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Ladakh Leaders' Statehood Demand Gets a Cold Shoulder From the Union Government

However, the Centre is likely to assent to other demands over jobs, land and identity-related rights. Talks will resume after the winter session of parliament.
A view of Ladakh. Photo: Varun Nambiar/Unsplash

Srinagar: The Government of India is understood to have expressed its willingness to address Ladakh’s concerns on jobs, land, identity etc., but it is unlikely to concede to the statehood demand for the union territory carved out in 2019. These indications came after a high-powered committee headed by Union minister of state for home affairs Nitayanad Rai met in New Delhi on Tuesday to discuss the concerns and issues emerging in Ladakh since the August 2019 decision by the Union government to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.

Meeting and demands

The high-powered committee, which also includes the leaders of the Apex Body Leh and Kargil Democratic Alliance, met in North Block on Tuesday after a gap of more than five months.

In the meeting, the leaders from Leh and Kargil reiterated their four-point agenda: statehood for Ladakh, safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, two Lok Sabha seats for the union territory and employment opportunities for the youth.

However, the representatives of the Government of India didn’t give any assurance on fulfilling these demands, but told the leadership of Ladakh that talks will continue to address concerns of the people, The Wire has learnt.

The minister is understood to have told the delegation that the government will look at options on how to address their demands.

Talking to The Wire, Chering Dorjay, former minister and member of Apex Body Leh, said they raised the four -point agenda during the meeting. “The minister listened to our demands, but neither rejected them nor accepted them. He told us that they will hold another meeting to discuss these issues,” he said.

On being asked about the Centre’s response to the statehood demand, Dorjay said, “They neither said yes nor no.”

Prominent political and social activist and member of the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) Sajjad Kargili said that they told the Centre that these four demands should be met to fulfil the aspirations of the people of Ladakh.

“We were told that the committee will meet again after the ongoing winter session is over,” he said.

“Cold” on statehood demand

In what could indicate the BJP-led Union government’s cold attitude towards the demand for statehood, an official handout released after the talks didn’t mention that the issue was raised by the Ladakhi delegation.

“The ABL and KDA members submitted various issues pertaining to protection of rights of Ladakh residents, fast track recruitment processes, strengthening of LAHDCs, Greater participation in the decision making etc.,” reads the official handout.

It further said that New Delhi would continue talks with the ABL and KDA.

“Shri Rai said that the Government would continue to engage with the ABL and KDA and people of Ladakh for holistic and sustainable development of the UT of Ladakh on regular basis,” reads the statement.

Even BJP MP from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgayal, has pushed for constitutional safeguards beyond the Sixth Schedule for safeguarding the region’s identity and interests.

“I firmly advocate the necessity for constitutional safeguards exceeding the provisions laid down in the 6th schedule of the constitution, specifically tailored to safeguard the interests and aspirations of tribal people of Ladakh,” reads the MP’s letter to the MoS home affairs.

Under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, the autonomous district councils have specific legislative, executive, judicial and financial powers in the tribal areas of Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Assam.

Each such district has a council, which can make laws on certain specified matters like land, forests, canal water, shifting cultivation, village administration, inheritance of property, marriage and divorce, social customs etc.

The demand for Sixth Schedule implementation has become a rallying cry in Ladakh, especially in Buddhist-majority Leh district.

While Leh district had welcomed UT status for Ladakh in 2019, Muslim-majority Kargil district had opposed it and observed a shutdown for several weeks to show its anger over the “unilateral” decision.

In 2021, the leadership of both Leh and Kargil joined hands and decided to fight collectively for statehood, constitutional safeguards under the Sixth schedule, two Lok Sabha seats and employment for youth.

Amid anger and discontent in the region, the Union home ministry in January this year announced a high-powered committee headed by Rai to “discuss measures to protect the region’s unique culture and language taking into consideration its geographical location and its strategic importance”.

The constitution of the committee faced criticism from both the conglomerates fighting for statehood and safeguards of Ladakh, saying that it not been mandated to discuss the demands raised by them.

The MHA reconstituted the committee and modified its terms of reference. Its terms of reference now includes examining constitutional safeguards that could be implemented to ensure the protections for the region.

Factors behind talks

It is widely believed that geopolitical considerations and BJP’s own electoral exigencies are driving New Delhi’s talks with the leadership in Ladakh.

Located on the ancient silk route, Ladakh has geopolitical importance as it shares borders with Pakistan and China.

The ruling BJP would also like to see a resolution of these issues before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, as it is keen to retain Ladakh’s parliament seat for the third connective term. These identity issues have put the party in a tight spot as its seat tally decreased in the Hill Council election held in Leh in 2020. In the recently held Hill Council election held in neighbouring Kargil district, it managed to win only two seats, while the National Conference- Congress alliance swept the polls by winning 22 out of 26 seats.

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