For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

Second Pashmina March Off After Two-Month Section 144 Threat From Modi Govt: Sonam Wangchuk

Wangchuk and local leaders have said that they have cancelled the Pashmina padyatra planned for April 17 because prohibitory orders for such a long span will impact tourism in Ladakh, its locals and their livelihoods.
Photo: X/@Wangchuk66.

Palakkad: On Sunday, April 14, climate activist Sonam Wangchuk announced that around 12 to 24 Ladakhis would embark on a second Pashmina March or padyatra from Leh in Ladakh to the Changthang – high altitude pasturelands – on April 17. The aim: to highlight the loss of pasturelands to big central projects as well as Chinese incursions along the Indo-China border.

The call for a second march came after the Union government had imposed prohibitory orders – including the imposition of Section 144 for two days – that prevented Wangchuk, local leaders and citizens from conducting the first Pashmina March on April 7.

Now, the second Pashmina padyatra also stands cancelled.

On the night of April 16, Wangchuk said in a social media post that he and local leaders have cancelled the April 17 padyatra because the Union government has threatened to impose prohibitory orders under Section 144 for two months if they undertook the march.

A two-month long restriction would gravely impact tourism in Ladakh, affecting people and their livelihoods – which is not the intent of their protest, said Wangchuk.

This “overreaction” by the Union government to just around 12 Ladakhis undertaking a peaceful padyatra to the Changthang to show the ground situation to Indians just shows how much the government has to conceal, Wangchuk added.

Ladakh’s ongoing climate protest

Wangchuk and local leaders have been spearheading a climate protest in Leh from March 4. Along with Wangchuk and other leaders, hundreds of citizens also gather daily at the protest site and take part in hunger strikes.

Wangchuk first kickstarted the protest on March 4 by going on a 21-day climate fast, surviving on only salt and water, till March 25. He passed the baton on to Ladakhi women, who conducted a ten-day fast, followed by youth.

Currently, Buddhist monks have taken over the fast and are on their second day as of April 17.

Wangchuk survived on only salt and water for 21 days. Photo: Screengrab from video.

Ladakhis – across regions, religions and communities – have two demands: that the BJP-led Union government uphold their election promises of statehood for Ladakh and the implementation of the Sixth Schedule.

This, Wangchuk and local leaders have said, will ensure that a government that includes more locals and stakeholders will be at the helm in Ladakh, which is home to a fragile Himalayan ecosystem (including glaciers that are at risk of quicker melting due to the increasing impacts of climate change) and a culturally distinct community including semi-nomadic tribes.

Currently, their biggest concern is that large tracts of traditional and important grazing expanses in the Changthang – a land of high-altitude pasturelands, where indigenous nomadic tribes including the Changpa community graze their goats that yield the highly sought-after pashmina wool – are being lost to both corporates through Union government-approved projects as well as Chinese incursions along the Indo-China border.

The Ladakhis’ climate fast is still ongoing, and is on its 43rd day as of April 17.

On Sunday, April 14, Wangchuk had announced that a small group of people – around 12 to 24 Ladakhis – would begin a padyatra, from Leh to the Changthang, to highlight these issues and show the situation on-ground, of loss of pasturelands to big corporate projects pushed by the Union government.

The team would take five to ten days to go and come back from the Changthang.

“We will show you how the lands of nomads are being lost on the ground,” Wangchuk said in his social media post.

He also announced that the team would proceed on to the Indo-Chinese border to show proof of the Chinese incursion, if the Union government permitted them to proceed that far.

Wangchuk called the padyatra the second Pashmina March, or Pashmina March 2.

#FactCheck: Amit Shah’s Claims on China Don’t Match the Facts on the Ground

Second Pashmina padyatra called off

Wangchuk announced the news of the padyatra on April 14, which is celebrated across India as the birthday of B.R. Ambedkar, the “father of the Indian constitution”.

Ambedkar led the constitution drafting committee that forged the Indian constitution, and it is such a beautiful document because it not just tolerates the diversity of India’s peoples and their cultures but also promotes it, said Wangchuk.

April 17, the day of the padyatra, also has special significance because it is Ram Navami, Wangchuk added. The day is celebrated as the birthday of the Hindu god Ram – who has said how crucial it is to keep one’s word, Wangchuk said.

However, on the night of April 16, Wangchuk said in a social media post that he and local leaders have canceled the padyatra. This is because the Union government had called Ladakh’s tourism operators and businesses and threatened to impose prohibitory orders under Section 144 for two months if they undertook the padyatra.

“On one hand, they have pressurised the travel agencies and hoteliers. Called them and told them that if the march happens, 144 will be promulgated not for one or two days, but for two months. Internet will also be shut down for months,” Wangchuk said in a social media post.

“This will stop tourism here. They then asked us to reconsider the Pashmina March in light of the tourism stoppage in Ladakh.”

Ladakh’s economy relies heavily on tourism for income generation. A two-month long restriction, therefore, would gravely impact tourism in Ladakh, affecting people and their livelihoods – which is not the intent of their climate protest, said Wangchuk.

The government has given just one day to reach the Changthang, which is impossible, Wangchuk said; and no permission at all to walk to the borders.

“… Once again, the government has overreacted by threatening to impose 144, internet shutdown for two months and breaking Ladakh’s tourism sector,” he added.

“With this it is clear to us what actually is happening at the border. Else if something is happening at the border of any country, and the government dismisses it as rumours, we wanted to show the truth to journalists by taking them in our vehicles.

“If there’s nothing, why is the government not taking them to the borders and showing them that there’s nothing that’s happening here? They can allow journalists to take photos and videos to drive their point home. However, the contrary is happening here.”

Thousands of protesters rallied in Leh and Kargil districts in February in protest against the constitutional changes brought about by the reading down of Article 370. Photo by special arrangement.

This “overreaction” by the Union government to just around 12 Ladakhis undertaking a peaceful padyatra to the Changthang to show the ground situation to Indians shows that the government has a lot to conceal, Wangchuk added.

“They don’t want to show anyone the reality of the border issues. They want to cover it up. And they want to do it by restricting the hoteliers and us, the people of Ladakh,” Wangchuk said on April 16. 

“This is undemocratic. From this you can understand how the Ladakhis are governed. If the people of Ladakh don’t have an assembly and there is no democracy, and if it continues to be a Union territory without assembly, this is how bureaucracy rules Ladakh.”

He repeated his concerns – and the hope that the Union government will keep its promise of statehood and inclusion in the Sixth Schedule – in a social media post on the evening of April 17 as well.

“We truly love our country, Ladakh and all their people,” Wangchuk said. “This is why we have postponed the Pashmina March not once but twice.”

The cancellation of the padyatra comes close on the heels of the cancellation of the first Pashmina March which was to be held on April 7.

Wangchuk and local leaders, along with thousands of citizens, had proposed to march to the Changthang and the Indo-China border. However, two days before the March, the Union government imposed Section 144 in Leh district that restricted movement in the area. Saying – and showing proof via videos – how Leh had been reduced to a “war zone”, Wangchuk and local leaders had called off the first Pashmina March.

Threat from China

On April 14, Subramanian Swamy said in an online conversation with Wangchuk organised by the Virat Hindustan Sangam that over the last four to five years – during the tenure of Narendra Modi – there have been reports from “unofficial sources” that 26 out of the 65 patrolling points in Ladakh have been taken over by the Chinese.

The numbers that Swamy refers to are the same figures specified by a superintendent of police in a paper presented at the 57th annual conference of armed and police personnel at New Delhi in January last year, per a report by The Caravan.

Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and national security advisor Ajit Doval also attended this conference.

But both Modi and Shah, however, have claimed that “not an inch” of Indian territory has been taken over by the Chinese.

“The Chinese have already done quite a lot of take over in Arunachal … but now … they have begun to nibble into Ladakh and that we cannot tolerate,” Swamy said in conversation with Wangchuk on April 14.

“We want to know the current position as to where the Chinese stand, and is the Indian government’s policy such that our military is able to effectively take a stand or have we tied the hands of the Indian military such that they don’t engage in a situation where the Chinese lose face and therefore there is a bigger war?

“Most of India is in favour of evicting the Chinese from Ladakh and once we know the reality, I’m sure there will be a big uproar in the country and this may even affect the elections that are taking place.”

Three weeks ago, in an interview with YouTuber Gaurav Thakur, General G.D. Bakshi had said that Ladakh is a “hypersensitive state”.

“The threat from China is increasing majorly in Ladakh … if the Ladakhis are so unhappy that they are fasting for their demands, people like Sonam Wangchuk … he is a respected educationist, a respected citizen … if he is saying this then we have to listen … if we black [this] out from the news itself, I’m sorry, that is not the way to go,” Bakshi said.

“What is the problem, let us address it, let us face it … before the Chinese take advantage.

“This is a border region and we have to be very sensitive to what the people are saying and feeling,” he added.

“They are fasting in minus 16, all night out in the cold … why let this problem fester? If they want tribal status under [the Sixth Schedule], then give it to them. Why let it build up?”

Wangchuk, in conversation with Swamy on April 14, said that some of his former students who are herders near the border areas have been eyewitness to Chinese incursion at some locations, and have seen India’s military forces having to beat a retreat.

In another incident, a local politician had dug a borewell a few years ago and the bore is no longer accessible to the family because it is now in Chinese territory.

“Our army is not incapable of taking it back, but their hands are tied when leaders say that nothing has happened,” Wangchuk said.

He also said that the same thing that happened in the lead-up to the Kargil War – of Indian paramilitary forces manning the Line of Control retreating back for kilometres into Indian territory during winters but being unable to get back the territory from Pakistan during spring – is currently playing out in Ladakh.

Except that this time, the Chinese are moving into Indian territory, Wangchuk said. “Every spring they are inching inwards.”

After 2020, the inching forward has increased by kilometres, Wangchuk said.

Ladakhi shepherds at the borders have told Wangchuk that they are being stopped well before 15-20 kilometres of the spots they used to be able to access before, he said.

Also read: On the India-China Border, Disengagement Is Not Resolution

Losing traditional grazing lands

“While the loss of land in Ladakh is a matter of national importance, for us in Ladakh, it is doubly important. It is not just Indian land lost to another country, but it is also our indigenous nomadic herders who lose their ancestral land,” said Wangchuk in his conversation with Swamy on April 14.

“To many people, leaders and industrialists, land here looks like barren land, wasteland, but actually these are the pastures on which the pashmina goats that produce the world’s most precious fibre graze their animals.

“It doesn’t look like green pasture lands for people from the plains, but for Ladakhi nomads, this is their livelihood. This is their fortune passed down by their ancestors. So they stand doubly lost.”

“We are really upset in Ladakh that not only are people losing their pasture land to the neighbouring country, China, but also … they [the Union government] are selling or giving away more of pasture land to industries and corporations to big projects,” Wangchuk added.

“Then when we ask for safeguards, they promise, they win elections based on the promise, and then after four years of negotiations, say get lost, we have nothing to give, go wherever you want.”

According to Wangchuk, Shah also said that even if PM Modi agrees to give safeguards against the loss of land to big corporates, he wouldn’t.

At least 150 square kilometres of pasture land has already been allotted to corporates for big projects, Wangchuk said.

“At least three times that number will possibly be given without our knowledge,” he claimed.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter