Ladakh: The Writing Was On The Wall
14 February 2006
The Indian Express
Jammu: The recent communal flare-up in Ladakh is the worst of its kind in the region known for its long history of communal harmony. After communal incidents in Kargil and Leh-headquarters of Muslim majority and Buddhist majority districts-the situation got out of hand and the Army had to called in. The communal trouble breaks the long record of amity in the state. Even during the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990 and the mass killings at Wandhama and Nandipora, local Muslims were not involved. The situation was the same in Jammu too, despite a series of militant attacks on Hindus. When India projected Jammu and Kashmir as a symbol of secularism and insisted that no solution would be considered which undermined its secular character, Ladakh was at the heart of its stand. When representatives of Northern Areas of Pakistan (Gilgit and Baltistan) had argued that their only link with the pre-1947 state of J&K was Ladakh and India repeatedly proposed opening of the Kargil-Skardu road for the divided families to meet, Pakistan resisted for fear that a secular Ladakh may be a source of inspiration for its discontented population. The current developments in this strategic territory may turn to Pakistan's advantage. But today's situation is not a sudden development that should take the powers that be unawares. Nobody took notice of the dangerous portents of the communal tension in Leh, when Buddhists held anti-Muslim demonstrations and observed a two-day hartal over the alleged kidnapping of two Buddhist girls by Muslim boys and its backlash among Shias of Kargil who held anti-Buddihist demonstrations and observed hartal in November? The complete communal polarisation was signalled in October in the results of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council elections, where the Union Territory Front, demanding separation of Leh from the state, won 25 seats with Buddhist support. The rival Congress won one, a Muslim candidate, from a Muslim majority constituency. Why no notice of the electoral verdict was taken? Today's communal clash in fact, is the culmination of trend to which the state government and government of India have been contributing-most probably intentionally-for years. To start with, Ladakh does not enjoy administrative status equal to Jammu and Kashmir. The state's Constitution treats it as a part of the Kashmir region. Unlike the other two regions which are administered by separate heads of departments and separate Divisional Commissioners and Inspectors Generals of Police, in case of Ladakh, all departmental heads are based in Srinagar. Ladakh's discontent has been simmering ever since the establishment of a popular government. Palliatives, tried from time to time, proved counterproductive. In 1978, it was divided into two districts. But without a common regional identity, the Buddhist and the Muslim majority districts of Leh and Kargil started drifting in divergent directions. Eventually in 1995, the Centre conceded internal autonomy to Leh. I had asked the then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao why he rejected the demand of autonomy for Ladakh as a whole and why he conceded it when it was made by Ladakh Buddhist Association for Leh district only. He insisted that his offer was for the whole region. I called the Home Secretary, who was also the Secretary for Kashmir Affairs on telephone, from the PM house, to clarify the position. He confirmed that the decision applied to Leh only. Evidently the Prime Minister was under the impression that Leh and Ladakh were synonymous. Later, however, a similar autonomous council was formed for Kargil by the Mufti-led government in 2002. But a common Ladakh regional council was conspicuously missing in the arrangement. It is also important to note that the much hyped powers of the two councils are less than those of the Zila Parishads under Panchayati Raj system. As the head of the government-appointed Regional Autonomy Committee, I had met the representatives of Leh and Kargil, who had unanimously accepted my proposal for a common regional authority, the president of which would rotate among the two districts. The state government rejected my report. The cumulative frustration of Buddhists took the form of a demand for an Union Territory status. The Muslims, too, despite their grievances against the state government, would not like to be ruled by a distant Delhi. It may be recalled that Ladakh was a rare region where inter-religious marriages were not uncommon before Independence. After the current crisis is diffused, a high level dialogue with the leaders of the two communities needs to be started to devise appropriate constitutional and political measures to restore age old harmony and a common regional personality in the context of a federal and decentralized set-up of the state, which alone can accommodate its diversities and ensure its unity.