November 2019 News

While India Takes Direct Control Of Ladakh, Locals Distrust Strangers

5 November 2019
al Jazeera
Matilda Coleman

Leh: The decision of the Indian government to revoke the autonomy of Kashmir administered by India on August 5 met with a mixed reaction in a part of the Himalayan region: Ladakh. People in the Buddhist district of Leh applauded New Delhi's decision to dismiss the special rights of Kashmir and fork the region into two territories administered by the federal government. In Leh, people are glad that their long demand to separate from Kashmir administered by India has finally been fulfilled, but there is a reserved fear that the region may be overwhelmed by tourism and outsiders. The August 5 decision also meant that people from mainland India can now buy property in both regions, Kashmir and Ladakh, but this has resulted in requests for safeguards for the local population. Unlike Kashmir, Ladakh roads are not dotted with security bunkers and there are no control points in the vast cold desert located about 5,730 meters (18,800 feet) above sea level. Military presence is mainly limited to border areas or limited to fields. The Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, on the other hand, has been under security closure for the past three months. Although some communication restrictions have been alleviated, the Internet is still cut since New Delhi fears that people can use it to organize protests. But the revocation of demographic safeguards has fueled fears in the Leh region. Sonam Wangchuk, an icon held in Leh, the Buddhist majority city, said that the region's small population of around 272,000 and the ecology could 'be affected forever if no efforts are made to protect it.' Wangchuk, whose most decorated innovation includes the creation of an ice stupa that he hopes will turn Ladakh into a green pocket, has now been charged with defending the identity and ecological uniqueness of the area. 'This is a total shock to all the people of Ladakhi because we have not been granted guarantees to tribal areas,' said the soft-spoken engineer. Wangchuk's fears are rooted in New Delhi's decision to repeal the special state of Kashmir administered by India, which had protected the region from demographic changes by preventing foreigners from buying land and permanently establishing themselves in the Himalayan region . 'People with money will simply tear it apart and consume it. The Ladakhis will be worse than a minority,' he told Al Jazeera, adding that the region should receive protection. 'If they are delayed, there will be irreversible damage. If something is not done soon, there will be more fear and some sort of organized expression,' he said. A 72-year-old retired forestry official, Tsering Tondup, described the new changes in ownership as 'unacceptable.' 'People own some land here and if that is also taken, what will be our identity?' he said. 'We demand a law that protects our land rights.' Ladakh is also on the razor's edge, as it is the only place in the world where three countries with nuclear weapons, India, Pakistan and China, share their borders. While India and Pakistan fought a limited war in Kargil de Ladakh 20 years ago, the Leh region in recent years has also seen clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers. Ladakh's emotional disconnection and Kashmir's geographical distance have kept him isolated from the widespread anti-Indian sentiment prevailing in the Muslim majority region. The powerful Himalayas have acted as a barrier between the two regions. On Thursday, when the Indian government implemented its decision to submit Ladakh directly to the federal government, icy winds hit Leh while residents celebrated the event they had been aiming for for years. But concerns also arose. Skarma Tsering Dehlex, 51, runs a luxury hotel in Leh. He said that the people of Leh felt discriminated before when the region was part of the now state of Jammu and Kashmir, the official name of Kashmir administered by India. 'We are happy with the direct government of the central government,' Dehlex told Al Jazeera. 'But we will resist any movement that causes someone outside to establish their business here.' Leh's trip over the past 30 years has been in contrast to the Kashmir valley, where a furious armed rebellion disrupted the tourism industry and frequently scared visitors. When Kashmir became volatile, Leh remained an island of calm and became a tourist spot that attracted a steady stream of foreign tourists who spent a lot. However, the increased presence of tourists has worried the local population. Dehlex, who has been in business for the past 30 years, warned that the 'fragile ecology,quot; of the mountainous region will be affected if there is more construction with the implementation of new laws. 'We do not want any hotel chain from abroad to come here. We have a limited infrastructure and our sensitive environment cannot withstand more troubles. Ecology needs to take care of nature, what people have been doing and others have not,' he said. Padma Namgiyal, a 24-year-old student, said he was concerned about the environment if safeguards are not implemented. 'We don't want such development where new factories will be installed here. We don't want pollution here,' he said. 'This place is now known for the clean environment and the freshness of its air to breathe. We don't want more urbanization.' Most of the people Al Jazeera spoke with expressed concern about the fragile ecology and its unique cultural identity. A five-hour road trip through barren mountains on a 200km (124.3-mile) road leads to Kargil, another sparsely populated district of Ladakh where Shia Muslims have long struggled to balance their sympathies. Kargil is located along the ancient Silk Road and was an important transit point along the road that took merchants on a continental journey through different cultures and cities. India and Pakistan fought their last war in Kargil, which lasted almost three years and brought the two archrivals to the brink of nuclear disaster. The people of the region were horrified by the revocation of New Delhi of the special status of Kashmir. They made demonstrations and observed long closures registering their dissatisfaction against the government measure. 'We never demanded a separate union territory. We never wanted the division of the state, but our voice was never heard,' said Nasir Munshi, general secretary of the newly formed Joint Action Committee Kargil, a group that fights against the repeal of Article 370, which granted autonomy to the region with a population of almost 130,000. 'The decision has been imposed on us and we will not accept it. They are cutting our eyes, ears and tongue. They are taking everything away from us to cause demographic changes,' he said. He told Al Jazeera. The city of Kargil is a border district with small houses perched on the slopes of the mountains. It is also home to the second coldest inhabited city on Earth. Kargil's majority Muslim district in Ladakh, which remains isolated during winters due to its mountainous roads that remain buried under snow. People lack facilities such as hospitals, schools or employment opportunities. Residents have to travel about 200 km to reach Srinagar, the main city of Kashmir, to receive advanced medical treatment. Kaneez Fatima, 35, the mother of two children from the city of Kargil, said the central government always ignored them 'for being Muslims.' 'Our people were at the forefront to help during the Kargil war, but we are not yet considered Indians. We have always faced discrimination. For decades, we have been fighting for an airport but we still don't have any,' he said. 'In winter, we disconnect from the world for six months and our voices are also buried. If we don't resist now, our voice will be erased forever.'