'It is flabbergasting to think that this heavenly region has, for decades, been coveted by India's aggressive neighbours,' says Claude Arpi after a recent visit to Ladakh.
'Wanting to use the newly created infrastructure to defend the borders after the clash of 2020 with China and the resulting standoffs, the home ministry is keen to boost border tourism to show that these areas are controlled by India.'
Twenty-one years ago, I visited Ladakh for the first time.
I had then reported for Rediff.com: '...it is imperative not to forget Ladakh's special location: It is the only region in India facing two enemies -- the Chinese 'Liberation Army' on the high plateau of Aksai Chin and Linzinthang in the north, with Tibet in the west and Pakistan in the east. The region is also the scene of battle for the strategic Siachen glacier.'
At that time, very few tourists could visit The Land of the Passes.
Since then, Ladakh has changed and this for several reasons.
But before looking at the reasons for the transformation of the mountainous region, it is worth looking at what remains unchanged: The beauty of the landscape, the snowy peaks in the horizon, the tumultuous flow of the rivers (the Indus in Leh), the majestic renovated gompas and the gentleness of the local Ladakhis.
One understands that for a visitor all this can be assimilated to Paradise on Earth.
Abrogation of Article 370
Constitutionally, today Ladakh is different; in 2002, I had written: 'One of the main hurdles was the existence of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution: The concurrence of the state assembly where the valley has the majority is required for any change, however minor.'
This finally happened in August 2019, when the President of India issued an order overriding the prevailing 1954 Presidential Order and nullifying all the provisions for a special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370.
The home minister introduced a Reorganisation Bill in Parliament, seeking to divide the state into two Union territories: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, ruled by a lieutenant governor and a unicameral legislature (in the case of J&).
This was a turning point, though perhaps not the first; December 25, 2009 saw another important event for Ladakh, but of other type; a film 3 Idiots, starring Aamir Khan was released.
It recounted in two parallel stories (one in the present and the other set ten years earlier), the friendship of three students of an engineering college; it is a deep satire of the social pressures under the Indian education system.
It was a huge commercial success and made Ladakh a must-see destination for tens of millions of Indians.
Life, particularly around the Pangong Tso lake would never be the same after 3 Idiots.
The third event which changed Ladakh is the Chinese intrusions in five places on the Indian territory in May 2020 and the serious clashes between the Indian Army and the People's Liberation Army in some areas.
Ladakh is much better off
The first thing which is striking when one travels around Leh, the capital of the UT or elsewhere, for example when one drives towards the Pangong Tso, is that the local populations are economically much better off than a few years ago.
Development has taken place in a considerable pace, thanks to tourism ... and the Chinese pressing on the other side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The infrastructure development, particularly the roads, which come under the responsibility of the Indian Army's Border Road Organisation (BRO) has been an agent of fast change.
Crossing any small or large villages, one is surprised by the speed of the construction of new houses taking place everywhere.
The old-style mud houses, rather dark, are replaced by pretty-looking residences with well-oriented glass windows serving as a natural heating system during the cold sunny days.
A Cultural Renaissance
There is a sort of renaissance of Ladakhi culture, often due to the influx of tourists.
To give an example: A Nomadic Festival 2023 took place in Hanle village in the Changthang district from July 15-16. Till recently, this remote historic place was not accessible to visitors (an Inner Line Permit was rather complicated to obtain).
Now, the villagers are able to display their culture through traditional dances, songs, and sports showing the nomadic way of life.
A pamphlet says: 'The main focus of the festival is to present a kaleidoscopic view of the nomadic lifestyle and traditions of the people of the region. ...these festivals are an effort to get the people re-acquainted with the lost cultures. And for visitors, the festivals are always a great time to learn and understand the beauty of the unique cultures of the region.'
On September 14, the home ministry released a circular allowing foreigners to stay overnight in Hanle, located 254 km from Leh and known as the ideal place for dark-sky watching (astro-tourism) and also for the presence of white cranes.
Around the same time, Umling-la, the world's highest motorable road at 19,024 feet, entered the Guinness Book of World Records by hosting the World's Highest International Fashion Runway, under the Vibrant Ladakh Festival.
All this is good for the local population and the defence forces: A populated border is indeed a stronger border.
Not for long will Umling-la remain the 'highest' pass in the world.
With the rapid development of infrastructure, in a couple of years, Umling-la's record will be broken and Mig-la at 19,400 feet will enter the Guinness Book.
The BRO has already started the construction of a new 64 km road connecting Likaru to Fukche situated 3 km away from the LAC near the Indus river.
With a budget of Rs 520 crores (Rs 5.2 billion), the BRO will cross the Ladakh Range, linking Likaru, Mig la and Fukche.
The new road will provide to the Indian Army an axis connecting Hanle to the CDFD road (Chushul-Dungti-Fukche-Demchok) which follows the present LAC along the Indus.
It is worth noting that it is India's first project undertaken by an all women road construction Company under the Army's Engineers Corps.
The Fukche Advanced Landing Ground (ALG), an airfield in the Demchok sector, built shortly before the 1962 War was revived in 2008. It is located near Koyul, 34 km northwest of Demchok.
At the same time, the tarring work on the strategically important Chushul-Dungti-Fukche-Demchok road, spanning 135 kilometres is also started.
More Remote Places opened to Tourism
Visitors can now add Marsemik-la (18,314 feet) and the Sko Valley north of Pangong Tso, to their itinerary.
In September, the home ministry has opened up the two forbidden areas near the Chang Chenmo sector for tourists.
Wanting to use the newly created infrastructure to defend the borders after the clash of 2020 with China and the resulting standoffs, the ministry is keen to boost border tourism in order to create more employment opportunities for the local population and to show that these areas are controlled by India.
The Lake at Spangmik
On the southern bank of the 134 km long lake (some 45 km are today with India and the rest with China), Spangmik remains the site of the shooting of 3 Idiots.
All sort of paraphernalia having played a role in the film (such as a copy of Aamir Khan's scooter) can be found on the shores of the lake for selfies.
Most tourists will not notice Finger 4 in the background which witnessed severe skirmishes in May 2020 and which us now under India's control.
The Raiders of 1948
While looking at all these developments (which will hopefully respect the pristine environment), the past came back to mind.
Ladakh could have become Pakistani in 1947-1948 (or Chinese in 1962).
Thanks to heroes like Colonel Chhewang Rinchen, MVC and bar or Colonels Prithvi and Kaushal Chand, MVC, Ladakh is today part of the Union of India.
On July 25, 1948, in a letter addressed to the Political Officer in Sikkim, Gangtok, H E Richardson, India's representative in Lhasa spoke of 'a report from Kashmir that many Buddhist Monasteries in Ladakh have been destroyed and many monks killed by tribal raiders.'
It was a fact.
The British officer serving the Indian ministry of external affairs added: 'As this affects the Buddhist sect of which the Dalai Lama is the head, the Tibetan Government asked my advice how they should proceed if they wanted to make a reference in the matter.'
Lhasa wanted to complain to Pakistan ...via New Delhi; the Tibetan Government was keen on a representation to Pakistan: 'Although the Government of Pakistan would doubtless disclaim responsibility, would the Government of India be prepared to forward to them from the Tibetan Government a message in suitable terms asking them to use their influence on their co-religionists to prevent the desecration of Buddhist holy places,' wrote Richardson.
In October 1948, A Jeyaram, assistant director in the Intelligence Bureau, mentioned secret reports from the Tibetan and Frontier Political Intelligence saying that Lhasa was worried by a Pakistani invasion: 'It is gathered from secret sources that the Tibet Government have under consideration the sending of an armed force to the Western parts of Tibet to keep order and peace in view of the activities of Raiders in Leh.'
'The Tibet Government may have also written to Government of India offering their military help if necessary.'
All this is of course long ago, but it should not be forgotten; it is flabbergasting to think that this heavenly region has, for decades, been coveted by India's aggressive neighbours.
My only hope and deep concern is that 'tourism greed' will not over-exploit and ruin this paradise on earth.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com