Statehood for Ladakh : Is it justified with changed security paradigms?

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
“Our commitment to peace is not our weakness- PM Narendra Modi”.

The states of Himalayan region to include India, Pakistan, China, Bhutan, Nepal Afghanistan, Myanmar etc continue to grapple with dramatic events taking place in the regional and domestic environments. Security has emerged as a significant concern for them. The political upheavals, civil strife, sectarian violence and terrorism in the area have implications for regional and global order. As if this was not enough the area immediately to the north of India, the junction of 2 great civilizations i.e China and the central Asian region known as the seat of ‘Great game” has been on the boil again with resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan yet again throwing the region into a tizzy. With huge Geo-political and economic stakes involved in the region in the form of CPEC / BRI initiative having Chinese footprints all over ,the region immediately south of the ‘Great game” i.e ; Ladakh assumes all the more importance. The trigger for Ladakh assuming importance has been two fold in the form of firstly severing the umbilical cord of its age old association with J&K as a UT as also the creeping of foreign dominance on its borders with ominous signals in the form of Taliban resurgence to its west and the Sino-Indian military standoff to its eastern direction.
But more heft has been provided to Ladakh turning suddenly as the center of south Asian Geo-political intrigue with the PRC, People’s Republic of China removing all stops in its way as a hegemon in Asian milieu by its demonstrated military brinkmanship with India at Galwan last year. Sensing that except for Indian outrage over the skirmish, nothing much tangible has been the wont of this sub-continent, China has upped the ante by passing a draconian ‘Border law” on 23 rd October 2021 which has a direct bearing on the future engagements of Ladakh in terms of its security, border area management , and its very survival with dignity. This ‘Border law” passed by china when juxtaposed with the new ‘Statehood” demands by Ladakh and its people should start ringing ominous bells in the ears of all those who have Indian interests at the bottom of their hearts. More about this law later in this write up. To compound the matters the latest socio-political thought churning in this high altitude cold desert has been the idea of a separate statehood for Ladakh region . The Ladakhi leaders have called an all-out strike on 06th of December 2021 followed by public rallies and mass contact programmes in both Leh and Kargil districts in the month of March. The Leh based apex body of people’s movement for 6th schedule and the Kargil democratic alliance (KDA) are the actual pathfinders for this all out strike.
As per these two political entities headed by MP Thupstan Chehewang and co-chairman Asgar Ali Karbalai their demands include minimum of one(1) lok sabha seat and two(2) Rajya sabha seats besides huge recruitment rallies to fill up over 10,000 odd vacancies from Ladakh .The fear and apprehensions uppermost in the minds of these two apex bodies revolve around implementation of 6th schedule and the lack of constitution support to safeguard their religio- cultural identity as also promulgation of article 371 of the constitution. The apex body also contends their disapproval of introduction of the domicile certificate in Ladakh as is in vogue in the UT of J&K since as per them it leaves the loophole of outsiders settling down in the UT of Ladakh and consequently change in ownership of land / property etc. The reiteration of PRC(Permanent resident certificate) demand as was in vogue in the erstwhile state of J&K prior to abrogation of article 370 by these apex organisations intends to put the clock back of development and forward movement in all spheres of life in this part of the country. In August 2019 when article 370 was done away with finally and the state of J&K divided into two UTs the masses of Leh were in raptures with people of Kargil opposing it. However after revocation and passage of two years, people from both regions have voiced their concerns relating to land ownership rights as mentioned above signaling their converging of aims thus sinking their differences whatever they may be. Now here lies the whole rub of the issue which is the embedding of age old feeling of fear of outsiders brought to bear by 74 years of protectionism afforded by the Maharaja’s rule.
It seems Ladakh region has not woken up to the changed security paradigms wrought upon them unwittingly by a complex web of Geo-political expediencies to make them rethink of the righteousness of demand of a separate statehood. What are those security compulsions in any case? The biggest one foisted upon the hapless Ladakhis is the enactment of ‘Border Law” by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) on 23rd October as mentioned earlier in this write up this year claiming their borders to be “sacred and inviolable”. The Border law will come into effect on 01 st January 2022 and will have 4 major tenets to reckon with as follows-
a) When a war breaks out on the periphery and threatens Chinese border security prompting the PLA to take action as deemed fit in its right.
b) When a major incident poses a grave threat to national security or the life and property of residents in the border area.
c) When the border area is threatened as a result of a natural disaster, public health incident or nuclear, biological or chemical pollution.
d) Other situations that seriously impact the land border and security in border areas.
The above border law also reiterates the state’s commitment to opening up these areas to the outside world and improving local public services aiming to strike a balance between border defence and infrastructure thereby uplifting socio-economic scenario of the area in general. A look at the above law points to certain past incidents goading China to bite the bullet. Point (b) & (c) as enunciated above directly deduced from Galwan type skirmish as also the unleasing of the Covid-19 pandemic in the area thus invoking unilateralism in Chinese actions as and when it suits them to unhinge the status quo on the Sino -Indian border since none of the above was India’s doing.
In fact the above revelations should close ranks of all the Ladakhis and remove the façade for demands of a separate statehood for the region. Ladakh should understand that by remaining as a UT ,the region will get unstinted attention from the center in a more concerted manner vetted by both experts at the central level as also at the local bodies level thus paving the way for a more unanimous distribution of equity and resources. The central gaze on distribution of money via the finance commission of India to remove any regional imbalance too will be straightened out with no intermediaries in between to muddy the waters. Taking the narrative further ahead, Ladakhis should in actuality take a leaf out of Mao’s policy of politico-military fusion of attainment of national aims and should try to convince the center for rapid redevelopment of border areas to include the road connectivity, communications, settling of border villagers with grazing rights as has been the wont of China to counter it in its own game in a graded manner of populating the border areas next to the LAC thereby laying claim of those areas as settled Indian inhabitations . As for Ladakhis fear of losing their land and job opportunities by abrogation of article 370 ,it should be reminded to them that it was one of their own Kushok Bakula who in 1949 demanded a UT status to further the cause of Ladakh. So why now fear the same article 370 and its abrogation which will bring in more competition ,money , new technology ,job opportunities to the region? As for the demand of Ladakh to implement article 371 and the sixth schedule ,I suppose it should be a fair consideration for the center as has been done for many NE states and even for Maharashtra/Gujarat to look after the regional aspirations and expectations ,tribal welfare , land ownership and regional development boards with a little bit tweaking of the clauses . The above has worked wonders in areas like Kutch, Saurashtra of Gujarat and Vidhrabha /Marathwada of Maharashtra with aplomb.
Hence a readymade template is available to the center to superimpose to suit the regional aspirations and grievances as has been advanced by the apex body of Ladakh. It is not a big issue at all if implemented in all its sincerity. The changed security paradigms in the neighborhood of Ladakh as brought out earlier by a combination of Afghan/Taliban spill over near the tri junction of Afghanistan, China and India as also flexing of military muscle by the PRC all along the LAC brings to bear certain hard realities of Geo-political nature which should be adhered by Ladakh and Center in equal measure with a policy of give and take. That is the only way forward in such tumultuous times.
(The writer is a retired army officer.)