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'If a Congress government comes, we have a lot of hope'

By Anjali Ojha
May 17, 2024 12:34 IST
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‘If the BJP does not change its stand, we will hope that those who are in favour of protecting Ladakh come to power.’

IMAGE: Sonam Wangchuk, engineer turned educational reformist, calls off his hunger strike in Leh, Ladakh, March 26, 2024. The hunger strike was for the statehood of Ladakh and the protection of the fragile Himalayan ecology. Photograph: ANI Photo

In March this year, Leh, known for its breathtaking landscapes and monasteries, made headlines as climate activist Sonam Wangchuk led a 21-day fast in sub-zero temperatures seeking autonomy for Ladakh.

Thousands joined the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner whose life inspired actor Aamir Khan's character Rancho in Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots.

After ending his fast on March 26, Wangchuk began a sit-in which was called off on May 10 in view of the Lok Sabha elections.


Though the government did not accede to the protesters' demands for statehood for Ladakh and its inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, Wangchuk says the movement is anything but over.

"On one hand, land is going to corporations and on the other hand, China is capturing our land, thousands of square kilometres of land. People of the country need to understand our pain," Wangchuk told PTI.

"The Sixth Schedule is required to protect the mountains, glaciers and ecology. Though it is required in the whole country, mountains are ultra-sensitive. The use and throw philosophy of the present times, whether it is a plate or a river or a glacier... we don't want it for Ladakh or the nation," he said.

Wangchuk said that locals are concerned that in the absence of safeguards, their lands will be taken over by corporates and outsiders who may not respect the environment in the ecologically sensitive Himalayan region.

"These glaciers are the source of water. This is Dev Bhoomi, you cannot pollute it," he added.

The Sixth Schedule contains provisions related to the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram through autonomous district councils (ADCs).

The ADCs are granted autonomy on legislative, judicial and administrative matters and can make laws regarding land, forest, water and agriculture, etc.

The climate activist said the inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule will ensure that corporates have to ask the people before doing anything with the mountains and rampant development will be stopped.

Asked how he feels after his fast, Wangchuk said, "Better than before. Fasting never hurts."

After the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, Wangchuk was among those who had welcomed Ladakh getting the status of a Union territory.

However, his view has changed now.

"We supported the abrogation of Article 370 because Ladakh was reduced to being a district of Jammu and Kashmir.

"Ladakh wanted to be a state or Union territory, which could not happen due to Article 370 as the Union government could not do that. So people thought Ladakh would have its own existence now and it was welcomed," he said.

At the same time, there was concern regarding preservation of the environment and sensitive ecology of Ladakh, Wangchuk said.

"The government came forward and assured that they will protect us under the Sixth Schedule," he said.

The BJP had also promised safeguards under the Sixth Schedule in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2020 Hill Development Council polls, he said.

"First they went cold on the issue, then they went back on their word, so we had to... (launch) an agitation," he said.

After almost 10 meetings, the government said "we can't give anything", he claimed.

The activist cited the example of a 10 GW solar power project planned for the Pang region of Changthang that will be spread over an area of 20,000 acres.

The land earmarked for the project is pasture land where locals graze their Pashmina goats which produce the most expensive wool in the world, he said.

"Hundreds of square kilometres of pastures -- I am talking about an area as big as Delhi -- is being given to Solar Energy Corporation of India without discussing with the people," he claimed.

Suggesting that the Union government is probably under "pressure" from corporate lobbies, he said, "We felt we also need to build pressure so that there is a balance. If a deal has been struck, only a change of government can change things."

"Whether the government changes or the government changes its thoughts, we will continue with our movement so that the deal is cancelled," he said.

A 'Pashmina March' that was announced during the recent protests was later called off.

Wangchuk said the march was called off as their point was proved by the restrictions imposed by the administration against the march and they did not want any clashes with the police.

"They imposed so many restrictions, imposed Section 144 (of the Code of Criminal Procedure) and threatened to cut off the internet, so we felt what we wanted to prove was done while we were sitting here. The government does not want us to show the truth to the nation," he said.

Wangchuk hopes that a new government would fulfil Ladakhis' demands.

"If a Congress government comes, we have a lot of hope. If the BJP does not change its stand, we will hope that those who are in favour of protecting Ladakh come to power," he said.

If needed, Wangchuk is ready to keep fighting.

"Ladakh is the crown of India. We do not want to protest again... But if there is a need, we will sit on protest again," he added.

Ladakh goes to polls in the fifth round of seven-phase Lok Sabha elections on May 20. 

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Anjali Ojha in Leh
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