Will fast unto death if talks with government fail, says Ladakh climate activist Sonam Wangchuk

Civil society leaders have been demanding Statehood and protection under the Sixth Schedule

February 23, 2024 10:10 pm | Updated February 24, 2024 01:24 am IST - New Delhi

Sonam Wangchuk. File

Sonam Wangchuk. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Prominent climate activist Sonam Wangchuk said on Friday that he would fast unto death in sub-zero temperature if the talks between civil society leaders of Ladakh and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) officials on Saturday did not succeed. He said that the government under the “influence of industrial lobby” does not want to ensure constitutional safeguards for Ladakh.

“These lobbies want to exploit Ladakh, like what they have done in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where the locals are now paying a price,” Mr. Wangchuk told The Hindu.

He said it was a myth that inclusion under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution would hamper development. “It will give local people a say in development. It will ensure councils of indigenous tribal people who must be consulted in all projects and the management of Ladakh. Presently, the Lieutenant Governor can allot openings for minings and industries to whoever he wants. This is what the Ladakhi people fear the most,” he said.

The members of the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) are expected to meet senior MHA officials on Saturday.

The LAB and the KDA, representing the Buddhist majority and Shia Muslim dominated regions respectively in Ladakh, are demanding Statehood for Ladakh and the inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which will give it a tribal status, job reservation for locals and a parliamentary seat each for Leh and Kargil.

Mr. Wangchuk said he would begin the fast in Leh if the government did not agree to discuss their demands.

“We expect the people of India to support Ladakh because it is a just cause, it’s about the truth of what we were promised, truth of what these people who are sitting on the border with two hostile countries have done for the nation. They expect some support from the nation,” he said.

Mr. Wangchuk, an education reformer whose work inspired the Hindi movie 3 Idiots, said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won two elections in the past on the promise of granting Sixth Schedule in their party manifesto.

“We seek support from the whole nation to support our struggle for truth. If this is how manifestos are treated, this is a big threat for all elections to come and for all the people of India,” Mr. Wangchuk said.

The MHA and the civil society groups have had two rounds of talks so far, on December 4, 2023 and February 19.

“In the first meeting, they asked the leaders to submit the demands in writing. In the second meeting, the talks almost broke down as they started talking about enhancing the financial powers of the hill councils. On Saturday, we are expecting concrete solution from the government,” he said.

He said that Article 370 of the Constitution which had protected the region was no longer there and now Ladakh was a Union Territory with no legislature.

“We demanded a UT but it came with no powers to the people. We actually lost all the MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly) we used to have in J&K; there is no public representation in how policies are framed or managed. We are now left with much less power at the democratic level. They should grant Statehood or at least UT with Legislative Assembly,” he said.

After the Centre decided to end the special status of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) under Article 370 of the Constitution, it was split it into two Union Territories, J&K and Ladakh, on August 5, 2019. Ladakh has a population of 2.74 lakh (2011 Census). The UT has erupted in protests several times in the past four years amid concerns around protection of land, resources and employment for the locals and bureaucratic overreach.

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