By Sanchet Barua
The trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh with Zanskar ranges in the South and Karakoram ranges in the North bordering both Pakistan and China is strategically very important and vital for India’s national security. At the time of partition it formed the part of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir which acceded to India in October 1947 after the state was attacked by Pakistan supported tribal raiders. Large parts of the region including the strategic Gilgit which during Maharaja’s rule formed the Frontier district and Frontier ilaqas remain under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. Pakistan has divorced these areas from POJK and refers to them as Gilgit-Baltistan (former Northern Areas) which is administered directly by the federal government of Pakistan. A portion of the area including Aksai Chin has been illegally ceded by Pakistan to China.
The famous China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s most important strategic initiative in this region, also runs through the areas under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. It is a land-locked area comprising of the trans-Himalayan ranges mainly; Zanskar Range, Ladakh Range, Pangong Range and the Karakoram Range. The population of the area is mainly Buddhist with Shia Muslims of Balti ethnicity dominating the Suru and Sankoo Valleys of Kargil. Siachen Glacier, world’s highest battlefield with Saltoro Ridge as the vital ground, also forms part of this region. This further enhances the strategic importance of the area; occupation of Siachen has provided Indian Army a major strategic advantage. The Saltoro Ridge, an extension of the Karakoram Range, which dominates the glaciated region, is in complete occupation of Indian Army. Despite many desperate attempts Pakistan Army has not been able to secure even a toe-hold on the Ridge.
Its occupation enables the Indian Army to dominate the ambitious Chinese Belt Road Initiative, CPEC, whose strategic and military exploitation by China and Pakistan is a cause of major concern for the nation. It also prevents the possibility of a pincer-move by the combined forces of Pakistan and China to cut-off the Nubra Valley and subsequent capture of Ladakh. The strategic significance of Kargil area is well-known to the countrymen who witnessed a conflict for the first time from the comforts of their drawing rooms. Ladakhis are a very proud race who take pride in being nationalists. They consider themselves to be guardians of India’s northern frontiers. They have been resisting Kashmiri hegemony from the time administration of the state was transferred from the Maharaja to Sheikh Abdullah in 1949. In first reorganisation of the state, Ladakh was made a district of the Kashmir Division ignoring its ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences. Ladakhis felt that they have been made an appendage of Kashmir which gradually proved true.
Sheikh Abdullah’s first cabinet did not have any representative from Ladakh. Sheikh abhorred opposition and hence National Conference was the sole political party comprising mainly of Kashmiri Muslims. Ladakh had only two seats in the State Assembly. Thus, ‘majority rule’ virtually became ‘Kashmiri Rule’. Land reforms initiated by the Sheikh did not exclude the Gompas and drew strong opposition from the Buddhist monks who enjoyed considerable clout. It was at the intervention of Prime Minister Nehru that the Gompas were exempted from the provisions of the Land Reforms Act. The situation became further grave when Urdu was made a compulsory language for the Ladakhis as well. The grant-in-aid given by the Dogra rulers to three primary schools run by Shias, Buddhists and Sunnis was unilaterally withdrawn. No allocation was made whatsoever for Ladakh in the annual Budget. In fact separate allocation for the region began only in 1961. The biased and discriminatory policies of the Kashmiri leaders pushed the Ladakhis to wall that started demanding separation from Kashmir to ensure development of their backward areas and prevent their religion and cultural identity.
One of the main reasons of the under development of the area was the flawed policy of the Nehru government which continued to treat the border regions as frontier regions. The government of the day failed to recognise the difference between the two. While the frontier regions were supposed to be dynamic, temporary, and a buffer zone subject to give and take; the border regions defined by a boundary line are fixed, sacrosanct and static. While the border regions look inwards, the frontiers looked outwards. Since, India had no expansionist designs, it should have concentrated on developing her border regions rather than keeping them underdeveloped under false pretext of denying readymade road axis to a potential aggressor. Thus, neither the central government nor the state government paid much heed to the development of infrastructure in this remote trans-Himalayan region leading to anger and alienation among the people. The growing alienation led initially to the demand of a Central Administrator followed by demand of internal autonomy, regional autonomy, and direct central administration as was done for a year after 1962 and finally veered around the demand for a separate divisional status for the region.
The onset of secessionist activities in the Kashmir Valley once again rang alarm bells for the Ladakhis and a demand for a union territory gained popularity since late eighties under the banner of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA). An agreement was reached in October 1989 for formation of an Autonomous Hill Council on the pattern of Darjeeling Hill Council. The Kashmir-centric state government was not in favour of the same. After much dilly-dallying the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act was finally enacted by the central government in May 1995 granting an Autonomous Hill Council each for Leh and Kargil. Despite the formation of the Hill Councils, their empowerment remained a bone of contention between the Ladakhis and subsequent Kashmir-centric state governments. Suspicious of the intent of Kashmiri leaders, LBA once again raised the demand of a separate Union Territory. Coupled with this is the growing resentment in Zanskar against the step-motherly treatment of Kargil district administration and gerrymandering of the assembly constituency of Zanskar.
It goes to the credit of the Modi government that the long pending demand of empowering the Autonomous Hill Councils was conceded when the Governor’s administration approved Ladakh Hill Development Council (Amendment) Bill, 2018 making the councils much stronger administratively as well as financially. It was followed by establishment of a cluster university to give impetus to better education.
Finally, in February this year, the government also conceded the demand of a separate division for Ladakh making it a separate administrative region like the Kashmir and Jammu regions. As has been brought out earlier, the region is very important for national security due to its strategic location. Therefore, it is essential that the people inhabiting border areas are kept happy and satisfied by the government so that they play their role well as the guardians of nation’s borders. Ladakhis have a few genuine demands which need attention and cannot be ignored as disgruntlement among locals can endanger national security as well. Population in the border areas forms an important centre of gravity which always remains in an adversary’s radar that would always prefer dissension and trouble in these areas. Such dissension can be exploited by the adversary to threaten vulnerable lines of communication in case of a conflict. The people of Kargil contributed and supported immensely in evicting the Pak Army leading to the Kargil victory as acknowledged by the Indian Army. Apart from holistic development of the entire Ladakh region with particular preference to border areas, there is a need to improve the connectivity through building of direct rail link, road network including the much delayed Darcha-Padum-Neemo-Leh road and an airfield at Kargil. A strategic road linking Jammu region with Leh via Kishtwar is also needed. Widening and macadamization of Kargil-Zanskar road, opening of Panikhar-Pahalgam road should also be completed on priority. Zozila tunnel is a strategic necessity. Till 24×7 all weather road connectivity is established, there is a need of capping airfares for the local residents particularly during winter months. Establishment of professional colleges and higher education institutions including a separate cluster university for Kargil should be the priority for the government. Inclusion of Bhoti language in the Eighth Schedule is a long pending demand. Both Kargil and Leh should be developed as centres of excellence for religious research and education. The discrimination in recruitment of Ladakhis in the civil secretariat and government offices also needs to be looked into. The attempt to disturb the demographic balance in Leh needs to be aborted and instead emphasis should be laid on developing communal harmony. The Kashmir-centric leadership in the past has depended on the formula of divide and rule by pitting Kargil against Leh.
The hardship faced by the people of the region especially during harsh winter months needs to be understood and addressed. The tendency of the successive Kashmir-centric governments to treat the people of this region as second class citizens needs to be put to end. Ladakh was opened to tourists in 1974. Initially, tourism was limited to mountaineering and trekking. Gradually, with the Valley being disturbed, Ladakh has grown into a major tourist attraction centre. While modernisation of tourism industry including development of tourist infrastructure is required for the improvement of local economy, the aspect of environmental degradation also needs to be kept in mind. The region also has tremendous hydro-electric potential which needs to be exploited. Ladakh region also needs administrative reorganisation despite the fact that the region is sparsely populated. Carving out couple of new districts and fresh delineation of assembly constituencies should also form part of the government’s development agenda. INAV