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February 3, 2023 11:24 pm

Magsaysay Award Winning Ladakh Activist: ‘We Were Better Off With J&K’

SONAM Wangchuk, Ladakh’s top environmentalist and innovator, said on Friday that anger is brewing in the cold desert, where cases are being filed against people for even expressing their opinion on the rising prices of essential commodities.

Wangchuk, an engineer-turned education reformer observed a five-day climate fast at 18,380 feet high Khardung La Pass from January 26 to invite attention of the BJP-led Central government on the demand of sixth schedule of the Indian constitution for Ladakhis.

A recipient of the Magsaysay Award in the year 2018, Wangchuk was awarded the seventh Dr Paulos Mar Gregorios Award by former Vice President Venkaiah Naidu in November last year.

On his last day of fast, Leh observed a half day bandh to support Wangchuk. Later a massive rally was held in Leh in support of the demands for various safeguards for Ladakh.

Wangchuk claimed that the administration placed him under house arrest at his institution and was asked to sign the bond under Section 107 CRPC to ensure that he wouldn’t make any statement or participate at public meetings for a month.

On 27 January, Wangchuk posted a video on Twitter accusing Ladakh Lieutenant Governor RK Mathur of sowing seeds of militancy in the region.

LG Sahib is dar pai toh mai kahunga ki aap bohat mehanat kar rehay hai Ladakh jaisi shant shetr mai be militancy ka beach boney kay liye…jis tara aapne nowjawano ko beroazgar rakha hai.. (LG sahib I must tell you that you are working hard to sow the seeds of militancy in an otherwise relatively calm region. The way you are keeping the youth unemployed…)” Wangchuk said in the video.

In a candid chat with Kashmir Observer, Wangchuk talks about his climate fast, emerging political scenario and the concerns of the people of the mountainous region.

Here are the excerpts

In a tweet, you said that all is not well in Ladakh? Can you please explain it?

See, mine was just a simple climate fast to press people’s demand in Ladakh for safeguarding the region under the sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution that grants considerable autonomy to tribal communities.

I wanted to spread awareness among the people of Ladakh and the country to adopt a lifestyle that is climate friendly. With this two-fold agenda, I planned to go to Khardung La Pass and observe the climate fast for five days. However, the UT administration restricted me to my institute.

Initially, I thought it wasn’t serious but then I found I have been put under house arrest that too unofficially. When I tried to move out, I was stopped and manhandled by Leh Police. All tactics were used to silence me.

Did Leh Police ask you to sign a bond? What was it about?

Yes, I was asked to sign a bond which says that I won’t make any statement or public appearance whatsoever. All this was aimed, to prevent my voice reaching social media. It was done with a purpose.

They could sense that with my voice in Khardung La pass, their own incompetence and mismanagement will come out because sixth schedule has been announced three years ago and nothing has been done.

They (BJP) kept it on their manifesto as the top agenda in two elections. But nothing was provided as promised.

Did Leh police give you the house arrest warrant?

No they didn’t. This is the tactics the administration used—to put me under house arrest, unofficially. I observed the five-day-long fast at my institution at -20 degrees. I am the director of the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL).

Do you apprehend a Kashmir like situation in Ladakh?

Anything is possible here now. The way they deal with things, it is becoming a Banana Republic. People are slapped with FIRs merely for saying oil and food is expensive. Some youth shouted slogans for the sixth scheduled, three of them were rounded up by police.

But why do you want Ladakh under the sixth schedule of the constitution? Aren’t you happy with UT status?

Well, yes. The people of Ladakh were happy with the Union Territory status. This was a long pending demand but people were expecting a UT with legislature. The safeguards that were there with Article-370 are no longer there.

I think we were safe with the early arrangement. But since it is no longer there, people are looking for a sixth schedule which is given on the basis of tribal population. Since Ladakh has a 95 percent tribal population, it very much falls under the sixth schedule of the constitution.

Initially, the government assured people of it. However, they later backtracked and have now even stopped talking about it. Now, the situation has come when they consider it a crime if anyone is talking about it. They lodge FIR against the people who remind them about their promises.

Are you trying to say that you were better off with the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir?

Yes, we were happy with Jammu and Kashmir. But Ladakh always wanted to become a separate entity that would take care of the people in its own context.

See, Ladakh is another planet compared to Kashmir or Delhi. So, in that way we were always looking forward. However, the safeguards that these mountains need were there when we were with Jammu and Kashmir. And now, we are looking at the alternative that is in the sixth schedule.

How is the present political situation in Ladakh?

Let me tell you the whole Ladakh has got united. There is no party, no religion, and no community that doesn’t support the sixth schedule. BJP introduced this idea, kept it in their election manifesto but unfortunately they later backtracked.

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Auqib Javeed

Auqib Javeed is special correspondent with Kashmir Observer and tweets @AuqibJaveed