After the sudden abrogation of special status under Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, and its bifurcation into two new union territories — one named Jammu and Kashmir, based in the west, and the eastern territory of Ladakh — there has been a lot of confusion in the region. What shape will the new union territories take and what will be their rights and protections? In September, famous Ladakhi Sonam Wangchuk, through his NGO, Himalayan Institute for Alternate Learning (HIAL), facilitated five different groups to visit other states with majority tribal populations and union territories so that Ladakhis can formulate a report and present their findings to the central government regarding what they want.
Rinchen Angmo, a Leh-based journalist and editor of Reach Ladakh, was part of the group that visited Meghalaya, as it is one of India’s tribal-majority states and under the national Sixth Schedule. Angmo shares what they did while they were in Meghalaya and meetings that have taken place after their return to Ladakh. She shared what demands Ladakhis could bring to the central government.
There were 21 delegates from different backgrounds. There were people from politics, religious backgrounds, lawyers, journalists, and social activists — people from all walks of life. These 21 people were divided into five groups to visit the three tribal states and two union territories. That included Meghalaya, Sikkim, and Assam in tribal states, and Andaman Nicobar Islands and Puducherry among union territories. Every group met different kinds of people everywhere.
In the northeastern state of Meghalaya, which falls under the Sixth Schedule, they met the chairman of KHADC (Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council). Angmo explains that they asked them how the hill council works here because Ladakh also has the same hill council. “What are the powers of [the hill council],” Angmo said they asked. “We met some activists also. We asked about the Sixth Schedule because our population is 98 percent tribal so we want to come under Sixth Schedule – so we asked about the loopholes,” explains Angmo.
The biggest loophole, according to their conversations, is with the paragraph that deals with land. There is no mention of the transfer of land so the experts suggested that Ladakhis make sure to insert that word into this paragraph. The clause that deals with mining is missing and it should be incorporated in that paragraph. One more loophole of the Sixth Schedule is that it neglects non-tribal minorities and women, which has been a talking point in Meghalaya as well.
Among other things, Angmo says she noticed that Meghalaya has kept its traditional systems alive. That was very good thing. There are traditional systems in Ladakh as well, but with time, they are degrading. “When we wrote the recommendation to the hill council, we were like they still have traditional systems and we can also revive ours.”
One of the most crucial talks was about natural resources in Ladakh. For example, there is uranium in Ladakh. So we asked in Meghalaya how is it going for them? They advised absolutely against it. “You should say no to mining because of its negative impact on people. Make sure you don’t get mining done there,” was the suggestion. That makes sense because there are a lot of unexplored regions in Ladakh.
Angmo says that right now we know that there is very good quality marble. These are the explored natural resources. Interestingly, the Khasi Autonomous Hill Development Council doesn’t have the power to say no or yes to mining. They can only negotiate a percentage of royalty. The power to say yes to mining is with the center. So a very important demand would be to make sure that Ladakhis don’t get mining done here and have a say in it.
Angmo also says that since Ladakh has a very fragile environment, so it might be easier to bring some laws. The carrying capacity of the state is very less, and so are the natural resources. There is one national park and two sanctuaries in Ladakh and most of the area is under that – so Angmo believes that they can bring in the Forest Law to protect from mining. Environmental laws can also be evoked since the region is way too fragile.
During their discussions, an expert said that Ladakh being the strategic place, with border with China and Pakistan, we can ask for special frontier front. There has been a complaint of lack of funds with the state government so Ladakhis plan to demand it now. Earlier, there were always talks about discrimination in distribution of funds regarding different regions in Jammu and Kashmir.
There is another major concern that the Ladakhis will have a namesake representation now. Earlier, in addition to a Ladakh Affairs department there was significant legislative representation. But now with granting of UT status, only one Member of Parliament is there. So there has to be a department which liaises between the centre and the local hill councils. Angmo indicates that they will ask for a proper department so that liaising can be done properly.
Other than that, Angmo shares that when they came back, they had meetings with the hill councils and shared their experiences. “We were back on September 12 and had a meeting with the hill council on September 15 and the main stakeholders in Leh. There were proper presentations in front of them.” Finally, according to Angmo, Ladakhis have consolidated all their demands and recommended it to the hill council.
She explains how this exposure tour was really beneficial for them. It was absolutely on time too. Now the recommendations have been sent and there have been meetings after that. There is an eight member committee that will submit the draft to the government by October 31. That comprises the chief executive counselor of Leh and Kargil too. After the meeting, the Leh Hill council and the Kargil Hill council had a meeting where both their demands were discussed. There has been a memorandum reached between the two.
According to Angmo, Kargil is with the UT and they are upset for having been wrongly put across. She says that in their delegation, there were delegates from Kargil.
Angmo once again emphasized how important and beneficial these study groups were, as it allowed them to meet diplomats, bureaucrats, and experts. The next step, Angmo explains, is that HIAL is planning that all the groups that went out should go to all the villages here in Meghalaya and create awareness. On September 22, HIAL in collaboration with the press club also conducted a public meeting with all the delegates that had gone out. There was experience-sharing and talking about loopholes. “Now we are planning to go to every village and block to share our experiences,” says Angmo.