Ladakh, a region which was an independent kingdom for centuries, was annexed by the Dogra rulers, in 1834, and successfully integrated under the Dogra domain, centered in Jammu, in 1846. Then after, it remained as a province which included Baltistan (now on the other side of the border) commonly known as “Ladakh Wazarat”. Though, the voice of a distinct and separate Ladakhi identity echoed high even before independence in Ladakh. However, at the dawn of independence, an inevitable apprehension took hold in all the three regions (Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) equally.
Considering the immense diversity, each region of the state came up with different claims and appeals. The demand raised by the Ladakhi representatives, apparently, was that of a direct integration with India rather than with Kashmir. But, the then Chief Minister of J&K Sheikh Abdullah and Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru were well aware of the benefits of retaining Ladakh with Kashmir. The two doyens were proved accurate; from the hostile days of partition to the insurgency and as to this day, Ladakh is playing the ‘cementing’ and ‘integrating’ role of the state with India.
During the post-independence period, Ladakh showed a lack of confidence and conviction in the successive state governments and demanded to be more “autonomous.” The demands raised by the Ladakhis, post-independence, were mostly on political and economic lines. Given that the region is not a homogenous entity, the demands varied keeping in mind the goals and ends of a particular group. The larger discourse, however, unanimously remained for greater autonomy and power in the decision-making processes and equal distribution of resources for Ladakh. It never seemed to get its due and, meanwhile, a separate district of Kargil was carved out of Ladakh district in 1979.
However, in September 1995, amid the congratulatory messages from the Prime Minister and the Governor of the state, the people of Leh, who were probably most jubilant since independence, gathered at the historic Polo ground Leh in a mammoth number to listen to the official declaration of the much awaited Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC). It could be noted that the Hill Council was approved by the state governor when the State Assembly was not functional. The people of Kargil, however, refused to accept it at that time reasoning the volatile situation of Kashmir in the aftermath of insurgency and equally ecstatically accepted it in 2003.
The Autonomous Council, to paraphrase the ‘Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act, 1995’ is a relative autonomy conferred in the hands of the local population to affirm decision making power concerning development planning and implementation of their own projects. The Autonomous Hill Council was a share from the larger administrative cake carefully folded in a catchy phrase ‘local self-rule’ which is still seemingly functional.
But, how autonomous are the Hill Councils in Ladakh? The popular perception in Ladakh is that the Hill-Council(s) are a political blame game house and shrunk when it comes to funds. “The district receives a meager amount at the disbursal of the Hill Council” noted the former Chief Executive Councillor (CEC) Kargil while addressing to the Ladakhi students at Delhi not very recently. The same was reverberated by several former and the present CEC of the Leh Hill Council at a different point in time. The members of the Council, from both the districts, time and again complained about the state government’s interference in their works and decisions, making the word “Autonomous” in its name futile. The real power of the Hill Council in Ladakh was professed by the veteran political commentator, Balraj Puri, who once remarked that, “the much-hyped powers of the two councils are less than those of the Zila Parishads under Panchayati Raj system.” The former chairman of the Hill-Council Kargil kept on lamenting the NC government for not releasing the district fund and contested the 2014 state Assembly election, after resigning from the CEC post, as a Congress candidate.
The political leaders in Ladakh had a time and again showed their discontent with the regional parties in the state reasoning an inherent discrimination of them towards Ladakh. This could well be understood with the demands which Ladakh made for ‘Union Territory’ status and even ‘Greater Ladakh’, for that matter, which came at some point of time in Ladakh. As a result, the common people in Ladakh have now started looking at the national parties as against the regional ones. This was clear from the fact that the last Lok Sabha seat for Ladakh was won by a BJP candidate for the first time in the history of elections in Ladakh. Even the last state Assembly election in Ladakh also proved it when out of the four seats the political parties of the state could not even win a single one. Three seats were won by the Congress candidates and the remaining one, from Zanskar constituency, by an independent candidate.
The political leaders of the state always talk about maintaining parity between Jammu and Kashmir regions but Ladakh region gets missed out. This negligence of Ladakh by the state government is visible through the recent developments in different areas in the state. Both Kashmir and Jammu regions were granted Central Universities in 2009 and Ladakh was relegated. A recent survey conducted by the All Kargil Students’ Association Jammu (AKSAJ) reveals that around 7000-9500 students from Ladakh are migrated to study outside to cities like Srinagar, Jammu, Delhi, Chandigarh and Dehradun for the sake of getting ‘higher education’ and the number is fast increasing each passing year. This in itself could be a fair argument in support of a central university for Ladakh. Moreover, the official website of the J&K Department of Higher Education shows that the two regions of the state viz. Kashmir and Jammu have 46 and 45-degree colleges respectively while the third region of Ladakh has merely four. Added to that, none of the four colleges in Ladakh offers post-graduation courses. According to the 2011 census, out of the total area of J&K of 222,236 square kilometers, Ladakh covers 70.4 per cent of the state. This makes one wonder how the students from far flung areas of Ladakh will reach to the sparsely located degree colleges in the districts. Let’s not talk about the quality of these colleges here!
Furthermore, the central government recently sanctioned All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to Kashmir and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to Jammu. Here again Ladakh figured nowhere as happened earlier with the two State Cancer Institutes proposed to be established one each in Kashmir and Jammu regions. The ‘shabby’ district hospitals in the twin districts of Ladakh, running with severe staff shortage and lack of high-tech facilities, gets no attention from the government when it sanctioned AIIMS and Cancer Institutes to the other regions. It’s a well-known fact that Ladakh remains cut-off from Kashmir and rest of the world for many months every winter due to heavy snowfall in the Zojila Pass. During these months, the ‘critical’ patients are left at the mercy of God owing to the fact that the district hospitals are ill-equipped.
Thus in an already volatile state of J&K this discrimination towards one region need to end for the betterment and prosperity of the entire state. Otherwise it would lead to socio-political uncertainties in Ladakh which neither the State nor the Centre could afford.
The writer Haider Ali Askary is a Research Scholar at University of Delhi & a native of Kargil. You can send your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org