Under Kashmir’s rule, Ladakh suffered enormous cultural onslaught from fundamentalist organizations of the Valley.
The newly-elected BJP MP from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal has demanded separation of Ladakh from Kashmir. He has said: “Ladakh’s political aspirations will be his priority. We have a different culture, ethnicity and even language. The Valley-centric policies cannot be geographically implemented in Ladakh. In every respect, Ladakh must be separated from Kashmir”. He has also said that demand in Ladakh for separation from Kashmir is age-old. “This demand is not recent but since 1948, Ladakhis have wanted to be a separate entity from Jammu and Kashmir,” he said. Namgyal was right.
Indeed, the Ladakhi demand for “self-rule” within India is as old as the political emancipation of August 1947. Ladakhis have consistently argued that the “Kashmir issue can be seen only in the context of the validity of the Amritsar Treaty (of March 1846, under which the State of Jammu & Kashmir came into being), and that Ladakh should be allowed to go its own way as only the Maharaja (of the State) was the common link for Ladakh and Kashmir.” The demand for a separate dispensation should also be viewed in the context of the Kashmiri attitude towards Ladakh, which has been negative and jingoistic, as the average Kashmiri disdainfully calls the Ladakhis “boto”, which to many means non-Muslims.
Kushak Bakula told media in Delhi about Ladakhi grievances and asserted that “direct central administration of Ladakh would ensure its speedy economic development, which has been ignored during the past 20 years.”
The first time Ladakhis demanded “self-rule” was in 1949, when Cheewang Rigzin, President, LBA Subject Committee, gave a memorandum to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. A look at the language of the memorandum of 1949 reflects the Ladakhi attitude to the Kashmir Valley and its leadership. The memorandum read as follows:
“We are a separate nation by all tests – race, language, religion, culture – determining nationality, the only link connecting us with other people of the State being the bond of common ruler… Sheikh Abdullah (of the National Conference) built up his case (for plebiscite) on the validity of the Treaty of Amritsar. This Treaty bears upon the territory of Kashmir only. So while the ruler has consented to transfer his sovereign power in favour of all his people, Sheikh Abdullah and the people of Kashmir can, through this transference, manage the affairs of their whole country as they wish. But they do not have the power to appropriate against their will, a people, a separate nation, whom a separate treaty – the result of the war of 1834 twelve years anterior to the Treaty of Amritsar – bound to the ruler in special relationship in which, the people of Kashmir, who came into picture later naturally did not figure at all.”
“In case the result of the plebiscite is favourable to India, we simply go a step further than other people of the State in seeking a closer union with that great country and in case it is otherwise, our verdict stands clear and unchallengeable. When we have decided to cut ourselves asunder from the State itself, the question of our forming part of Pakistan cannot arise at all…We have indeed made up our mind to join India; but what is our decision worth until India is prepared to accept it? We certainly make the offer for our own advantage; we see in our merger with India the only hope of our salvation…There is nothing in our offer which is in any way incompatible with the high idealism which characterizes India’s international policy. We might even say in positive terms that it is perfectly consistent with it. For has not India repeatedly declared that it stands for the right of self-determination for all our nations, and are we not a nation whose right of self-determination it should uphold and to whom it should extend the protection it seeks.”
The path charted by Chhewang Rigzin was faithfully treaded by the people of Ladakh, who in 1952 under the inspiration and effective leadership of the Head Lama of Ladakh, Kushak Bakula, not only demanded an effective say in the administration of the state, but also asserted that they join Tibet in the event of New Delhi agreeing to Sheikh Abdullah’s demand for greater autonomy or for implementation of the so-called Delhi Agreement of 1952.
In September 1967 the Ladakhis launched an organized struggle against “Kashmiri domination.” Their highly revered leader, Kushak Bakula, who served as Minister of Ladakh Affairs between 1953 and 1967, went a step further and charged that “Ladakh has all along been treated as a colony by the State leadership,” but also threatened that “Ladakh will become part of Tibet if his demand for a ‘NEFA-type administration with representation in the Central Cabinet’ was not conceded.” Kushak Bakula told media in Delhi about Ladakhi grievances and asserted that “direct central administration of Ladakh would ensure its speedy economic development, which has been ignored during the past 20 years.” He said, “whatever little development had taken place in Ladakh was due to the efforts of the Indian Army.”
Several proposals made by him during his tenure as Minister of Ladakh Affairs in the State Cabinet were rejected. The result was that Ladakhis were denied irrigation, educational and power facilities, among other things. He accused the (Congress) Government of Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq of “trying to create communal discord in Ladakh in order to weaken the movement of Ladakh’s separation from Kashmir,” and demanded an “inquiry into the complaints regarding lack of economic development.” Bakula revealed he had “tendered his resignation several times first from the Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad Cabinet (Bakshi acted as State Wazir-e-Azam from 1953 to 1964) and later from the Sadiq Cabinet,” as he had been “rendered ineffective by successive State Governments” and “that he had to stay on ‘at the intervention of Central and State leaders’ and for wider interests.”
Ladakh needs to be drawn into the national mainstream while providing safeguards to its identity.
Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad fully endorsed the Ladakhi demand. In fact, he told The Tribune on September 20 at Sonamarg that when he was prime minister of the State, “he had asked Nehru to take over the administration of Ladakh as it was impossible for any government in Srinagar to do full justice to the cause of the Ladakhis. But Nehru did not agree then and, instead, asked me to induct Kushak Bakula in his ministry and which I did” (The Tribune, Sept 22, 1967).
The fate of the 1967 demand was the same as that of Bakshi’s suggestion. While G.M. Sadiq dismissed the charges levelled by Kushak Bakula as “baseless,” the Central Government rejected the demand for “NEFA-type administration” out-of-hand.
Similar movements were started by Ladakhis in 1974 and 1982 under the leadership of Lama Lobzang-Thupstan Chhewang and P. Namgyal, respectively, demanding Union Territory status for Ladakh. Lama Lobzang’s argument was that “progress in Ladakh is admittedly limited” and that “it has not kept pace with rising aspirations following the expansion of education and growth of social and political consciousness… The Ladakhis’ desire more rapid development” and that could be achieved only “if we are granted Union Territory status” (The Hindustan Times, Jan. 29, 1974). The arguments advanced by P. Namgyal in 1982 in favour of Union Territory status were also identical (Kashmir Times, Feb. 7, 1997), but nothing came out of the efforts of Lama Lobzang and Namgyal. Instead, the Valley rulers, according to Ladakhi leaders, continued to “suppress the democratic rights of Ladakh through armed forces” (National Convention on the Ladakhi issue in Delhi, March 18, 1990).
In between, however, the State Government appointed the Gajendragadkar Commission to investigate the charge of regional imbalances. The commission acknowledged Ladakh’s unequal share and recommended measures to rectify some of the wrongs. These included the setting up of a separate development board for Ladakh, inclusion of at least one Ladakhi in the State Cabinet, establishment of a degree college, revival of the single-line administration and merger of the proposed post of development commissioner with that of the deputy commissioner of Ladakh.
Instead, it disturbed the social equilibrium in 1978-79 by dividing Ladakh into Leh and Kargil districts on purely religious lines. The motive was to play Muslim-majority Kargil against Buddhist-majority Leh and weaken the autonomy movement. “A political schism was surreptitiously set forth, which succeeded in separating Leh and Kargil into two separate districts. In separating Kargil from Leh district, the Sheikh’s intention was to remind the Kargilis, who are predominantly Shia Muslims, that historical and cultural ties are insignificant factors in Islamic policy, which he was trying to impose on the state,” say Ladakhi Buddhists.
Under these circumstances, the LBA launched a struggle on Oct. 15, 1989, for Union Territory status for Ladakh. In a letter to the editor, The Hindustan Times, Oct. 17, 1989, Rigzin Jora (the then LBA leader and presently Tourism Minister in the Omar Abdullah-led coalition government) and T. Samphal, MLA, Leh, explained the circumstances which had compelled the Ladakhis to engineer the struggle:
“Ladakh is not just another backward region of the country. It is a region with a unique culture, typical geo-climatic conditions and a distinctive socio-economic order, besides being strategically located. Ladakh needs to be drawn into the national mainstream while providing safeguards to its identity. This could only be done by separating Ladakh from Kashmir where the line between nationalism and separatism runs very thin. In demanding Union Territory status, Ladakh’s primary concern is to protect its identity. Under Kashmir’s rule, Ladakh suffered enormous cultural onslaught from fundamentalist organizations of the Valley. It is, therefore, important for Ladakh Buddhist Association to keep up its struggle for a Union Territory for Ladakh.”
The Union Territory movement started on October 15 left three persons dead and several seriously wounded. Crowds, mainly Buddhists, burnt government property and attacked police stations. Law and order could be restored only after October 29, when the representatives of the State and Central Government met the agitating LBA leaders at Leh and reached an agreement under which Leh district was to get an autonomous hill development council, invested with administrative and economic powers. The agreement was signed by Thupstan Chhewang (LBA), P.P. Srivastava (Additional Secretary, Union Ministry of Home Affairs) and Ashok Jaitley (Additional Chief Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir Government), in the presence of Union Home Minister Buta Singh, who assured the Ladakhis of a set up on the lines of the Gorkha Hill Council.
Since LAHDC, the people of Leh district have been expressing dissatisfaction, as the State authorities are not allowing the council to function in the manner desired by the people.
Differences soon erupted over the implementation of the tripartite agreement in a meeting held in Jammu on January 10, 1990. Citing constitutional difficulties in granting an autonomous district council, Farooq Abdullah’s government made every possible attempt to “hoodwink the LBA with the provisions of the Panchayati Raj Act, 1989,” Rigzin Zora alleged.
The State Government’s “blatant disrespect” for the tripartite agreement aggravated Leh’s political scene, with Ladakhis resolving once again to create a stir and force the authorities to honour the commitment. The situation took a serious turn after July 7, 1990, when Thupstan was beaten up by the police, and Sonam Wangchuk, who had previously attacked a former minister, Sonam Wangyal, was arrested. These two incidents provoked LBA activists who stormed the Leh police station, triggering a police-LBA clash and a lathi-charge, bursting of teargas shells and imposition of curfew in Leh. On June 16, blasts occurred at the residence of Wangyal and in three government buildings in Leh. The LBA held a massive rally on July 17 to protest against the “anti-democratic attitude” of the authorities and began a dharna demanding the promised autonomous hill development council.
Convinced the authorities would not meet their demands, the Ladakhis adopted a threatening posture in February 1991. They organized a massive public rally in Leh on February 14 and declared their intention to revive the agitation for UT status. Braving sub-zero temperature, fluctuating between minus 15 and 30, thousands of Ladakhis joined the demonstration. While thousands in colourful costumes from Leh town and adjoining villages marched from the historic martyrs’ memorial to the Polo Ground, venue of demonstration, through the main bazaar, many others who could not reach the town owing to disruption of road traffic held protest meetings at Deskit, Nyoma and Tangtse. “Down with Kashmiri hegemony”, “Our demand UT status, free Ladakh from Kashmir”, and “We want to live as free citizens of independent India,” read hundreds of placards carried by the LBA supporters.
On August 25, 1991, the people of Leh observed a massive bandh in memory of the martyrs of October 1989. Earlier that day, Thupstan met President R. Venkataraman at Leh and warned that LBA would “wait for two more months at the most, hoping for a positive response from the Central Government,” failing which it would revive the agitation. But the threat did not move the authorities though, in April 1992, Union Home Minister S.B. Chavan met leaders from Ladakh; nothing tangible emerged. Chavan took the view that the “proposed council, as demanded by the LBA, would call for an amendment in the State Constitution as well as threaten the existence of Article 370 of the Constitution,” and that “the decision could hardly be taken through an ordinance by the Governor who had no mandate for it.” He also stated, obviously at the behest of the Kashmir-based NC and Congress leaders, including Ghulam Rasool Kar, that “any change in the status (of Ladakh) would hurt the Kashmiri psyche.”
Angry Ladakhis organized a massive bandh in Leh on May 11. They also organized a 4-kilometre-long march in the city of Leh against “Kashmiri domination.” The threat that the authorities in New Delhi concede their demands before May 20, 1992, worked, but not to the extent LBA leaders expected. Still, the response from the Centre was substantial. In a meeting between Union Home Minister and LBA leaders in New Delhi on May 21, the former said: “the Centre is ready to accept their demands as they do not require any amendment in the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution.” Ultimately, on Nov. 28, 1992, the way was cleared for setting up an autonomous hill development council. However, it was only in September 1995 that a democratically-elected Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) came into being.
Since the constitution of the LAHDC, the people of Leh district have been expressing dissatisfaction over the institution won after a protracted struggle, as the State authorities are not allowing the council to function in the manner desired by the people. They believe, and rightly so, that Union Territory status is the only lasting solution to their problems. The insistence on UT status during the meeting with the interlocutors must be viewed in this context.
New Delhi would do well to concede this genuine demand so that Ladakh gets freedom from the Kashmiri yoke. The Centre should also separate Jammu from Kashmir because the nature of the problem facing the people of Jammu and Ladakh is the same. In other words, the State should be trifurcated so that the people of Jammu and Ladakh are freed from the clutches of Kashmir and New Delhi is free to tackle the Valley militants separately.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.