Gloom hangs over cold desert amid cries of 'betrayal'

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In the summer of 2014, people of Leh were thrilled to receive Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his first visit to the cold desert after rising to power in Delhi. People were hopeful their long pending demand of Union Territory (UT) status to Ladakh will finally come true.

Such was the jubilation in the Leh that then head Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh, Rigzin Spalber, a Congress man, cut short his Mongolian tour to be part of the “historic moment.”

Amid scorching heat, Modi arrived in Leh to thunderous applause. He addressed the crowd, but left without uttering a word on the issue people had turned up for. They felt betrayed and the UT issue became a political weapon for the opponent parties to target the BJP, which had promised it in its elections manifesto.

Almost five year later, on August 5, the Centre read down Article 370 and bifurcated the erstwhile state of J&K into two Union territories of J&K and Ladakh.

Ladakh is spread over two districts of Kargil and Leh. While Kargil has always opposed the UT status, a year after August 5 decision, the Leh is no more ecstatic either, says Spalber.

The joy has faded into despondency. From day-to-day governance to demands for protection of their identity and preservation of the environment, people of Ladakh allege the Centre has ditched them.

Earlier this month, Ladakh observed a shutdown after they were declared ineligible to apply for jobs advertised by J&K Bank. The “outsourcing” of jobs in engineering and health department to outsiders has added to the worries of people. Last month, Ladakh civil society started a youth-centric movement ‘Wake Up Ladakh’ to raise their concerns.

According to Spalber, Ladakh UT without legislature meant people were reduced to a “powerless entity.” “We expressed our concerns to the authorities and we were assured of implementation of sixth schedule, on the pattern of North Eastern states, but nothing has happened so far,” he said.

Chewang Rigzin, a political analyst and commentator from Leh, said people were also concerned about preservation of their “unique identity”. “We have apprehensions and we need safeguards to preserve our region’s uniqueness. We are demanding safeguards for preserving our identity, culture and jobs,” he said.

Similar assertions were made by PT Kunzang, President Ladakh Buddhist Association. Though Kunzang is upbeat about grant of UT, he however raised concern about lack of safeguards “essential” for preservation of Ladakh’s “uniqueness”.

A two-time chairman of LAHDC, Spalber accused BJP of taking “U-turn” over sixth schedule promise. “They have retained the Council, but then this Council is of no use now. It has become irrelevant in the wake of the formation of UT. With no safeguards in place, it is nothing. It is now just a department for providing employment to 30 people,” said Spalber, referring to the members of the Council.

He said Ladakh was the most deserving region to be brought under the sixth schedule, considering its 99 percent population was tribal, and due to its distinct geography and harsh topography.

A social activist and politician from Kargil, Sajjad Hussain Kargili said people in Kargil want statehood back. “This UT has been imposed on us. Today, we have everything at stake. Our land, jobs and natural resources are under threat. There are apprehensions of demographic change,” said Kargili, who was runner up in the last Parliamentary elections.

He cited Mizoram as an example where Mizo language, he said, was on the verge of extinction due to settlement of people from outside. He said after formation of UT, administration has been left “completely paralysed.”

Kargili said it was time for people of Ladakh to grow beyond “emotional politics” and realise that “our existence is at stake”. “First, Article 370 was made Muslim issue, then Kashmir issue. It was said that until you kill it, there would be no prosperity. Jammu was also misled. Is there any prosperity now? It needs to be asked. We have been betrayed?” said Kargili.