Several new demands including full statehood was added in 2021 to an already sustained campaign for constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule for Ladakh as people of both Leh and Kargil threatened to intensify their agitation after the ‘harsh winter’ — an indication of a likely showdown between the government and the residents in the new year.
The scarcely populated Ladakh, known as the ‘cold desert’ of India which usually remains cut off from the rest of the country owing to the closure of Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh national highways due to heavy snowfall during winters, is also grappling with the spike in COVID-19 cases since November after overcoming the second wave in March-April. It has prompted the local administration to impose several restrictions including night curfew and the closure of schools.
Ladakh was carved out of Jammu and Kashmir as a separate union territory on August 5, 2019, following the reorganisation of the erstwhile state after its special status under Article 370 was revoked. Jammu and Kashmir was also downgraded to a union territory.
Union minister Nitin Gadkari, during a visit to inspect the ongoing work on the Zojila tunnel on the Srinagar-Leh highway in September, assured the people that the central government would change the developmental scenario of the union territory in the next two years.
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In another major development, the local administration issued an order making Permanent Resident Certificates, issued before August 5, 2019 development, as mandatory for getting ‘resident certificates’ for the people of Leh and Kargil after the locals rejected domicile certificates on the pattern of J-K, which makes it easy for outsiders to become residents of the union territory.
Nearly three months after reserving all subordinate services for the local residents, the Ladakh administration on September 4 issued an order to temporarily define ‘residents of Union territory’ for the purpose of appointment to all non-gazetted posts borne on the establishment of any department or service.
The demand for constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule, which was put forth by the people through a Leh-based political platform soon after getting the union territory status, echoed in Parliament when BJP MP from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal raised the issue during Zero Hour on December 15.
The demand was raised amid two near-total strikes that brought life to a standstill across Ladakh in August and later in December on the joint call of the Apex Body of People’s Movement for 6th Schedule and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) — an amalgam of almost all political, religious, social, cultural and youth organisations of Leh and Kargil, respectively.
“When you (Speaker Om Birla) visited Leh recently and went to the Leh Council’s Secretariat as well, a demand was raised…I urge the government to amend the Ladakh Hill Development Council Act, passed in 1997. It needs to be defined what will be the role and responsibility of the central government, the Union Territory administration and the Lieutenant-Governor…Along with this, (it needs to define) how the roles of gram panchayats and town councils will be streamlined.
“The LAHDC Act also needs to be amended to grant constitutional safeguards with regard to land, employment and cultural identity on the lines of certain regions in the North-East under the Sixth Schedule,” Namgyal told Parliament recently.
His statement came close after the Leh-based Apex Body and the KDA jointly sponsored the second strike in support of their demands including full statehood and the Sixth Schedule in the entire Ladakh.
However, the Apex Body was quick to dismiss the statement of Namgyal and said it was made at the behest of the BJP leadership to “mislead” the people of Ladakh.
After making a historic contact in December 2020 for a united flight to safeguard the interests of the people of Ladakh, the ideologically different Apex Body and KDA announced a joint programme in support of their joint agitation on August 1, days ahead of the second anniversary of the union territory status.
The demands raised include full statehood along with constitutional safeguards, one more Lok Sabha seat and two Rajya Sabha seats besides a special recruitment drive for the local youth to fill up over 10,000 vacancies.
The BJP, which was part of the Apex Body, however, stopped attending its meetings. On the second founding anniversary of the UT status, Namgyal, who is also present of BJP’s Ladakh unit, targeted the Apex Body for changing demands from time to time.
On August 28, During Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai’s visit to Leh, the Apex Body and the KDA had given a call for bandh after the two bodies were not called for the meeting, prompting Union Home Minister Amit Shah to intervene. Rai had accordingly called the two bodies for talks and heard their issues.
After holding a series of meetings with the home ministry officials before August, the Apex Body and the KDA expressed their anger over “non-seriousness” on the part of the government towards the issues and concerns of the Ladakhis and sponsored a strike on December 13.
They also threatened a mass agitation in support of their demand in March 2022 coinciding with “improved weather conditions”.