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Ladakh’s Demand for Autonomy Since 1949 Finally Met

Kingson Chingakham

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1949 was a crucial year for India. Constitution was still in making. India had just freed from the British’s yoke. Integrating the princely states were still going on amidst all the difficulties. One biggest challenge was the State of Jammu & Kashmir(J&K) and the culturally different region of Ladakh which was incorporated as part of J&K.

In what can be considered as one of the most important letters from Ladakh region, the then President of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), Cheewang Rigzin, submitted a memorandum to the first Prime Minister of free India Mr Nehru in May 1949:

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.

Cheewang Rigzin, Former President, LBA

Summing up, he pleaded that ‘Ladakh not to be bound by the decision of the plebiscite should the Muslim majority of the state decide in the favour of Pakistan’. In a Chapter written by Navnita Chadha Behera from the book ‘Conflict in Jammu & Kashmir: Impact on Polity, Society and Economy‘, mention has been made that the LBA sought to be governed directly by the Government of India, or to be amalgamated with the Hindu majority part of Jammu to form a separate province or to join East Punjab. Failing which they will be left with no option but to join Tibet.

Nehru acknowledged the concerns shown by the LBA and its leaders. But considering the volatile situation of Kashmir and the involvement of the United Nations (UN), he had to go for a compromise with the Ladakhis. Therefore, he urged the Ladakhis not to pursue any of these demands because any such constitutional or administrative action might weaken India’s stance in Kashmir in the UN Security Council.

It should also be noted that the National Conference members in Jammu and Ladakh sought internal autonomy from Kashmir Valley at that time. Balraj Puri in Jammu submitted an individual memorandum to Nehru in 1950 demanding internal autonomy and devolution of powers to smaller regions.

The Ladakhis and the LBA were highly disappointed with how the Government of India and the state of J&K handled the ‘question of autonomy’. In 1952, 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 Delhi Agreement of 1952.

In 1967, the Ladakhis launched a movement resenting the ‘Kashmiri Domination’. Kushak Bakula was serving as a Minister in the Ministry of Ladakh Affairs at that time. But he took one more step ahead and charged the state for treating Ladakh like a colony. He again reiterated saying that ‘if economic development has to happen in Ladakh, that will be possible through direct central administration’. He even credited the Indian Army by saying that ‘the little development Ladakh has been blessed was due to the Indian Army’.

Until the demise of the first Prime Minister, the Ladakhis kept on demanding for autonomy but Nehru did not agree to any of the demands. But as a show of tokenism, Nehru wanted to induct Kushak Bakula in his Ministry.

The desire for rapid development led to movements in 1974 and 1982 again. But nothing came out from these movements as the democratic rights and demands of the Ladakhis were suppressed for the larger cause of the state.

The Sheikh government in the late 1970s divided Ladakh into Leh and Kargil districts purely on religious ground harming the social equilibrium.

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.

Rigzin Jora , President of LBA (an excerpt from the letter to the Hindustan Times 1989)

There was a massive demand for tripartite agreement in the 1990s. But the Farooq Abdullah government watered down all the demands. The protests continued in the last decade of the 20th century. There was loss of lives in the protests too. But the struggle for Ladakhis continued.

The Ladakhis claim that they have been unable to receive the developmental policies, schemes, projects initiated by the Government of India. The state failed to give them irrigation, education, health security etc. There have been widespread demands to increase the strength of hospitals in Ladakh region. The demand has been ignored all the time on the ground that ‘though Ladakh is a geographically large region, the population is sparsely populated’. Education is another area where the children have been deprived of the right to education for long.

Though the dynasts and some sections in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir are condemning the Union Government’s moves to abrogate Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories- Union Territory of J&K and Union Territory of Ladakh, the Ladakhis are rejoicing and their long demand has been finally met. The Kargilis have expressed a disappointment with the government’s move.

BJP MP from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal reacted :

In fact, the number of followers of the Ladakh MP on Twitter increased from 5000 in the morning of August 6 to nearly 25,000.

Let us wish Ladakh a prosperous journey ahead. A new chapter has begun. A tourist spot and loved by millions of Indians for its simplicity and beauty, Ladakh deserves the best and should get what has been pending for seven decades.

Personal Blog. For details please mail me at observersindia@gmail.com

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