As India takes direct control of Ladakh, locals wary of outsiders

Kargil’s Muslims resent scrapping of Kashmir’s autonomy while Buddhists welcome move but seek protection for locals.

People celebrating the formation of Union Territory of Ladakh on October 31 in main market Leh, when the Indian government’s decision was officially implemented in Jammu and Kashmir.
People celebrating the formation of Union Territory of Ladakh on October 31 in main market Leh, when the Indian government’s decision was officially implemented in Jammu and Kashmir [Al Jazeera]

Leh/Kargil, Indian-administered Kashmir – The Indian government’s decision to revoke Indian-administered Kashmir‘s autonomy on August 5 was met with mixed reaction in one part of the Himalayan region – Ladakh.

People in Buddhist-majority Leh district cheered New Delhi’s decision to scrap Kashmir’s special rights and bifurcate the region into two federally administered territories.

In Leh, people are happy that their long demand to be separated from Indian-administered Kashmir was finally met, but there is a guarded fear the region might be overwhelmed with tourism and outsiders.

The August 5 decision also meant people from mainland India can now buy property in the two regions – Kashmir and Ladakh – but this has given rise to calls for safeguards for the local population.

Unlike Kashmir, Ladakh’s roads are not dotted with security bunkers and there are no checkpoints in the vast cold desert located about 5,730 metres (18,800 feet) above sea level. The military presence is mostly restricted to the border areas or confined to the camps.

The Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, on the other hand, has been under security lockdown for the past three months. Though some communication restrictions have been eased, the internet remains cut off as New Delhi fears it might be used by people to organise protests.

But the revocation of demographic safeguards has stoked fears in Leh region.

Sonam Wangchuk, a celebrated icon in Leh, the Buddhist-majority town, said the region’s sparse population of about 272,000 and ecology might be “affected forever if no efforts are made towards its protection”.

Wangchuk, whose most decorated innovation includes the creation of an ice stupa that he hopes will turn barren Ladakh into a pocket of green, has now tasked himself to defend the identity and ecological uniqueness of the area.

“This is a total shock for all Ladakhi people that we have been given no safeguards guaranteed to tribal areas,” the soft-speaking engineer said.

Wangchuk’s fears are rooted in New Delhi’s decision to abrogate Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status, which had protected the region from demographic changes by preventing outsiders from purchasing land and permanently settling in the Himalayan region.

“People with money will just rip it apart and consume it. Ladakhis will be worse than a minority,” he told Al Jazeera, adding the region should be given protection.

“If they delay then there will be irreversible damage. If something is not done soon, there will be more fear and some kind of organised expression,” he said.

A 72-year-old retired forest official, Tsering Tondup, called the new changes in property ownership “unacceptable”.

“People own a little bit of land here and if that is also taken what will be our identity?” he said. “We demand a law that safeguards our land rights.”

Ladakh also sits on a razor’s edge as it is the only place in the world where three nuclear-armed countries – India, Pakistan and China – share their borders.

While India and Pakistan fought a limited war in Ladakh’s Kargil 20 years ago, the Leh region in recent years has also seen standoffs between Indian and Chinese soldiers.

Emotional disconnect

Ladakh’s emotional disconnect and geographical distance from Kashmir has kept it isolated from the widespread anti-India sentiment prevalent in the Muslim-majority region. The mighty Himalayas have acted as a barrier between the two regions.

On Thursday, when the Indian government implemented its decision to bring Ladakh directly under federal rule, icy winds were sweeping across Leh as residents celebrated the event they had aspired for years. But concerns loomed, too.

Skarma Tsering Dehlex, 51, runs a luxury hotel in Leh. He said the people of Leh felt discriminated earlier when the region was part of the now state of Jammu and Kashmir – the official name of Indian-administered Kashmir.

“We are happy over the direct rule of central government,” Dehlex told Al Jazeera. “But we will resist any move that will make anyone from outside to settle their business here.”

Leh’s journey over the last 30 years has been in contrast to the Kashmir valley, where a raging armed rebellion unsettled the tourism industry and frequently scared away visitors.

Skarma Tsering Dehlex, 51, who runs a luxury hotel in main town of Leh.
Skarma Tsering Dehlex, 51, runs a luxury hotel in main town of Leh [Al Jazeera]

As Kashmir became volatile, Leh remained an island of calm and became a tourist hotspot that attracted a steady flow of high-spending foreign tourists.

The increased footfall of tourists, however, has worried local people.

‘Fragile ecology’

Dehlex, who has been in the business for the past 30 years, cautioned the “fragile ecology” 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 outside to come here. We have a limited infrastructure and our sensitive environment cannot handle more rush. The ecology needs caring for nature which people have been doing and others may not do,” he said.

Padma Namgiyal, a 24-year-old student, said he was concerned for the environment if safeguards are not put in place.

“We do not want such development where new factories will be set up here. We do not want pollution here,” she said. “This place is right now known for clean environment and freshness of its air to breathe. We do not want more urbanisation.”

Most people Al Jazeera spoke to expressed concerns for the fragile ecology and its unique cultural identity.

‘Religious polarisation’

A five-hour road journey across barren mountains on a 200-km (124.3-mile) highway leads to Kargil, another sparsely populated district of Ladakh where Shia Muslims have long struggled to balance their sympathies.

Kargil is situated along the ancient silk route and was a major transit point along the road that took merchants on a continental journey across different cultures and cities.

India and Pakistan fought their last war in Kargil that lasted for nearly three years and brought the two arch-rivals to the brink of nuclear disaster.

People in the region have been aghast at New Delhi’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status. They held demonstrations and observed lengthy shutdowns registering their displeasure against the government’s move.

“We never demanded a separate union territory. We never wanted the division of the state, but our voice was never heard,” said Nasir Munshi, the general secretary of newly formed Kargil Joint Action Committee, a group fighting the abrogation of Article 370, which granted autonomy to the region with a population of nearly 130,000.

“The decision has been imposed on us and we will not accept it. They are cutting our eyes, our ears and our tongue. Everything is being snatched from us to bring demographic changes,” he told Al Jazeera.

Kargil town is a frontier district with small homes perched on mountain slopes. It is also home to the second-coldest inhabited town on Earth.

Muslim-majority district of Kargil in Ladakh which remains cut off during winters due to its mountainous roads that remain buried under heavy snow.
Kargil in Ladakh remains cut off during winters because of mountainous roads buried under heavy snow [Al Jazeera]

The people lack facilities such as hospitals, schools, or employment opportunities. Residents have to travel about 200km to reach Srinagar, the main city of Kashmir, for advanced medical treatment.

Kaneez Fatima, 35, a mother of two from Kargil town, said the central government always ignored them “for being Muslims”.

“Our people were on the forefront to help during Kargil’s war, but still we are not looked on as Indians. We have faced discrimination always. For decades, we have been fighting for an airport but we have none yet,” she said.

“In winters, we get disconnected from the world for six months and our voices get buried, too. If we do not resist now, our voice will be erased forever.”

Source: Al Jazeera