Smarting from bureaucracy’s ‘ascendancy’ in Ladakh, Hill Council members cry foul

On January 26, the councillors of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC)-Leh boycotted the Republic Day function. While the trigger for their move was that they were denied entry into the event’s venue at Leh through the VIP gate, the councillors also alleged that it betrayed a continued bid to undermine the elected Leh and Kargil Hill Councils in Ladakh.

The councillors of both the LAHDC-Leh and the LAHDC-Kargil say that since the declaration of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory following the bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two UTs (J&K and Ladakh) in August 2019, the bureaucracy has been getting increasingly more powerful, allegedly encroaching into their jurisdiction and disempowering public representatives like them.

“Since Ladakh was turned into a UT, the bureaucracy is ruling here,” says Nasir Hussain Munshi, an elected councillor from the LAHDC-Kargil. “They (bureaucrats) are interfering in everything. The voice of the elected representatives has been stifled, it has become a cry in the wilderness.”

Munshi charges that the undermining of the elected institutions by the bureaucracy has been the key grievance of the councillors from across the political and regional spectrum of Ladakh. A BJP councillor from the party-ruled LAHDC-Leh, Sonam Nubroo, who represents Sku-Markha, agrees with him.

“I also think we are being neglected,” says Nubroo. “We have no respect. We used to enjoy whatever little protocol there was for us but now there is no protocol. We thought we would be empowered but we have been undermined.”

Konchak Stanzin, an independent councillor of the LAHDC-Leh from Chushul, blamed the Ladakh administration for empowering the bureaucrats “so much that the elected institutions have been eroded”. “The show is run by the bureaucrats,” Stanzin charges. “We have only one elected institution here but even that is not being allowed to work properly.”

The LAHDC-Leh’s Chief Executive Councillor (CEC) and senior BJP leader, Tashi Gyalson says what happened on the Republic Day was “unfortunate”, but says it was not deliberate.

“There are a few issues. One of them is that the warrant of precedence for the councillors and the business rules have not been set. In its absence, everything is hotchpotch,” he says. “The warrant of precedence needs to be set. There is a need to streamline it and strengthen the LAHDC Act. The Union Home Minister has assured us of that.”

While the councillors cutting across party lines are united for the cause of empowered Hill Councils in both Leh and Kargil, there does not seem to be a consensus among them on the demand for a separate statehood for Ladakh that first emanated from Kargil.

“The statehood for Ladakh is our biggest demand. It started from Kargil and then Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) discussed it with the Apex Body of Leh and they agreed with us,” says Munshi, who is with the Congress. “If small-sized Sikkim can be a state, why can’t Ladakh be a state. We are strategically important. We have a vast geography and our border connects with China and Pakistan”.

The Apex Body of Leh and the KDA are separate groups of political, social, religious, trade and cultural organisations of Ladakh’s two districts, Buddhists-dominated Leh and Muslims-dominated Kargil, respectively. They were formed last year to push the demand for Ladakh’s statehood and constitutional safeguards for its people under 6th Schedule.

The changed domicile policy in J & K is perceived to have raised fears in the Ladakh region, which does not have its Legislature, about its own land, employment, demography, and cultural identity. The residents of Ladakh have observed shutdowns a couple of times since August last year over the demand for statehood and 6th Schedule.

Munshi says their demands include an additional Lok Sabha seat for Ladakh and safeguards for locals in land and jobs. “We have only one parliamentary seat in Ladakh, which often leads to communalisation of elections. We demand another seat so that we have one each for Leh and Kargil,” he says. “There has been no word from the administration on the safeguards in land and jobs for locals.”

Gyalson disagrees with Munshi, dismissing his pitch as the “Opposition tantrum”. “Do we have the resources to run a state?” he asks. “These are the issues created by the Opposition. We have safeguards for land and jobs. We have the ‘Resident of Ladakh’ certificate for locals and only they can be appointed in government jobs here.”

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