Union Territory Status for Ladakh?
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Issue Courtesy: | Date : 23 Aug , 2016

Violence has again erupted in Kashmir. 

More than ever, Islamabad seems determined to create problems for India in the Valley. And it is not covert anymore!

On the occasion of Pakistan’s Independence Day (August 14), the Pakistani High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit declared: “Struggle for independence will continue till Kashmir gets freedom; sacrifice of the people of Kashmir will not go in vain.”

He openly said: “We dedicate this year’s Independence day to struggle of Kashmir.”

A day later, in a speech from the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi counter-attacked and referred to Pakistan’s human rights abuses in Balochistan as well as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Modi hinted that if Pakistan continues to instigate demonstrations and strikes in the Kashmir Valley, India will be compelled to expose Islamabad elsewhere.

Let us be clear, as long as Pakistan exists, the situation will not stabilize and violence is bound to erupt from time to time.

Though not a final solution, a step could help localize the abscess: trifurcate J&K State into 3 parts, namely Jammu, Ladakh and the Valley.

It has been a long standing demand of the people of Ladakh (and Jammu as well) who do not want to have anything to do with the anti-India movement in the Valley.

A resolution passed by the All Religious Joint Action Committee (ARJAC) of Ladakh goes a long way in this direction.

The ARJAC leaders, including Tsewang Thinles, president, Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), Ashraf Ali Barcha, president, Anjuman Imamia and Sheikh Saif-ud-Din, president, Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam, demanded during a press conference, the Union Territory (UT) status for Ladakh. They remarked that since Independence, the mountainous region has always kept a special strong bond with the Union of India.

In a memorandum to the Prime Minister, the ARJAC explained that Ladakh was once an independent Himalayan kingdom: “The political history of Ladakh dates back to 930 A.D. when several small, sovereign principalities outlying the Western Himalayas were integrated and given a unified polity by Lha-Chen-Palgigon.”

The memorandum continues: “Ladakh as an independent kingdom gained political status during 15th–16th century when the Namgyal dynasty came into power;” this lasted until 1842 when General Zorawar Singh integrated Ladakh into the Dogra Empire. In October 1947, Ladakh acceded to India after Maharaj Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession for his State.

The ARJAC further points out that Ladakh has been linked to the Dogras (and Kashmir) for hardly 105 years: “Ladakh is fundamentally different from Kashmir in all respects – culturally, ethnically and linguistically. Over the years the successive governments of the State have adopted a policy of discrimination and subversion towards the region with the sole objective of stifling its people and marginalising its historical, religious and cultural identity.”

The ARJAC notes with some bitterness: “In the modern times, when the whole subcontinent has passed through the process of decolonisation to enjoy the fruits of national independence, we, the people of Ladakh, and our land still continue to suffer under the old concept of colonial administrative structure, which suited the imperial interests and feudal rulers under the name of the pseudo-State of Jammu & Kashmir.”

The ARJAC strongly affirms: “Nationalism remained a dominant ideological creed and became a rallying force among the Ladakhis to fight back the Pakistanis and the Chinese who made frequent bids of conquer our land in 1948, 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars. The jawans of Ladakh Scouts played an exemplary role in decisively foiling the enemy’s misadventures,” before concluding: “Our humble submission is that we are neither the problem nor part of any problem involving the state. Rather we are the solution. We firmly believe that all of us live only if India lives. Our commitment to patriotism is firm and unequivocal. Our people and soldiers have never hesitated to make supreme sacrifices in the discharge of their duties towards the country. We shall never fail the nation.”

The bifurcation (or trifurcation) would have other advantages not mentioned in the memorandum.
Today the Ladakh region has two districts, Leh and Kargil and two Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Ladakh (LAHDC) and Kargil.

Though Ladakh is India’s largest district, with ‘disputed’ borders and two belligerent neighbours, it is administrated by a very junior officer.

The present District Commissioner (DC) Prasanna Ramaswamy is a young IAS officer from the 2010 batch. Without doubting his personal competence, such a border district with large numbers of Army and ITBP personnel posted in the area, makes it one of the most sensitive districts of the country.
Further, can only one officer visit the 19 blocks of Ladakh, some of the extremely remote? He can’t. As a result, some blocks have often been neglected.

Ladakh needs a special status; a Joint-Secretary rank officer or above should be posted in the district. Just think that the Army 14 Corps Commander responsible for Ladakh’s defence, is headed by an officer of Lieutenant General rank, with nearly 40 years of experience in the Indian Army. He deals with someone (the DC) who would be ranked a captain, or a major at the most, in the Army. Incidentally, the DC is also the Chief Executive Officer of the LAHDC, which makes the situation even more ridiculous.

The granting of Union Territory Status would solve many of these anomalies: a Lieutenant Governor representing the Center would sit in Leh (or Kargil) and a Chief Secretary would head the administration. Further, the elected MLAs and Ministers would not depend on the mood of Srinagar to develop the Union Territory.

Last but not least, it will probably force China to clarify its position vis-à-vis Ladakh.

Beijing has always been ambiguous on Kashmir and Ladakh.

In July 2016, Beijing called for a “proper settlement of Kashmir clashes”, Under the pretence of neutrality, China’s position on Kashmir has indeed conveniently remained extremely hazy.

Defence analyst Monika Chansoria recently pointed out: “Nothing could be further from the truth than this duplicitous and outrageous statement [about neutrality]. In fact, Beijing has shifted its position on Kashmir, gradually, yet firmly, with each passing decade. Recall China’s response during the 1999 Kargil conflict with its commitment to a policy of neutrality, which compelled the Nawaz Sharif government, who was already under immense international pressure, to look for an honourable retreat from Kargil.”
Remember the issue of stapled visas for the J&K’s State subjects?

Another issue is Beijing’s refusal to reopen the Demchok-Tashigong road to Kailash-Manasarovar. It is the fastest and easiest route for pilgrims wanting to visit the Holy Mountain. Beijing does not want the route to be reopened, because they would not be ‘neutral’ anymore and would have to recognize the fact that Ladakh is part of India (by setting up a custom house at the border for example).

Already back in 1954, when India and China were negotiating the Panchsheel Agreement, China adamantly refused to acknowledge, let alone reopen the Demchok route, simply because it considered and probably considers Ladakh a ‘disputed territory’.

The reopening of the ancient pilgrim route would be a great Confidence Building Measure (CBM) between India and China, but perhaps Beijing is not ready to give up the ‘disputed territory’ label for Ladakh.

Making Ladakh a Union Territory would (peacefully) kill many birds with one stone; it would help localized the so-called Kashmir issue in the Valley; it would provide a better administration to the mountainous region, streamline the security of the area and force China to drop its ‘neutrality’ stance.

But where is the political will?


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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