Divided Ladakh headed for a high-altitude cliffhanger

The cold desert, bitterly divided on religious and regional lines but united in the demand for statehood, is witnessing a triangular fight among the BJP, the INDIA bloc and an Independent candidate

Updated - May 19, 2024 01:30 am IST

Published - May 18, 2024 09:52 pm IST - SRINAGAR

Security personnel walk towards their designated vehicles at a distribution centre, ahead of the fifth phase of the general elections in Ladakh on May 18, 2024.

Security personnel walk towards their designated vehicles at a distribution centre, ahead of the fifth phase of the general elections in Ladakh on May 18, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Located over 11,000 feet above the sea level, and bitterly divided on religious and regional lines, the cold desert of Ladakh is all set to vote in the Lok Sabha election on Monday. The going had been tough for all three camps in the battle - the BJP, the INDIA bloc and an Independent candidate - setting the stage for a cliffhanger.

It all started with the Ladakh seat witnessing political drama and suspense till the last date of filing of nominations. The BJP dropped incumbent MP and firebrand leader Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, and nominated Tashi Gyalson as its candidate amid rumbling within the party, till the high command eventually prevailed.

The INDIA bloc too could not keep its flock together. Several top leaders of the Congress and its ally National Conference (NC) rebelled against the grand old party’s decision to field its candidate Tsering Namgyal for the seat. The move saw Haji Hanifa Jan, an influential NC leader from Kargil, entering the fray as an Independent.

“We all are worried about the future of Ladakh. Leh and Kargil have been fighting together for Ladakh’s interests. I want to take our four-point agenda to the Parliament and agitate for it, inside and outside the House,” Mr. Jan said.

Mr. Jan, whose candidature saw two Muslim candidates withdrawing their nominations in his favour, discounts any religious divide. “Ladakh is witnessing a different election, not on regional or religious lines. It’s an issue-based election,” Mr. Jan said.

Ladakh witnessed multiple street agitations after it was carved out from the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir and turned into an Union Territory in 2019. The umbrella organisations, Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), came into being and launched agitations to press the Centre to grant the region Statehood, include it in the Sixth Schedule, set up a local recruitment agency, and grant an additional Lok Sabha seat. These demands transcend regional and religious lines. For the first time, there is growing disillusionment in the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), a religious body, on extending support to the BJP. Though the Centre engaged Ladakh’s representatives, it didn’t concede to any major demand.

Amid fears of Buddhists drifting away from the BJP, the party’s top campaigner at Ladakh, Union Minister Kiren Rijiju, chose his words carefully during campaigning. “Have faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s guarantee, all your demands will be met in the next five years. A road map has been prepared,” Mr. Rijiju promised.

Without taking an antagonistic position, Mr. Rijiju instead reached out to the LAB and KDA, which were protesting against the Centre. “Dialogue is the way forward,” Mr. Rijiju said. It remains to be seen how many Buddhists were won over by this freshly minted poll narrative of the BJP. Mr. Gyalson was seen visiting both monasteries and masjids of Ladakh to win over voters.

The Congress in its manifesto has extended support to the demand of Sixth Schedule but remained silent on Statehood. It is banking on Muslim votes which will be split between the Congress and Kargil-based Independent candidates. 

Ladakh had always witnessed polarisation on regional and religious grounds in the past. Buddhist-majority Leh district and Shia Muslim-majority Kargil district both have their own political and religious class that can influence electoral fortunes. In Kargil, the voting pattern among Shias is determined by the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT) and the Islamia School Kargil (ISK). In Leh, the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) holds a sway among Buddhists.

“Religious divide is not new to Ladakh. Both Kargil and Leh always vie to see their representatives in the Parliament. I decided to withdraw my nomination after the ISK intervened. Me and Mr. Jan belong to the same school. The decision was taken in the larger interest of my community,” said Sajjad Kargil, a Kargil-based leader who withdrew his nomination papers. 

Geography also plays an important role in understanding Ladakh’s electoral arithmetic. There are around 1.82 lakh voters spread over 59,000 square kilometres. The voter density could be understood from the fact that Delhi is spread over 1,483 square kilometres but has 14.8 lakh voters. The population may be spread thin but the layers of politics here match the region’s changing colours of mountains.

The total population of Ladakh, according to the 2011 Census, was 2.74 lakh, with 13.35 lakh in Leh district and 14.08 lakh in Kargil.

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