanted to be noticed and counted on the national stage which has been glaring from the spurt of anxious comments, views, and write-ups appearing in both print and social media. When the world and India with it – are in the midst of an unprecedented social and economic change, such aspiration among people of Ladakh is not only inevitable but also imperative. Inevitably, the second revolution in Ladakh has been underway for it to regain its place on the national scene.
With Ladakh increasingly drawing a high degree of global attention, the people seemed no longer remain oblivious to this hopeless situation.
There has been a growing apprehension that the mood in Ladakh has been changing in favour of China. This was the assessment of a former Special Secretary of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) who had served in Ladakh. This was, evident in Ladakh’s complete silence over the PLA’s incursion in Depsang in 2013 and subsequent events took place in Chumur in 2014.
The more dangerous portent is the increasing Tibetanization of Ladakh that had intensified over a period of time. With its Monasteries falling speedily under the control of Tibetan Lamas, Ladakh has already become a play ground for Tibetan sectarian fights. Surely, this is not happening without a reason and without supports coming from external sources. Already petty wrangles, sub-sectarian differences and assertion by Tibetan high Lamas (perhaps inspired by the Chinese) threatening the peace in Ladakh. In the final analysis Tibetanization of Ladakh could only benefit China and not India.
Meanwhile the local angst against Kashmir has been waning for past one decade. The practice of shouting anti-Kashmiri slogans and pelting stone on State buildings has become a thing of the past. Instead, their target has shifted towards pelting stones on vehicles coming from outside J&K. Such incidents of targeting non-locals, often tourists are increasing year by and this is a dangerous portent. A simmering undercurrent of tension between the locals and the Armed Forces over issues of land is also being fed. This is not so serious as yet but it could have implications in other areas.
It would have been unfortunate if this trend was allowed to continue. The prolonged apathy to the region by New Delhi was needed to end and so was the manipulation (divide and rule policy) of this sensitive region.
The Way Ahead
The key to overcome all the above mentioned challenges as well as to explore the opportunities will not be realized unless Ladakh is given a strong tooth for implementing the important national goals.
Reordering of J&K will unfold as a keystone for regional stability, sustainable economic development that is inclusive of ethnic identity and environmental security that are getting more and more interconnected issues. The country will have to think seriously about mitigating the increasing threats posed by climate change. Severe glacial attrition from global warming implies future water scarcity. Protection of glaciers and environmental biodiversity of Ladakh therefore should become a keystone of India’s policy.
It is good that the present government has worked towards a way to get an amicable divorce of Ladakh from J&K. This was arguably desirable and was not immune to redress despite many constitutional hurdles that have been now managed. However, non-realization of it would have entailed more frustration, delusion and disorder at home and vulnerability from outside.
Ladakh clearly wished to escape the strange paradoxical identity crisis of cherishing a strong sense of pride for the past and unease with the present status. However, New Delhi could not have waited for the region to reach a boiling point. Also it must be underlined that Ladakh does not have the requisite political strength and number. It also lacks the economic bargaining strength. Certainly it does not enjoy either the intellectual support base needed for national lobbying for fostering the cause nor are the people of the region in a position to take a violent path and sacrifice their lives.
The ultimate divisibility of J&K was a political reality, because the status quo had become unendurable and was against the democratic aspirations of the people. Had it been delayed further the greater and unimaginable threats would have confronted the country. Any further miscalculation could have created predicaments as witnessed elsewhere. Addressing the Ladakh issue therefore was to be taken purely on strategic consideration especially for laying the foundation for long-term solution for Kashmir crisis as well as for nurturing the strategic utility of Ladakh for India’s national interest.
The UT for Ladakh is a strategic move – it may even become a kernel for boundary solution with China. Now that J&K is gone, there is no need to remain hung-up on territorial integrity of J&K – the Aksai Chin issue should become flexible.