Statehood to Ladakh coupled with assembly, will hurt Buddhists
Prof Hari Om
The political history of post-1947 Ladakh could be legitimately considered as the history of the rise of nationalism and integration with India. In fact, nationalism became their watchword and their battle-cry, with the highly revered Buddhist Kushok Bakula as the champion of this mass ideology. It was he who started propagating nationalism in the cold desert of Ladakh to counter the separatist ideology of the Kashmiri leadership. It was this nationalism which became the ‘rallying force among the Ladakhis to fight back the Pakistanis and the Chinese who made frequent bids to conquer (their) land in 1948, 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999.’ Who played the exemplary role in these wars to comprehensively defeat the enemy’s misadventures? The brave Jawans of the Ladakh Scouts did all they could to defeat the Pakistani and Chinese evil designs. They made supreme sacrifices to preserve the unity and integrity of India. The Buddhists of Ladakh had made it loud and clear from day one that they wanted to be part of India and that they would not become party to any agreement biased in favour of the separatist and communal Kashmiri leadership, and against them. In fact, at the time of the communal partition, they submitted memoranda to the Maharaja of J&K, Hari Singh, as also to the Government of India, containing demands ‘based on (their) bitter experience.’
The memoranda contained three specific alternative proposals:
- ‘The Maharaja should govern Ladakh directly without tagging it on to Kashmir Valley’;
- ‘Our homeland be amalgamated with the Hindu majority Jammu and should form a separate province in which adequate safeguards should be provided for distinctive rights and interests of Ladakhis’; and
- ‘Ladakh should be permitted to join East Punjab.’
It bears recalling that the Maharaja could not respond because certain developments had in the meantime worked against him, and he had to abdicate his authority in favour of Sheikh Abdullah who enjoyed the full backing of Jawaharlal Nehru. The result was that the Buddhists decided to ‘merge with India straightway’ and the decision to that effect was communicated to the Prime Minister of India on May 4, 1949, by the President of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) Chhewang Rigzin. The operative part of the communication/memorandum read: ‘Ladakh is not prepared to go to Pakistan whatever the result of the plebiscite may be.’ The communication also said: ‘We seek the bosom of that gracious mother (India) to receive more nutriments for growth to our full stature in every way. She has given us what we prize above all other things – our religion and culture. The Ashoka wheel on her flag, symbol of goodwill for all humanity, and her concern for her cultural children, calls us irresistibly. Will the great mother refuse to take to her arms one of her weakest and most forlorn and depressed children (Buddhists) – a child whom filial love impels to respond to the call?’ 1964 witnessed the first ever well-organized attempt on the part of Ladakhi Buddhists in this direction under the inspiring and effective leadership of Kushok Bakula. ‘The Government of India’, in the words of the Ladakh Union Territory Ffront (LUTF), ‘made us to be governed by Kashmiris during these decades to our utter ruin. In the post-independence period we have been reduced to the status of slaves in our own homeland. The impact of oppressive rule by the J&K Government over us has obliterated our cultural and social ethos’. However, nothing came out. They continued their struggle, but with no result. Convinced that the powers-that-be will not concede their demands, the Buddhists took recourse to violent methods in October 1989 to achieve separation from Kashmir. Their single-point agenda was to achieve UT status for Ladakh. The Buddhist agitation brought everything to standstill. Two persons lost their lives during the police-crowd clashes and many got injured, some fatally. The situation had turned so grave that the Government of India had to intervene. As a result, negotiations took place between the agitating Buddhists, Farooq Abdullah-led government and representatives of the Government of India. The result: it was decided to create two autonomous hill development councils, one each for Leh district and Kargil district, much to the chagrin of the Kashmiri leadership, and despite the fact that the Kargil leadership had never ever sought UT status for Ladakh. Nor had it ever demanded autonomous hill development council for Kargil. Its ideology and aspirations were totally different from the ideology and aspirations of the Buddhists and it got autonomous council on a platter. Right now, the Leh Council is under BJP and Kargil council under NC and Congress. As per the 2011 census, the population Leh district is 133,467 and that of Kargil district 140,802. It needs to be noted that the Kargil leadership consistently opposed the Buddhists’ demand seeking separation of Ladakh from Kashmir and UT status for the trans-Himalayan region. It consistently made common cause with pro-autonomy Kashmiri leadership comprising National Conference (NC) and Congress. Kargil district was created By the Sheikh Abdullah government in 1979 out of the Buddhist-majority Ladakh district to pit the followers of one religion against the followers of another and weaken the Buddhists’ movement aimed at protecting and promoting further their religion, culture and identity. It bears recalling that the Buddhists accepted the 1989 autonomous hill development council formula as a first step towards their ultimate goal – UT. They never abandoned their UT demand, with Kargil leadership leaving no stone unturned to defeat it and again and again reposing full faith in the Kashmiri leadership. The Buddhists finally achieved their goal on August 5-6, 2019, when the Narendra Modi Government abrogated the pernicious, divisive and discriminatory Articles 35A and 370 and divided J&K into two UTs – J&K UT and Ladakh UT. The Buddhists celebrated the reforms as a day of deliverance and thanks-giving. As for the Kargil leadership, it, like Kashmiri leaders – Abdullahs, Muftis, Mirs, Azads, Sozs, Lones, Bukharis, Tarigamis and who not – did not appreciate August 2019 reform scheme. Sadly, however, things changed dramatically in Leh. The non-BJP Buddhist leadership in the district started changing their goal posts with each passing day. So much so, they and the Kargil leadership came on one platform to first demand Sixth Schedule so that the Ladakhis could control land and all jobs and then put forth a demand seeking full state status for Ladakh, coupled with an assembly invested with all powers, including legislative powers. Not just this, they also formed what is called Apex Body consisting of Leh Buddhist leaders and Kargil leadership and caused political explosions at regular intervals in support of their demands.
It’s obvious that the Buddhist leadership in Leh has not taken cognizance of the grave evils that would follow on the conversion of Ladakh UT into Ladakh State coupled with one legislative assembly. As said, the highly strategic Ladakh was Buddhist-majority on October 26, 1947, when Maharaja Hari Singh acceded J&K to the Indian Dominion. Today, the Buddhists are a minority; they constitute only 40 per cent of Ladakh’s total population. The Buddhists constitute a majority (66.40 per cent) only in Leh district. As for Hindus and Muslims, they constitute 17.14 per cent and 14.28 per cent population, respectively, in Leh district. In Kargil district, the Buddhists are only 14.29 per cent and Muslims 76.87 per cent. What would be the immediate results if Ladakh granted state status and a legislative assembly established in the region? One, the institution of autonomous hill development council both in Leh and Kargil would become a story of the past. Two, everything would be controlled by the state government and the Buddhists, who today are a majority in Leh district and play all shots there, would lose the political status they today enjoy in their district. Since they constitute only 40 per cent of Ladakh’s population, they will only be a minority in the assembly, which discusses and decides questions of supreme importance. In other words, the majority population in Ladakh would exercise veto power like the Kashmiri leadership enjoyed veto power between 1947 and August 2019. It would be a negation of what Chhewang Rigzin, Head Lama of Ladakh Kushok Bakula and other Buddhist leaders did after 1947 for the region and for the Buddhists. In short, the Buddhists would suffer grievous injuries if Ladakh UT is converted into state and legislative assembly created in the region. The Buddhist leadership would do well to consider the ramifications of what they are doing and demanding. They must abandon the statehood demand. The only option available to them to protect and promote further their religion, culture and identity is UT status. Instead of insisting on statehood and assembly, they should strengthen the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council.