The future of Ladakh

Union home minister Rajnath Singh paid a belated two-day visit to Ladakh after last month’s much-publicised all-party delegation’s trip to Jammu and Kashmir.

Union home minister Rajnath Singh paid a belated two-day visit to Ladakh after last month’s much-publicised all-party delegation’s trip to Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh had been forgotten in that programme.

While in Srinagar in September, Mr Singh remarked that the delegation’s talks with the various sections in J&K have been fruitful. Various sections but minus Ladakhis! The neglect of Ladakh is not new.

In April 1952, Sonam Wangyal, a resident of Leh wrote to the Indian Prime Minister: “When Kargil fell to Pakistan, (in 1947) the Muslims of Padam (Zanskar) anticipating the entry of an Indian force from Lahoul made it their first business to invite Pakistan troops from Kargil. In this they succeeded the Buddhist suffered during the occupation of their land by Pakistan, how their Gumpas (monasteries) were looted and desecrated, their women outraged, their men slaughtered and their houses rifted is common knowledge.”

Hundreds of Ladakhis eventually fled to Kulu, “large percentage of them perished during their fugitive wanderings.”

At that time, some elements in the local police are said to have sided with the invaders. Wangyal’s letter requested Nehru to send some relief to the suffering population through Kushok Bakola, Ladakh’s head lama: “May we hope that the excesses of the police will be duly inquired into and that this force will, in any case be withdrawn and replaced, if necessary by an Indian military picket.”

On April 29, 1952, Bakula himself wrote to Nehru about Ladakh “associating itself more closely with India”; the Prime Minister answered that “it is not feasible for a variety of reasons among them being the fact that the whole question of Kashmir is before the United Nations.”

That was 64 years ago.

Nehru’s secretary later wrote: “Prime Minister asked me to inform you that there is no reason for any apprehension on your part in regard to Ladakh or Kashmir as a whole.”

When he visited Leh, Mr Singh was presented with a unanimous demand: Provide Ladakh with Union Territory status; the home minister could only say that he had listened to the people, but a decision would only be taken on the basis of consensus.

In other words, it will never happen.

The answer had already come; the PDP, an ally of the BJP, had expelled Tashi Gyalson, its Leh district chief, from its basic membership for signing a memorandum demanding Union Territory status. The PDP said that under no circumstances would it endorse a move aimed at dividing the state. Full stop.

The trifurcation of Jammu, Ladakh and the Valley could certainly help make Ladakh more self-reliant.

A resolution passed earlier by the All Religious Joint Action Committee (ARJAC) of Ladakh remarks that since Independence, the mountainous region has always kept a special strong bond with the Union of India.

The ARJAC memorandum explains that Ladakh was once independent: “(It) gained political status during 15th-16th century when the Namgyal dynasty came into power; this lasted until 1842 when General Zorawar Singh integrated Ladakh into the Dogra Empire.”

In October 1947, Ladakh acceded to India after Maharaj Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession for his state.

The ARJAC further notes: “Ladakh is fundamentally different from Kashmir in all respects — culturally, ethnically and linguistically Nationalism remained a dominant ideological creed and became a rallying force among the Ladakhis to fight back the Pakistanis and the Chinese who made frequent bids to conquer our land in 1948, 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars.”

The memorandum concludes: “Our humble submission is that we are neither the problem nor part of any problem involving the state. Rather we are the solution Our commitment to patriotism is firm and unequivocal We shall never fail the nation.”

The trifurcation would have other advantages not mentioned in the memorandum.

Today the Ladakh region has two districts, Leh and Kargil and two Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Ladakh (LAHDC) and Kargil.

Though Ladakh, India’s largest district, has “disputed” borders with two belligerent neighbours, it is administrated by a very junior officer.

The present District Commissioner (DC) is a young IAS officer from the 2010 batch. Without doubting his personal competence, such a border district with large numbers of Army and ITBP personnel posted in the area, makes it one of the most sensitive districts of the country.

Further, can only one officer visit the 19 blocks of Ladakh, some of the extremely remote He can’t. As a result, some blocks have often been neglected.

Ladakh needs a special status with a chief secretary rank officer posted in the district. Just think that the Army 14 Corps Commander responsible for Ladakh’s defence is headed by an officer of lieutenant-general rank, with some 38 years of experience in the Indian Army. He deals with someone (the DC) who would be ranked a captain or a major at the most, in the Army. Incidentally, the DC is also the chief executive officer of the LAHDC, which makes the situation even more ridiculous.

The granting of Union Territory status would solve many of these anomalies: A lieutenant-governor representing the Centre would sit in Leh (or Kargil) and a chief secretary would head the administration. Further, the elected MLAs and ministers would not depend on the mood of Srinagar to develop the Union Territory.

Making Ladakh a Union Territory would not only help “localise” the Kashmir issue to the Valley, but it would provide a better administration to the mountainous region, streamline the security of the area and send a strong message to China: “India cares for Ladakh”.

One of the main problems is the lack of knowledge about the region, particularly the issues faced by defence forces in the region.

Steps have been taken by the Northern Command to remedy this.

A media workshop for journalists was recently conducted by the Fire & Fury Corps (14 Corps) at Leh; according to a press release: “The aim of the workshop was to expose the media persons to the dynamics of military operations in Ladakh to enable objective reporting by them.”

Lt. Gen. P.J.S. Pannu, who commands 14 Corps, highlighted the importance of Ladakh region and hoped that the training workshop would enable the media persons to develop a better understanding of the difficulties faced by the soldiers. It is crucial.

To be fair, the Modi government has recently started to work on an ambitious plan to link Leh-Ladakh with a railway network.

The government has handed over the responsibility of the survey work for Bilaspur-Mandi-Manali-Leh railway line to the Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES). Delhi has already released '40 crore out of the total '157 crore allotted for the survey work). The cost of construction of the 498-km railway line has been estimated at '50,000 crore.

The government is also planning to connect Leh with Srinagar. The railway line should cross the Zoji La pass (in a tunnel) and reach Kargil before heading towards Leh.

This is a first step, but unless the administration is upgraded to a much higher level, resentment among the local population will remain, which is not healthy.

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.

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