India’s Youngest Union Territory: Speaking With Those Who Have ‘Skin In The Game’ But Addresses Outside Ladakh 

by Sumati Mehrishi - Sep 3, 2019 09:48 PM +05:30 IST
India’s Youngest Union Territory: Speaking With Those Who Have ‘Skin In The Game’ But Addresses Outside Ladakh Holy flags 
  • Ladakh gets the status of a Union Territory. Ladakhis outside Ladakh feel a sense of achievement and relief.

    But a destination once reached at is only a milestone.

The revoking of Article 370 and 35A in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) came as a surprise to many Ladakhis living outside Ladakh. To Dorje Nawang, a restaurant owner in New Delhi's Budh Vihar, it has brought a sense of closure.

Among many Ladakhis, who stood up for the long-standing demand of the bifurcation of Ladakh from J&K, was one of his brothers.

Nawang recalls the fateful day of year 1992. "He was shot in the middle of the street."

The day is pinned in his memory. He adds, "the Ladakh agitation, which we had grown up hearing about, and seeing, was peaking again. My brother was a part of it." Nawang takes a slow gulp. "The special forces were sent to Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir. They shot those who were agitating for identity."

According to Nawang, Ladakhis had long endured the struggle to see Ladakh unstrapped from J&K. The agitation was meant to free Ladakh from the ‘step motherly treatment’ it got, a scenario which was decades old then.

He adds, "we wanted to be directly linked with the Centre. It was about our aspiration, thought, lives and being. When they took a budget from the central government, it would be for three regions, they did not distribute well to our region. They did it majority wise."

Being a Ladakhi living outside Ladakh suddenly seems to have acquired a deeper meaning for Nawang. He left Ladakh and came to Delhi 16 years ago and his interest in his home, the new Union Territory (UT), and its path here on, is shooting. But amidst all this, his sense of freedom occupies other emotions. "We became educational refugees in our own country," he adds. The feeling is personal. It is deeply cultural.

Since 5 August, when Ladakh was announced a UT in Parliament, Nawang is occupied with the present. "Ladakh is a UT without legislature. We wish it was a UT with legislature. At the moment, we are thankful that it is directly under the Union of India."

For many people who are non-Ladakhis, the meaning of Ladakh was not restricted to the region alone. For them, Ladakh is an emotion and region which serves as the most spectacular gateway and destination for followers of Buddhism and Buddhist culture. In particular, those people, who remain separated from Tibet for two generations or more, now.

A Boon For Buddhist Culture

Ladakh has so far offered non-Ladakhis connected to Ladakh, an emotional tie with three inherent aspects, largely: Buddhism, Tibet and their collective cultural heritage. The cultural engagement is set to grow.

One of these people is Gyaltsen Wangchuk, a Tibetan, whose parents came to India in 1959. Wangchuk lives in Budh Vihar, New Delhi. He says. "I am a refugee and will remain one and we have nothing to say politically about the new developments in Ladakh. Culturally, we are very similar to Ladakh and Ladakhis (laughs). I am happy for the Ladakhis. They were unwillingly tied to the state of Jammu and Kashmir."

Wangchuk sees the new development as a tangible and favourable factor for the strengthening of Buddhist culture in the region, especially, in India's current cultural and political scenario.

He puts it clearly, "Buddhism is the sister faith of Hinduism. Ladakh in the West and Arunachal Pradesh in North East make solid milestones for India as a nation. Both are what they are because Buddhism and its culture have been strong here."

Some distances are longer than they seem. Buddhist teacher Karma Rigzin had visited Tibet only in pictures. Then, roughly a decade ago, he got a chance to visit Ladakh. "It felt as if I had seen a glimpse of Tibet in Ladakh. Bilkul waisa hee jaisa maine pictures mein dekha tha." In Ladakh, he was immersed in learning and teaching at the gumphas. "It was a chance to see our culture thriving in Ladakh." Rigzin has Tibetan roots.

Wangchuk's views align with Rigzin's. He adds, "Ladakh has enriched Buddhist culture and travels of scholars and Bodh bhikshus. It was important for the Ladakhis, especially the Buddhist Ladakhis to be in a separate UT and free from their political past."

Rigzin lives in Dehradun, where he teaches, among many other visiting and resident students from different parts of India, students from Ladakh.

He shares his observation on Ladakhis who visit the monastery in Dehradun. "As a teacher I have noticed that students from Ladakh are humble, very focused on studies, but less aware in the worldly sense. More attention to their education in Ladakh will improve things."

Balti Shoots And Roots

The terrain of Ladakhi emotion seems to have widened for Senge H Sering even more after the political development in India on 5 August. He is president, Institute of Gilgit Baltistan Studies in Washington DC. It has widened beyond the expanse of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Sering is an activist who advocates for reunification of Gilgit-Baltistan with Bharat. He says, "I always see Balti and Ladakhi as one family."

His engagement with the culture of Ladakh and his interest in India's new UT, involves more than just the metaphor of ‘home’.

Sering mentions Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in his Twitter bio. What does he make of the emotional connection with Ladakh in his understanding of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam? He writes on email, "it is based on cultural as well as political legacies."

Sering speaks in favour of Ladakh becoming a UT. According to him, it will help decrease deprivation and marginalisation among Ladakhis. "They will have better access to services and investments that other Indians enjoy. They will have a better sense of equality and respect in their country. So, it is a positive step towards realisation of being part of a family since a true family treats all its members equal."

Sering adds, "Baltis are an offshoot of Ladakhis. We both are ethnic blend of Indians with Tibetans... Baltistan was part of Ladakh Wazarat before Partition. Skardo was the winter capital of Ladakh Wazarat. Gilgit-Baltistan is part of the northern province of J&K and equal stakeholders in the issue."

There is common ground that the people of Ladakh and people of GB share. Sering's emotion for Ladakh rests on that. "About 35 per cent of indigenous GB population claims a racial and cultural identity that is aligned with Ladakhi or Tibetan cultural identity. Our cuisine, language, script, dress code, music and dances, and harvest festivals are similar," Sering adds.

According to Sering, Ladakhis enjoying constitutional rights in India and the establishment of UT is adding to the autonomy of the region in true meaning.

Does Ladakh's new status have an impact on people of GB?

He adds, "people of GB have suffered a lot due to lack of constitutional rights. They now expect better treatment and rights from Pakistani rulers who have spent last seven decades abusing local resources, and treating local people as subjects of a colony."

The Language Glue

As a cultural activist, Sering's focus was on Balti script (Yige). "It is similar to Ladakhi or Bodyig," he adds. As a student activist the focus of Gyatso (goes by his first name for us), who is a lawyer by training and an aspiring entrepreneur by choice, was on Bhoti language. The long standing demand of Bhoti to be included in the 8th schedule of the Indian Constitution was, according to Gyatso, a necessary intervention marking their fight for identity in the recent years.

Sering is not an Indian. Gyatso is. Their concern for Ladakh's script and language heritage binds their regional and cultural identity.

The Scepticism

Barely hours after Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced the revoking of Article 370 and 35A in Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh Member of Parliament Jamyang Tsering Namgyal's Facebook page reeled under mixed reactions. Amidst a spurt of celebrations, were several posts raising concerns on what the political turn would draw to the new UT and its terrain.

Among the top concerns were: Ladakh becoming a UT without legislature; the influx of outsiders, effects on the environment and terrain, (anticipated) aggressive investment by outsiders and the impact of the resulting development; rise in tourist activity. Many fear the heavy littering in parts of Ladakh, including the Nubra Valley. As a Ladakhi student living in Chandigarh put it: "Darr hai ki Dilli jaisa ban jayega (the fear is that it will become like Delhi)."

Ladakhis have doubts regarding the status of the locals. Gyatso adds, "the major concern after Ladakh becoming UT is that it would bring lots of people from outside. And that there would be so much direct investment that the people who are owners currently will become labourers."

Next. Jobs. Sonam Angmo, a student at Panjab University, Chandigarh, feels that the job scene will become more complicated for Ladakhis in their own land.

What's the premise of her doubt? "A lack of confidence. I don't think that Ladakhis are confident enough to compete with outsiders when it comes to securing new job opportunities in a new UT. It will be difficult for us locals now to go back and get jobs there. The absence of legislature will make it worse."

In the midst of doubts being raised by young Ladakhis on the issue last year, Gyatso came across a unique thought from an 80-year-old fellow Ladakhi when he and some other students interviewed a set of Ladakhis.

Gyatso adds, "the 80-year-old man, among these people we interviewed, said that all states in India see people from other states living and working there. It doesn't mean that locals will vanish. Punjabi gayab toh nahin ho gaye Punjab se, he said. You don't see locals vanishing from Bangalore." Gyatso feels that it is upon Ladakhis how they take the change.

To Ladakh To Serve Ladakh

According to Gyatso, the Ladakhi students’ union in Chandigarh, which kept the momentum of Ladakhi demands and agitation for a separate UT, has recognised the needs for Ladakhis in the new scenario.

For the changes and grass-root planning, they place their trust in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council and its functioning.

These are: a multi-speciality hospitality in Leh (as also requested by MP Namgyal in Parliament), health facilities, better schools, better higher education avenues, and cheaper air fares among others.

According to students Swarajya spoke to, most young Ladakhis prefer to return to Ladakh for work, owing to living expenses outside Ladakh and distance from dear ones.

From being treated as 'foster children' of the region, these Ladakhis now want to become the real nourishers and change-makers of the new Ladakh.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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