Ladakhi identity politics, though internally fragmented, has been characterised by a consistency of goals and a strong sense of negotiability. In the region’s journey of last seven decades, it has been able to clearly articulate the political demands and from time to time, has been able to get these demands met, partially or fully. Thus in 1989, most of the people of the region were able to get the Scheduled Tribe status. In mid-1990s, the Centre granted the Autonomous Hill Development Councils – one for each district of Ladakh. In 2019, the long-standing demand raised in Leh – the demand for UT status for the region was accepted.
Initially, it was the Leh-centric identity politics that exclusively dominated the Ladakhi politics. However, after the creation of Kargil district in 1979, the Kargil identity politics also started asserting itself. However, rather than complementing the Leh-based identity politics, it had been taking a contrary position. While the central point of Leh’s identity politics had been the demand for the UT status, Kargil had been opposing this demand. While Leh’s political class had been aggressively opposed to centrality of Kashmir’s politics within the state of J&K, Kargil’s leadership had been closely associated with the Kashmiri political elite and identifying with its mainstream politics. That is the reason that when the UT status was granted to Ladakh in 2019, there was varying response in the two districts – celebration in Leh and protests in Kargil. For Leh, the grant of UT status was fulfilment of Ladakh’s long-standing demand and therefore there was sense of satisfaction. However, the Kargil leadership was not very happy with the separation of Ladakh from J&K or therefore demanded restoration of pre-August 2019 situation.
One important feature of Leh’s identity politics has been its autonomy from the party politics. The contours of the identity politics are evolved at the ground level and a consensus is generated at the societal level. Political parties thereafter are expected to incorporate the essence of this politics in their electoral politics. Thus the demand for the UT status was articulated by the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) and all political parties operating in Leh reflected the demand in their political agenda. This was true even for the National parties like the Congress which at the national level were not very favourable to the idea of UT status for Ladakh. And till a decade back, before BJP started taking the central space of Leh’s politics, it was the Congress which was the biggest votary of the demand of UT status.
There have been interesting situations where the political parties based in Leh have chosen to follow the sentiments at the local level even while disregarding the larger interests of the party. Thus, just before the 2002 Assembly election, all parties in Leh decided to become part of a common front and field common candidates for the ensuing election. This was done to give a clear signal to the authorities about the consensus in Leh around the demand of UT. Thus all parties including the Congress, NC and BJP dissolved their local units and became part of the newly floated Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF). This tendency of the political parties to dissolve their differences for pursuing the larger interest of the region has often been reflected in Leh’s politics. In case of an agitation, all parties would come together, form a common front and give a united fight. This steadfastness and unity of the political class is reflected even after Ladakh has been granted UT status.
After the reorganisation of J&K and separation of Ladakh from J&K, there has been new turn in the Ladakhi identity politics – not only in Leh but also in Kargil. Following the formation of UT, there have been concerns related to jobs, land, ecology, and heritage. With the apprehension that Ladakh maybe facing influx of outsiders, demand has been made for protecting jobs as well as land for Ladakhis. There are also concerns about the political representation. Unlike J&K which is a UT with a legislature, the UT of Ladakh is without a legislature and this poses a major problem of political representation. As part of the erstwhile state of J&K, Ladakh was fairly represented in the state – Apart from one MP, there were four MLAs and two MLCs and invariably a minister in the state government. And as party members, Ladakhis were also represented in various other bodies of the state. After the formation of the UT, it is only a single Member of Parliament through whom people are connected with political decision making. The new system provides centralised and remote administration. Other than the LG, the decision making related to Ladakh is directly at the level of Home Minister of India.
To address these concerns, the political class in Leh was initially demanding protection under the provisions of Article 371 of the Indian Constitution and its Sixth Schedule. The leadership of Kargil, as usual did not agree with the demand raised in Leh and instead demanded a separate UT for Kargil. The political class in both the districts, meanwhile, has been giving a consistent fight for the protection of the rights of Ladakhis – under the banner of Leh’s Peoples Movement for Sixth Schedule and Kargil Democratic Alliance
So forceful has been struggle of Ladakhis, that till very recently, the Government could not make any movement forward in laying down the Domicile and land policy – this despite the fact that for last two years, no new recruitment in government jobs could take place. The Ladakhi leaders made it very clear that they were not ready to accept either the Domicile provisions or the Land policy as applied to Jammu and Kashmir after the Reorganisation. Their objection to these policies related to the possibility of opening jobs and land to the non-permanent residents of Ladakh. They instead demanded the special constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule of Constitution and a Council on the line of Bodo Hill Council.
In September 2020, the leadership of Leh made a strong statement about this demand when it forced the postponement of the election of Hill Council of Leh. Just on the eve of this election, all Leh-based parties including the BJP, Congress and AAP, took the decision to boycott the election till protection under the Sixth Schedule of Constitution is granted and Leh and Kargil are granted Councils like Bodo Hill Council. This decision resulted (besides the postponement of the election) in engagement of Leh’s leadership by the Government of India.
Of late, there has been a new dynamism in the politics of Ladakh. The Kargil-based political parties and groups under the banner of Kargil Democratic Alliance changed its earlier stance demanding separate UT of Kargil and came up with the demand for statehood for Ladakh. In response, the Apex Body (LAB) of Leh’s People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule, also revised its demand and in addition to the demand for protection under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution, demanded Legislature for UT of Ladakh.
However, lately, there has been a change in the strategy. In an unprecedented move, the Leh and Kargil bodies have decided to come together to fight for the fulfilment of their rights. Leaving their traditional rivalries behind, the LAB and KDA have engaged each other and evolved a consensus in favour of four common demands. These include, a) the full-fledged Statehood with Constitutional Safeguards; b) Residentship Certificates on the lines of State Subject to the people instead of Domicile, c) two seats of Lok Sabha and one of Rajya Sabha and; d) immediate filling up of 10,000 to 12,000 vacancies in Government jobs – pending since Ladakh was given UT status. It was also decided that wherever the Ladakhis are called by the Centre for the talks, a joint team of Leh and Kargil will be sent to Delhi.
One can see the impact that this unprecedented move of making a joint case by Leh and Kargil leadership has had. Even though the local BJP has taken an ambivalent position towards this new development (giving signals both of identifying with the LAB as well as distancing from it), the fruits of Ladakhi steadfastness and dynamism have started coming. In a first kind of such decisions, an Order for making appointment for non-gazetted posts has been issued by the Ladakh administration (Ladakh Resident Certificate Order 2021). As per this Order, all non-gazetted posts in UT of Ladakh have been reserved exclusively for residents of Ladakh. To define the residents of Ladakh, it has been made clear that only those people would be considered as Residents of Ladakh who possess Permanent Resident Certificate or those who were eligible to hold this certificate. In other words, in the matter of appointment of non-gazetted posts, Ladakhi demand for protection of exclusive rights of Ladakhis has been accepted.
Even though most of the demands articulated in the Ladakhi identity politics are still to be considered, yet one can see in the Ladakh Resident Certificate Order, 2021, a direction in the response of the Centre. A beginning has been made in the process of responding to the concerns of Ladakhis. What has paid Ladakh in this matter is the clarity of its purpose, steadfastness and consistency of goals and most importantly the negotiating strategies.