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The Rediff Interview/Thupstan Chhewang

J&K Votes


'No point in keeping Ladakh as part of J&K'

After nearly 36 years of repeated demands, the people of Ladakh were finally granted a special status in 1995. Though the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council fell short of the Union territory status they had been asking for, it was still the first time that some degree of autonomy was introduced in the predominantly Buddhist district.

The Ladakhis also discovered democracy for the first time -- during the first election, in 22 out 26 constituencies, the Congress candidate was elected unopposed.

Thupstan Chhewang, a young and dynamic leader was elected the first Chairman (or Chief Executive Councilor) of a Cabinet comprising four other executive councilors.

Today, Leh, the high altitude headquarters of the Himalayan district, is devoid of its usual foreign and Indian tourists. This is mainly due to the notice given by some foreign governments following the threat of a war between India and Pakistan. But while walking on the streets of Leh or visiting the gonpas (monasteries) one has the impression of the most peaceful place on earth.

Claude Arpi spoke to Chhewang about the Hill Council's achievements, the aspirations and frustrations of the people of Ladakh, the relation of Ladakh with India and the future of the erstwhile independent Buddhist kingdom.

Mr Chairman, today in Leh, we do not see many tourists. The prospect of a war and the notice issued by foreign governments has made guest houses, shops and restaurants empty. Will this badly affect the economy of Ladakh?

Certainly! Any incident happening, whether at the border between Kashmir and Ladakh or anywhere else in India effects the inflow of tourists into Ladakh. Of course, this time, there was a threat of war. As you know, foreign governments issued a notice banning their nationals from visiting this part of India. All Ladakhis related to the tourist trade are suffering.

In 1975, Ladakh was opened to tourism. The best year so far in terms of income from tourists was 1989. Unfortunately, in 1990, the Kashmir problem started. This has affected us very badly, because, although Ladakh has never been affected by terrorism, like the valley or some parts of Jammu, we are part of the Jammu & Kashmir state and people equate Ladakh with Kashmir.

It needed a lot of persuasion from our side to convince the foreign missions in Delhi that Ladakh, even if we are part of the same state, was completely free from acts of terrorism. Since then, the tourist inflow has been gradually increasing. Last year we had 25,000 foreign visitors and this year we were expecting to do better than in 1989.

After 10 days in Leh, I have the impression that it is the most peaceful place in India.

Yes, but this time there was a real threat, though on the ground you can hardly see it. Now the threat has receded and we hope many tourists will visit Ladakh.

What percentage of income is due to tourism?

It is difficult to say. As you may have seen, there is no scope for heavy industries or other economic developments in Ladakh, mainly due to geographic and climatic conditions. Subsistence agriculture has been, for many centuries, the main source of livelihood for Ladakhis. Tourism has been a good opportunity to supplement their income. It has a lot of potential.

But only a portion of the income due to tourism comes to the Ladakhis, because most of the tourists come through travel agents, based in Delhi or elsewhere. Even the crafts you can find in Leh come from outside and the shops are owned by Kashmiris or Tibetans. The local people only get profit indirectly. It is more the trekkers and the adventure-tourists who are spending directly in the villages and thereby profiting the local population.

Is one of the objectives of the hill council to develop your own cottage industries so that you do not have to import your crafts from Kashmir or Janpath (most of the crafts in the shops in Leh Bazar are similar to ones sold in Janpath, New Delhi)?

Definitely! In the old days the people of Ladakh along with subsistence agriculture had to produce what they needed. You realise that we had no road linkage with the rest of the country till 1962 (at the time of the Chinese aggression). During those days, every house was a cottage industry. We were producing what we needed. We had the skills and the training. But after this so-called modern development came to Ladakh, people became a bit more prosperous, mainly due to some government schemes and presence of the army which is the largest employer in Ladakh. The army is an important factor of our economy.

When people started to earn, this created a sort of dependency. We were poor, but self-sufficient, there was no starvation, but now though people have more income, they also have more expenses as now you can find any product under the sky. We definitively want to revive the old cottage industries, these products will be definitively liked by visitors. For this purpose, we take the help of NGOs.

For the past 5-10 years, there has been a change. For example natural food items are very popular but also souvenir items. We are also working on the quality of the products by providing training to improve the skills of the people.

Will the opening of new roads such as the tunnel under Rothang or the proposed direct road through Spiti to Tsomoriri help in the economic development of the region?

The construction of an all weather road linking Ladakh to the rest of India will definitively help. As you know, the two present national highways (Srinagar-Kargil-Leh and Manali-Kyelong-Leh) remain closed for 6-7 months in a year due to the high altitude mountain passes being blocked by snow. The passes open in June and are closed again by the end of October.

We have requested the Government of India to build an all-weather road through Spiti valley and Tsomoriri (in Ladakh). From the village of Khyber in Spiti to the tail end of our last road, there would only be 80 km to build and one pass at 18,000 feet to cross which like Kardung-la (the highest motorable pass in the world) could remain open the whole year. (Some passes due to their geographic position get much less snow than others and can therefore remain open during the winter).

The tunnel across the Rothang Pass which the prime minister has recently sanctioned is not going to serve our purpose, because it only links Manali to Lahaul valley. To reach Leh by that road, you have to cross 3 or 4 more passes which are blocked during the winter. It is not going to help us and the government is mistaken if they believe that Ladakh is going to be linked that way through winter. Another road linking Darcha in Lahaul district to Padung in Zanskar, is also being sanctioned. Again, it does not help our problems because this road will also go through heavy snowfall areas.

The only solution is the Spiti road which is itself linked to Simla during all the year through the Kinnaur road.

In 1995, after many years of agitation, Ladakh was granted a Ladakh Autonomous Development Hill Council (LAHDC). It was a compromise for the Ladakhis who had been asking for Union Territory (UT) status. After 7 years do you feel your expectations have been fulfilled and are they falling short of your aspirations?

It is very very short of what we had expected. We are still demanding UT status. We feel that the state of Jammu & Kashmir is composed of three distinct regions, Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh which have nothing in common. Ethnically they are different; their language and cultures are different, their needs and requirements are totally different. Even ecologically, we fall in a different zone.

We have been saying that Ladakh possesses all the norms to create a separate state, unfortunately because of the Kashmir issue with all its international ramifications, nobody is ready to consider our demands.

As you mentioned, as a compromise we accepted the LAHDC, but, though some powers have been delegated to the council, we are facing a lot problems in implementing decisions. Everything has to be routed through Kashmir. Until and unless, we are separated from Kashmir, our problems will not be addressed and solved. There is no point is keeping Ladakh as part of Jammu and Kashmir.

We shall continue to try to convince the GOI and the government in Srinagar. For the time being, they are telling us that because of Article 370, there is no provision for the division of the state. But we have pointed out that there are also protests in Jammu which wants a separate state. Ultimately, there has to be some kind of reorganisation of the state. There is the need for three distinct political entities; otherwise the people will never be satisfied, their demands as well as their needs and requirements will not be fulfilled.

Today, the political scene in the state is dominated by the Kashmir valley.

When people talk about Kashmir, they do not think about Ladakh, they do not also think about Jammu, although in terms of area, Ladakh alone is more than 2/3 of the state. In terms of population, the regions of Jammu and Ladakh together are more important than the valley, so how can the government continue to neglect these two regions of the state?

They (the government) only has this kind of policy to appease the majority of the valley which are Muslim. So, something has to be done. Unless and until the problems of Jammu and Ladakh are taken into consideration, there will be no solution. But it is a complex issue.

Both regions (Ladakh and Jammu) have had their own separate agitation, for example, the Jammu agitation led by Shyama Prasad Mookherjee in the early 50s and your own agitation led by the Ladakh Buddhist Association. Have both movements ever been linked?

No, never! Historically, Ladakh was an independent kingdom till 1836, when it was invaded and annexed to the Dogra state of Jammu. In 1947, when India was granted independence, we were part of the principality of Jammu and Kashmir. It is how we became part of the Jammu and Kashmir state.

At the time of partition, the people of Ladakh approached the maharaja and later (in 1949), they approached the Indian prime minister with the same demand: we do not want to be part of the Jammu and Kashmir state. We wanted Ladakh to be directly administered by Delhi. We already had an apprehension that Ladakh would be discriminated against by the Kashmiris and it has happened now for the past 40 years. At that time already, our leaders had asked that Ladakh should be considered as a separate unit, but once the Kashmir issue became an international issue, we have been used as scapegoats.

Ladakh is today kept as part of the state to balance the demand of the valley for azadi, but it is at the cost of the aspirations of the people of Ladakh.

What is your position vis--vis Article 370?

It is definitively not needed. Same opportunities should be given to all, why to create a special status for one state? It can only encourage similar forces in other areas such as the Northeast or elsewhere where people are demanding solutions outside the Constitution of India. But, of course, there is a need in a federal system of a democratic set up to empower the people, but it has to be uniform.

Why should we have two flags in the same country? Or if you give this to Kashmir, you should also give the same kind of power or status to other states. You cannot have a different set of rules for one state only, it will encourage people in other states to agitate for the same thing.

Article 370 has to be abrogated and in fact, it could bring the people of Kashmir in the mainstream. It has separated Kashmir from the rest of the country.

Will your case have more weight if you were to combine your demands with Jammu?

Of late, there were efforts to have a common platform, but Jammu is a divided lot. Leaders have diverse opinions and they have other preoccupations, while in Ladakh it has been a concerted effort since 1947/48. The demand has been persistent.

But definitively, if Jammu, Ladakh and the other minorities in the state which share this sense of discrimination, could come together and have a common platform, it would be more forceful. They are some efforts in this direction.

'The state government does not want us to be effective'

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