* Editorial 2
The Central government’s decision to convert Ladakh into a Union Territory set off celebrations in Leh, but raised concerns in Kargil. Damini Nath reports on the expectations and the apprehensions
There is happiness in the air in Leh (above) following the government’s August 5 announcement. (Below): Security personnel keep vigil in Kargil, Ladakh. Sushil Kumar Verma
It is a pleasant Tuesday afternoon in Leh. It has been two weeks since the Central government’s announcement that Jammu and Kashmir’s special status stands scrapped and the State would be split into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Decorations hang overhead in Leh market as visitors mill around and shopkeepers sell handicrafts, shawls, rugs, carpets and stone jewellery. There is happiness in the air.
Just about 200 km away is Kargil’s market. Most shops selling clothes, dry fruits and household goods are open. Visitors walk around here too, but no one is rejoicing. Small groups of armed paramilitary personnel stand in the by-lanes and crossings; some sit on the steps of shops. They all keep a keen watch on the surroundings. There are barricades erected by the Jammu and Kashmir police throughout the market. Policemen in plain clothes, who identify themselves as ‘CID’ men, referring to the State Police’s Intelligence Wing, walk up and down the streets. They ensure that groups of people disperse, although no restrictions on movement have been officially imposed in Kargil.
Most shops re-opened in Kargil only the previous day, on August 20, after a strike protesting the government’s announcement on August 5 was called off. This was one of the many strikes that were called by local religious and political groups under the banner of the Joint Action Committee to protest the decision. The strikes all lasted for a few days, with shops closing and opening intermittently.
The two markets seem like they are located at two ends of the country. But they belong to the same region, Ladakh, which was a part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and will be a Union Territory without a Legislative Assembly from October 31. Both Leh and Kargil are governed by their own Autonomous Hill Development Councils, each having 30 members.
Soon after the government’s announcement, images and videos beamed on televisions and phones of the rest of India, of citizens celebrating in Leh, where a demand for a separate Union Territory of Ladakh has existed for years. There were barely any images from Kargil town, which is unhappy with the government. The two towns are largely divided in their response. But what unites them is anxiety about the future of the Himalayan region.
Happiness at last
In Leh’s Thiksey village, a retired State government employee, Nawang Chota, sits outside his home, chatting with a friend. “I am 72 years old. I think the demand for a Union Territory has been there for longer than that,” he says. He smiles broadly: “Now, there is one nation, one Constitution, and we are finally free of Kashmir.”
Many in Leh believe that the dominance of Kashmir Valley-based political parties in State politics has resulted in discrimination against Ladakh. They say that Leh has always received less funds than required and has not seen development in years. “The politicians in Jammu and Kashmir ignored us. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have an Assembly. We have the Hill Council. The government should now strengthen it further,” says Chota. “I struggled financially to ensure that my daughter completed her PhD. She completed it in 2016. But she still can’t find a job. I hope the government does something about the job scenario,” he adds.
Across the highway from Thiksey is Matho village, famously known for the Matho monastery which is perched atop a mountain. Matho is home to the Ladakh Bharatiya Janata Party MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, who gained prominence after his speech in Parliament on Article 370. Tsering Angchok, a farmer in Matho, says the whole village is very happy. He echoes Chota’s views and concerns: “Kashmir would take 90% of the funds and leave us with just 10%. Now that won’t happen,” he says. “But the quality of education here is just not as good as it is in the rest of the country. I don’t know how our people will compete with the rest of the country,” he says.
Down the road, Chhering Norbu sits outside a kirana shop. Norbu is an ex-serviceman. He worked in the State government after retiring from the Army. Retired from that job as well, Norbu hopes that his pension will come on time now.
While the people are jubilant, political leaders in Leh are waiting for the government’s next move. Dorje Angchuk, the district unit president of Leh, says the BJP will “go to every village” to make people aware of what really has changed for Ladakh. “Some people are trying to compare us with other Union Territories. We have a Hill Council and the members will now work more like MLAs. Unlike the Delhi government, our Council has control over land. But we are still looking for more protection through the Sixth Schedule,” he says. On August 17, Namgyal wrote to the Union Tribal Affairs Minister, Arjun Munda, asking him to make a representation to Home Minister Amit Shah for declaring Ladakh a tribal area under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The Consitution makes special provisions for the administration of tribal-dominated areas in four States: Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Angchuk is confident the Central government will fulfil Ladakh’s dream.
Nawang Rigzin Jora, Leh’s Congress MLA and former Jammu and Kashmir Cabinet Minister, has fought for Union Territory status for Ladakh for decades. But he says the demand was always for a Union Territory with a legislature, an elected representative body. His constituency is among the four Ladakh seats in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly that will no longer exist. “We are looking at something like Article 371 that gives constitutional guarantees to the north-eastern States. If the Hill Councils are brought under that, many of our concerns would be taken care of. The BJP’s sincerity will be tested on whether it provides this constitutional guarantee,” he says.
Unkept promises of development
But standing in Kargil’s market as police vehicles race past with sirens blaring, Zarina, a private school teacher, expresses her anger. She says the Central government’s decision is akin to “snatching food from our mouths”.
“On what basis did the government give us Union Territory status? Union Territories are usually small areas, but Ladakh is a vast region,” she says. Leh district, sitting at over 11,500 feet above sea level, has a population of 1.33 lakh. It is among the largest districts in the country in terms of area (45,110 sq km). “Just like the British, the BJP is trying to divide and rule,” says Zarina. “They did this just to break the Muslim majority of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. They can talk about development, but no development is going to happen. The common people want their rights back.” The crowd that gathers around her nods in agreement. Ghulam Raza, a Kargil-based businessman, steps forward. “Modi came here in 2014. He told us that he would bring the ‘Gujarat model’ to Kargil. We are still waiting for that to happen,” he says.
For Raza and many others in Kargil, memories of the 1999 war fought between India and Pakistan in the mountains of the district remain fresh. “We in Kargil sacrificed everything and supported the Army. Our people carried provisions for the forces in the mountains, sometimes wearing their uniforms. Our people lost lives and homes in the shelling. If it had not been for Kargil’s people, this would be in Pakistan today,” he says, pointing to the ground.
Refuting the government’s claim that development works had suffered over the years due to Jammu and Kashmir’s status, Raza says the government had promised air connectivity to Kargil as well as a tunnel at Zoji La so that it wouldn’t get cut off from Srinagar during winter. “They haven’t fulfilled their own promises of development, so why talk of the State government,” he asks.
Ladakh’s MP refutes these charges. In a crowded room at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, three weeks after the government’s announcement, Namgyal says, “People need not have fears [about land and job security]. We asked for Union Territory status precisely because we didn’t have the protections. Under Article 370, our land, jobs, socio-economic aspects and culture were not secure.” On the allegation that the Centre has failed to fulfil its promises, Namgyal says the expansion of Kargil airport “with ₹200 crore given by the government is under process”.
“As far as the Zoji La tunnel project is concerned, it was the Modi government that issued tenders. Congress leaders raised some objections. Then there was another tender. IL&FS came, but it had financial troubles. So, there was yet another tender. The government is making all efforts possible to implement it,” he says, as party workers jostle to click selfies with him.
Rejecting the notion that Kargil residents are unhappy with the move and have come out on the streets, Namgyal says a small group of people is protesting “just to lodge its attendance”. “Kargil is not just one market. There are people spread over an area of 15,000 sq km. I represent all of them,” he says.
In Kargil, though used to the presence of armed forces given Ladakh’s location, locals say the sight of gun-wielding soldiers in the market has become the new normal since August 5. “We used to have faith in the government. Most of the people here were supporters of India. Those who used to roam around with the tricolour in hand are now rethinking everything,” says Sajjad Hussain, who works as an education and health counsellor with the State government. The right to vote has been “snatched”, Hussain adds, with Ladakh’s representatives to the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly not finding any space now.
Though phone lines have not been snapped in Kargil, mobile Internet has been cut off by the government citing “law and order” as the reason. Phone and Internet services in Leh have not been cut off, but the communication lockdown in the rest of Jammu and Kashmir has affected citizens.
Mohammad Ali, a household goods shop owner in Kargil, says transporters have started demanding double the rate to bring products from Srinagar, fearing trouble. “Our stocks are running low. We did a hartal and it caused us losses, but we will keep our shops closed for a month if we have to. Article 370 was the backbone of Jammu and Kashmir and the government has removed it. We will not step back. We will continue our protests,” he says.
“They have turned Jammu and Kashmir into a jail. Is this democracy? We can’t speak to our relatives,” says Abdul Ghani Shah, a businessman from downtown Srinagar who is in Kargil on work. Interrupting him, a farmer, Mohammad Abbas, says, “Look, I’m dialling the landline number of my relative.” The phone doesn’t connect though it has been a few days since the government announced restoration of landline connectivity in the Valley. Abbas says this news was merely “propaganda by the media”.
Gyurmet, a taxi driver in Leh, rushes home three times a day in between airport drops and city sightseeing trips with tourists. In November last year, he was diagnosed with kidney failure, which means he needs to get peritoneal dialysis done at home thrice a day. The solution that he needs for the procedure comes from Srinagar. “The phones are not working, so I have not been able to order the fluid. I’m running out of it. I don’t know when and how I will be able to get more. The other route to get it is through Manali, but it’s much longer and more expensive,” he says.
An uncertain future
For now, Kargil is waiting and watching. Sheikh Nazir Mehdi Mohammadi, president of the Islamia School that is the hub of the Shia Muslim community in Kargil, and the chairman of the Joint Action Committee, says there is a lot of visible anger. “Since August 5, there have been protests and hartals. There were some students from outside who resorted to pelting stones and objectionable sloganeering. We made it clear in the Friday prayers that we condemn this. We are reminding people to respect the law and to demand our rights within the law,” he says. The committee, he says, may call another hartal if the Chief Secretary does not meet its representatives.
The Ladakhis fear that outsiders may buy land and take away their jobs which were earlier kept for the locals. With the isolated region already facing employment issues (according to the 2011 Census, the percentage of non-workers in Leh and Kargil districts are 43.76% and 63.16%, respectively), jobs seem to be on everyone’s mind. “The next generation will suffer the most,” says Najumunisa, a government staff nurse working in Kargil town. If they have to compete with students from across the country for government jobs, they will find it all the more difficult to find employment now, she says.
Zehra Bano in Chuchot Shama village in Leh is stunned that the decision was taken without consulting anyone. “Even when there is a wedding in the village, we all get together before it is fixed. Here the government took such a big decision, but didn’t talk to anyone,” she says quietly. Her puzzlement slowly turns to anger. “They [government] can do anything they want. But they can at least keep the phones working, right? Our children are studying in Srinagar and we can’t speak to them. What is the fault of our poor children? My brothers are all in the Army. We have given our lives for Hindustan, but Hindustan has done this to us,” she says.
Everyone is worried about the future. In Leh, though happy, people want to know if their land and employment opportunities will be protected. Kargil’s residents want to find out where the office of the new Lieutenant-Governor will be. Questions and concerns are many, answers and assurances few.