Ladakhis demand freedom from Kashmir, trifurcation the only way out

  • By Hari Om
  • 16 November 2010

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On November 9, two  interlocutors on Jammu & Kashmir, M.M. Ansari and Radha Kumar, visited Leh  in Ladakh to ascertain the views of the people there on what could help restore  peace in Kashmir and resolve the issues facing the far-off Ladakhis. Dileep  Padgaonkar did not accompany them because of other pre-occupations. Reports  suggest he is not happy with Home Minister P. Chidambaram and that he and Radha  are not on the same page as far as methodology is concerned.

During their stay  at Leh, the interlocutors met at least six delegations. Local Congress leaders,  including former Union minister P Namgyal; BJP leaders, including son-in-law of  Rani Parvati of Ladakh and former MP Thupstan Chhewang; leaders of the Ladakh  Buddhist Association (LBA) and the All-Ladakh Gompa Association (ALGA) and  members of the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), including Chief  Executive Councillor, met the interlocutors and discussed ways and means to  resolve the Kashmir issue and free them from the domination of the Valley once  and for all.

The most  significant aspect of whole situation was the unity among all those who met the  interlocutors. Each one spoke in one voice and asked the interlocutors to  consider their demand for Union Territory status. The upshot of the arguments  advanced by all delegations was that there was but one way to end their night  of discontent and despair – by separating Ladakh from Kashmir and granting  Union Territory status to their grossly ignored, politically marginalized and  socio-culturally destroyed region. The demand is well-founded. The people of  Ladakh, like the discriminated-against people of Jammu, deserve freedom from  the discriminatory, separatist and essentially communal Kashmiri leadership.

It would not be out  of place to mention here that the Ladakhi demand for “self-rule” within India  is as old as the political emancipation of August 1947. Ladakhis have  consistently argued that the “Kashmir issue can be seen only in the context of  the validity of the Amritsar Treaty (of March 1846, under which the State of  Jammu & Kashmir came into being), and that Ladakh should be allowed to go  its own way as only the Maharaja (of the State) was the common link for Ladakh  and Kashmir.” The demand for a separate dispensation should also be viewed in  the context of the Kashmiri attitude towards Ladakh, which has been negative  and jingoistic, as the average Kashmiri disdainfully calls the Ladakhis “boto”, which to many means non-Muslims.

The first time  Ladakhis demanded “self-rule” was in 1949, when Cheewang Rigzin, President, LBA  Subject Committee, gave a memorandum to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. A look  at the language of the memorandum of 1949 reflects the Ladakhi attitude to the  Kashmir Valley and its leadership. The memorandum read as follows:

-        “We are a separate nation by all  tests – race, language, religion, culture – determining nationality, the only  link connecting us with other people of the State being the bond of common  ruler… Sheikh Abdullah (of the National Conference) built up his case (for  plebiscite) on the validity of the Treaty of Amritsar. This Treaty bears upon  the territory of Kashmir only. So while the ruler has consented to transfer his  sovereign power in favour of all his people, Sheikh Abdullah and the people of  Kashmir can, through this transference, manage the affairs of their whole  country as they wish. But they do not have the power to appropriate against  their will, a people, a separate nation, whom a separate treaty – the result of  the war of 1834 twelve years anterior to the Treaty of Amritsar – bound to the  ruler in special relationship in which, the people of Kashmir, who came into  picture later naturally did not figure at all.”

-        “In case the result of the  plebiscite is favourable to India, we simply go a step further than other  people of the State in seeking a closer union with that great country and in  case it is otherwise, our verdict stands clear and unchallengeable. When we  have decided to cut ourselves asunder from the State itself, the question of  our forming part of Pakistan cannot arise at all…We have indeed made up our  mind to join India; but what is our decision worth until India is prepared to  accept it? We certainly make the offer for our own advantage; we see in our  merger with India the only hope of our salvation…There is nothing in our offer  which is in any way incompatible with the high idealism which characterizes  India’s international policy. We might even say in positive terms that it is  perfectly consistent with it. For has not India repeatedly declared that it  stands for the right of self-determination for all our nations, and are we not  a nation whose right of self-determination it should uphold and to whom it  should extend the protection it seeks.”

The path charted by  Chhewang Rigzin was faithfully treaded by the people of Ladakh, who in 1952  under the inspiration and effective leadership of the Head Lama of Ladakh,  Kushak Bakula, not only demanded an effective say in the administration of the  state, but also asserted that they join Tibet in the event of New Delhi  agreeing to Sheikh Abdullah’s demand for greater autonomy or for implementation  of the so-called Delhi Agreement of 1952.

In September 1967 the Ladakhis launched an  organized struggle against “Kashmiri domination.” Their highly revered leader,  Kushak Bakula, who served as Minister of Ladakh Affairs between 1953 and 1967,  went a step further and charged that “Ladakh has all along been treated as a  colony by the State leadership,” but also threatened that “Ladakh will become  part of Tibet if his demand for a ‘NEFA-type administration with representation  in the Central Cabinet’ was not conceded.” Kushak Bakula told media in Delhi  about Ladakhi grievances and asserted that “direct central administration of  Ladakh would ensure its speedy economic development, which has been ignored  during the past 20 years.” He said “whatever little development had taken place  in Ladakh was due to the efforts of the Indian Army.”

Several proposals made by him during his  tenure as Minister of Ladakh Affairs in the State Cabinet were rejected. The  result was that Ladakhis were denied irrigation, educational and power  facilities, among other things. He accused the (Congress) Government of Ghulam  Mohammad Sadiq of “trying to create communal discord in Ladakh in order to  weaken the movement of Ladakh’s separation from Kashmir,” and demanded an  “inquiry into the complaints regarding lack of economic development.” Bakula revealed  he had “tendered his resignation several times first from the Bakshi Ghulam  Mohammad Cabinet (Bakshi acted as State Wazir-e-Azam from 1953 to 1964) and  later from the Sadiq Cabinet,” as he had been “rendered ineffective by  successive State Governments” and “that he had to stay on ‘at the intervention  of Central and State leaders’ and for wider interests.”

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad fully endorsed the  Ladakhi demand. In fact, he told The  Tribune on September 20 at Sonamarg that when he was prime minister of the  State, “he had asked Nehru to take over the administration of Ladakh as it was  impossible for any government in Srinagar to do full justice to the cause of  the Ladakhis. But Nehru did not agree then and, instead, asked me to induct  Kushak Bakula in his ministry and which I did” (The Tribune, Sept 22, 1967).

The fate of the 1967 demand was the same as  that of Bakshi’s suggestion. While G.M. Sadiq dismissed the charges leveled by  Kushak Bakula as “baseless,” the Central Government rejected the demand for  “NEFA-type administration” out-of-hand.

Similar movements were started by Ladakhis in  1974 and 1982 under the leadership of Lama Lobzang-Thupstan Chhewang and P.  Namgyal, respectively, demanding Union Territory status for Ladakh. Lama  Lobzung’s argument was that “progress in Ladakh is admittedly limited” and that  “it has not kept pace with rising aspirations following the expansion of  education and growth of social and political consciousness… The Ladakhis’  desire more rapid development” and that could be achieved only “if we are  granted Union Territory status” (The  Hindustan Times, Jan. 29, 1974). The arguments advanced by P. Namgyal in  1982 in favour of Union Territory status were also identical (Kashmir Times, Feb. 7, 1997), but  nothing came out of the efforts of Lama Lobzang and Namgyal. Instead, the  Valley rulers, according to Ladakhi leaders, continued to “suppress the  democratic rights of Ladakh through armed forces” (National Convention on the  Ladakhi issue in Delhi, March 18, 1990).

In between, however, the State Government  appointed the Gajendragadkar Commission to investigate the charge of regional  imbalances. The commission acknowledged Ladakh’s unequal share and recommended  measures to rectify some of the wrongs. These included the setting up of a  separate development board for Ladakh, inclusion of at least one Ladakhi in the  State Cabinet, establishment of a degree college, revival of the single-line  administration and merger of the proposed post of development commissioner with  that of the deputy commissioner of Ladakh.

Instead, it disturbed the social equilibrium  in 1978-79 by dividing Ladakh into Leh and Kargil districts on purely religious  lines. The motive was to play Muslim-majority Kargil against Buddhist-majority  Leh and weaken the autonomy movement. “A political schism was surreptitiously  set forth, which succeeded in separating Leh and Kargil into two separate  districts. In separating Kargil from Leh district, the Sheikh’s intention was  to remind the Kargilis, who are predominantly Shia Muslims, that historical and  cultural ties are insignificant factors in Islamic policy, which he was trying  to impose on the state,” say Ladakhi Buddhists.       
  Under these  circumstances the LBA launched a struggle on Oct. 15, 1989 for Union Territory  stats for Ladakh. In a letter to the editor, The Hindustan Times, Oct. 17, 1989, Rigzin Jora (the then LBA  leader and presently Tourism Minister in the Omar Abdullah-led coalition  government) and T. Samphal, MLA, Leh, explained the circumstances which had  compelled the Ladakhis to engineer the struggle:

-        “Ladakh is not just another backward region of the country. It is a  region with a unique culture, typical geo-climatic conditions and a distinctive  socio-economic order, besides being sensitive strategically located. Ladakh  needs to be drawn into the national mainstream, while providing safeguards to  its identity. This could only be done by separating Ladakh from Kashmir where  the line between nationalism and separatism runs very thin. In demanding Union  Territory status, Ladakh’s primary concern is to protect its identity. Under  Kashmir’s rule, Ladakh suffered enormous cultural onslaught from fundamentalist  organizations of the Valley. It is, therefore, important for Ladakh Buddhist Association  to keep up its struggle for a Union Territory for Ladakh.”

The Union Territory movement started on Oct.  15 left three persons dead and several seriously wounded. Crowds, mainly  Buddhists, burnt government property and attacked police stations. Law and  order could be restored only after Oct. 29, when the representatives of the  State and Central Government met the agitating LBA leaders at Leh and reached  an agreement under which Leh district was to get an autonomous hill development  council, invested with administrative and economic powers. The agreement was  signed by Thupstan Chhewang (LBA), P.P. Srivastava (Additional Secretary, Union  Ministry of Home Affairs) and Ashok Jaitley (Additional Chief Secretary, Jammu  and Kashmir Government), in the presence of Union Home Minister Buta Singh, who  assured the Ladakhis of a set up on the lines of the Gorkha Hill Council.

Differences soon erupted over implementation  of the tripartite agreement in a meeting held in Jammu on Jan. 10, 1990. Citing  constitutional difficulties in granting an autonomous district council, Farooq  Abdullah’s government made every possible attempt to “hoodwink the LBA with the  provisions of the Panchayati Raj Act, 1989,” Rigzin Zora alleged.

The State Government’s “blatant disrespect”  for the tripartite agreement aggravated Leh’s political scene, with Ladakhis  resolving once again to create a stir and force the authorities to honour the  commitment. The situation took a serious turn after July 7, 1990, when Thupstan  was beaten up by the police, and Sonam Wangchuk, who had previously attacked a  former minister, Sonam Wangyal, was arrested. These two incidents provoked LBA  activists who stormed the Leh police station, triggering a police-LBA clash and  a lathi-charge, bursting of teargas shells and imposition of curfew in Leh. On  June 16, blasts occurred at the residence of Wangyal and in three government  buildings in Leh. The LBA held a massive rally on July 17 to protest against  the “anti-democratic attitude” of the authorities and began a dharna demanding  the promised autonomous hill development council.

Convinced the authorities would not meet  their demands, the Ladakhis adopted a threatening posture in February 1991.  They organized a massive public rally in Leh on Feb. 14 and declared their  intention to revive the agitation for UT status. Braving sub-zero temperature,  fluctuating between minus 15 and 30, thousands of Ladakhis joined the  demonstration. While thousands in colourful costumes from Leh town and  adjoining villages marched from the historic martyrs’ memorial to the Polo  Ground, venue of demonstration, through the main bazaar, many others who could  not reach the town owing to disruption of road traffic held protest meetings at  Deskit, Nyoma and Tangtse. “Down with Kashmiri hegemony”, “Our demand UT  status, free Ladakh from Kashmir”, and “We want to live as free citizens of  independent India,” read hundreds of placards carried by the LBA supporters.

On Aug. 25, 1991, the people of Leh observed  a massive bandh in memory of the martyrs of October 1989. Earlier that day,  Thupstan met President R. Venkataraman at Leh and warned that LBA would “wait  for two more months at the most, hoping for a positive response from the  Central Government,” failing which it would revive the agitation. But the  threat did not move the authorities though in April 1992, Union Home Minister  S.B. Chavan met leaders from Ladakh; nothing tangible emerged. Chavan took the  view that the “proposed council, as demanded by the LBA, would call for an  amendment in the State Constitution as well as threaten the existence of  Article 370 of the Constitution,” and that “the decision could hardly be taken  through an ordinance by the Governor who had no mandate for it.” He also  stated, obviously at the behest of the Kashmir-based NC and Congress leaders,  including Ghulam Rasool Kar, that “any change in the status (of Ladakh) would  hurt the Kashmiri psyche.”

Angry Ladakhis organized a massive bandh in  Leh on May 11. They also organized a 4-kilometer-long march in the city of Leh  against “Kashmiri domination.” The threat that the authorities in New Delhi  concede their demands before May 20, 1992 worked, but not to the extent LBA  leaders expected. Still the response from the Centre was substantial. In a  meeting between Union Home Minister and LBA leaders in New Delhi on May 21, the  former said “the Centre is ready to accept their demands as they do not require  any amendment in the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution.” Ultimately, on Nov. 28,  1992, the way was cleared for setting up an autonomous hill development  council. However, it was only in September 1995 that a democratically-elected  Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) came into being.

Since the constitution the LAHDC, the people  of Leh district have been expressing dissatisfaction over the institution won  after a protracted struggle, as the State authorities are not allowing the  council to function in the manner desired by the people. They believe, and  rightly so, that Union Territory status is the only lasting solution to their  problems. The insistence on UT status during the meeting with the interlocutors  must be viewed in this context.

New Delhi would do well to concede this  genuine demand so that Ladakh gets freedom from the Kashmiri yoke. The Centre  should also separate Jammu from Kashmir because the nature of the problem  facing the people of Jammu and Ladakh is the same. In other words, the State  should be trifurcated so that the people of Jammu and Ladakh are freed from the  cruel clutches of the Kashmiri Muslim leadership and New Delhi is free to  tackle the Valley militants separately.                   
The author is former Chair Professor,  Maharaja Gulab Singh Chair, University of Jammu, Jammu, & former member  Indian Council of Historical Research

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