Ladakh at the crossroads


We just got back from the ‘mighty’ Khardung La – braved 2 degrees Celsius of nose-numbing cold, drove through 39 km of the narrow winding mountain pass and prayed we don’t skid on snowmelt and loose rock. Some 17,982 ft above sea level, from Hyderabad’s humble 1,600 ft – it was breathtaking, literally.

Still trying to catch our breath, we find ourselves a cubby eatery serving some piping hot soup back in Leh. All of a sudden, I forget my need for air, food.

It was a line on the cover of the menu card – ‘The only happy and relevant people are those who have learnt to walk with change’. Change has found Ladakh — it is big, it is mighty, and it will alter the way things are done in the high-altitude desert.

On August 5, Parliament voted to split Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) into two Union Territories – J&K and Ladakh. The two will start functioning as UTs from October 31. As news trickled in, Leh erupted with joy. The 70-year-old demand of the Ladakhis to break away from the “ever-dominating” J&K was finally met. However, Muslim-dominated Kargil is taking it with a pinch of salt.

Why the demand

Home to parts of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges and the Indus River Valley, the 95,876-sq km region draws tourists to its tranquil monasteries, pure springs and challenging peaks. Yet, this peaceful pocket of conflict-torn J&K felt left out.

“During the States’ reorganisation after Independence, the princely State of J&K became part of the Indian Union. Ladakh was attached to J&K without our consent. No one considered our cultural differences. We are a small population, which is very different from the rest of J&K (around 1.23 crore) when it comes to our language, food culture, festivals,” Dawa Tsering, a former member of the Ladakh Hill Council, Leh, says. He now runs an adventure company in Leh Main Market.

Right from infrastructure to budgetary allocations to healthcare and education — Ladakh got a raw deal. This despite occupying some 60% of J&K’s landmass. “All the budgetary funds were diverted to Kashmir. It was mostly spent on keeping the Valley secure. We hardly got anything. Even when we did, it was delayed. Even our roads were built by the Border Roads Organisation,” he says.

Sonam Nurboo Memorial Hospital is the only hospital in Leh town. There are a few public health centres scattered in villages. But, these are not equipped to deal with anything more complex than a fever or dehydration. “Most of these facilities are short-staffed. SNM Hospital doesn’t have enough trained doctors. Not many are specialised in tertiary care. Critical patients are referred to Srinagar,” Dawa says.

Ladakh’s peculiar freeze-thaw climate cuts it off from the rest of the country for more than six months a year during winter. The people barely get three months for farming and six months to earn from tourism (April-October). Rest of the year — when temperatures fall below 0 degree Celsius and road connectivity is severed by snow – the only way out of Ladakh in case of a health emergency or calamity is by air. And, a flight to Leh is the most expensive in the country because of its unforgiving terrain.

If violence breaks out in Kashmir, curbs are enforced in Ladakh. Schools get shut either because of the weather or the ripples of cross-border conflict with China or Pakistan. “Exams are not held on time because of the chaos in Kashmir. There are no higher education institutions here; we have to send our children to Jammu or Kashmir for further studies,” says Dorjay Angdus, who runs an eatery on Zangsti Road in Leh. He serves probably the best Ladakhi food in Leh.

With their demand for a UT finally fulfilled, Ladakhis realise that it will be a tough fight to stay relevant.

Fear of losing identity, land rights

Most Ladakhis, though welcome the Centre’s move, fear that an influx of outsiders would change the region’s demography. Ladakh might lose its identity. With no special status, Ladakh will become open for all, especially in terms of real estate — a major flipside of the bifurcation.

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) noted that before the creation of the UT, people in the region had certain agrarian rights, including right on land, which restricted outsiders from purchasing or acquiring land in Ladakh. On September 11, the commission wrote to Home Minister Amit Shah and Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, recommending that Ladakh be declared a tribal area under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The Sixth Schedule provides for the administration of tribal areas after setting up an autonomous district and regional councils with certain legislation and judicial powers. Tribals make up over 97% of Ladakh’s population.


“The tribes have limited means of livelihood, poor roads, impossible telecom and internet connectivity, undeveloped markets for their produce and low employment opportunities. The proximity of the India-Pakistan-China border, and the ubiquitous presence of the Indian Army and paramilitary forces, underline not only Ladakh’s strategic sensitivity but also its people’s vulnerability,” writes Raghav Chandra, a former Secretary in the Government of India, in a popular English daily.

The NCST feels that the Schedule 6 will help “democratic devolution of powers, preserve and promote the distinct culture of the region, protect agrarian rights, including rights on land, and enhance transfer of funds for speedy development of the region”.

Big businesses have long been eyeing Ladakh. If that happens, Dawa says Ladakhis will succumb to competition. “We don’t have money to build 5-star hotels and malls. We definitely need Schedule 6 to safeguard our rights. I feel the terrain and weather will delay urbanisation in Ladakh. We don’t have summer as such. In the winter, water pipelines freeze. We don’t get a chance to grow vegetables. Everything is expensive here. In a way the geography is a blessing for us,” says Dawa.

Leh, Centre’s Darling?

In all the discussions that are going on, it is Leh and not Kargil that is in focus.

Around 500 families in Kargil, which is still living in the shadow of the 1999 war, are looking to the Centre to pump funds and promote the region as a tourist destination internationally.

“We have the Aryan Valley, the Suru Valley, Drass, Zanskar Valley, which could be promoted as tourist destinations. We also have three Buddha rock carvings, which are the last such carvings after the Bamyan statues were destroyed in Afghanistan by the Taliban. These statues are left unprotected and unpreserved,” said Md Hasnen Rangyul, a hotelier said.

Surprisingly, it is Bollywood that is giving Kargil some solace. Parts of Karan Johar’s film, Kalank, were shot here. But, it’s the film on Capt Vikram Batra, who was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his actions during the Kargil War, which is giving the region some succour.

Kargil’s untapped tourism potential

Twenty years after Tiger Hills in Kargil became a household name, it might soon be opened for the general public as a tourist destination. Sixteen other peaks that saw action during the 1999 India-Pakistan war too may be thrown open for domestic and international tourists. The peaks that the government plans to throw open are mostly in the Drass and Batalik sector, where intense fighting took place between the Indian soldiers and the intruding Pakistan Army.

The government also plans to open around 13 cross-Himalayan trekking routes, which were traditionally used by the locals for trade and travel since ancient times.

However, Ashraf Ali from the All Kargil Travel, Trade Association, told PTI,

“Even 20 years after the war, if you type Kargil in a search engine, the first result that pops up is Kargil War. Because of the ‘war zone’ tag, we never realised our potential of being a tourist destination despite the region having various places of interest”.

Separatist Sentiment

The UT tag for Ladakh seems to have sparked separatist sentiment in Jammu. Leaders of Pir Panchal, a Muslim-majority area, and Chenab Valley threatened to protest if they didn’t get the same. “From the beginning, we never had anything to do with Ladakh. We are very different from them. What happened to us is not right — no special status, no Constitution. Kashmir is a different issue. Why tie us down with its troubles. People of Jammu also want UT status but the Centre will not give because that’ll mean isolating Kashmir all the more and making more room for conflict and invasion,” says a traffic constable deployed in Leh Market. He is from Jammu and waits for his new posting, now that Ladakh is no longer under J&K police’s jurisdiction.

All Powers with New Delhi

New Delhi will directly rule Ladakh, like it does with all UTs and this is another fear that the locals have. Even when Ladakh was part of J&K, its people, especially the Buddhists, didn’t approve of Srinagar looking after their affairs. After a series of demands and demonstrations, the Central government tried to silence the call for independence. But, it finally agreed to give some sort of autonomy – which many say was merely an illusion — to the region. It was in the form of two Ladakh Autonomous Hill Councils — for Leh and Kargil. With barely any funds coming from Srinagar, the councils couldn’t do much, thereby leaving the region to the mercy of the State government.

“We don’t know how well Delhi understands Ladakh. It’s a fragile region and the Centre should consider as a special package for us. Blanket rules won’t work here. We need better representation at the Centre. By simply handing us the UT status, things can just go downhill from here if we are not understood properly. Now is the time laws should be enforced – laws on construction, traffic, land, water, investment. If it’s not done now, it will never happen,” says Dorjay.

Ladakh is standing at the crossroads of sweeping change. It needs to be careful about what it allows in the name of ‘development’. “Authenticity is forged in decades of civilisation. Ladakh got what it wanted after 70 years. But, there is a price to pay. I see the number of tourists here, it’s crowded. There are so many guesthouses and hotels. This has happened, probably, in the last 10-15 years. The local people need to ensure the environment, culture and identity are protected. They’ll see a lot of money flowing in, they shouldn’t get greedy,” says Karena Miller, a British photojournalist, sipping on mint tea as we slurp on piping hot soup.

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