A deeply insecure Union Territory

After the passing of the Reorganisation Act, Ladakh has little autonomy or participatory democracy

December 22, 2021 12:07 am | Updated 12:07 am IST

Just a day before the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 was passed, Ladakh enjoyed a classical three-tier administrative system. The Autonomous Hill Development Councils of Leh and Kargil read along with the framework of J&K’s special status and its bicameral legislative system gave Ladakh autonomy and participatory democracy. This also kept the interests of the tribal majority population of Ladakh secure.

The Hill Councils, the biggest elected bodies in Ladakh, were further enabled by the State government through the State Assembly and both the institutions worked in a synchronised manner. The Hill Councils had the powers over land in Ladakh while the majority of the bigger concerns regarding land remained protected under Article 370 and J&K’s robust land protection laws. Similarly, gazetted officers were recruited through the State Public Service Commission. The District Service Selection Board made recruitments at the district level. But today, there is no Public Service Commission in Ladakh and the Hill Councils’ power to make recruitments at the district level has also been affected by the Lieutenant Governor (LG)’s presence. Technically, there also exists no law in Ladakh now that protects the land or even the jobs. The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs had recommended in 2019 that Ladakh to be declared a tribal area but that recommendation has disappeared into thin air.

Besides making Ladakh a vulnerable Union Territory (UT), the Reorganisation Act has taken away participatory democracy from Ladakh — first by taking away the six seats of the Members of Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council and second by wakening the functioning of the Hill Councils. The only elected representation from Ladakh outside of Ladakh is a lone MP.

On the one hand, there is a political vacuum in Ladakh, and on the other, there has been a tightening of bureaucratic power. The fundamental constitutional dichotomy between the LG’s office and the Hill Councils aside, the functioning of the LG and his offices has been very different from the way the institutions in Ladakh functioned earlier.

The office of the LG and his team have their feet in Ladakh but their heart is in Delhi. The LG’s office has followed a corporate model of working — a majority of the officers are of the Hill Councils and the rest have been recruited through outsourcing agencies. The officers are overworked. There has been a focus on creating a new work atmosphere without addressing the issues that have arisen due to the transition from State to UT. These include issues of transport operators who are not able to renew their permits and the transfer and promotion of employees of higher education. There is more focus on amplifying on social media the work done rather than actual engagement with the people on the ground.

The fact that the LG’s office has not been able to strike a chord with the people of Ladakh is best manifested by the emergence of two major groups in Ladakh: The Apex Body Leh and the Kargil Democratic Alliance. These groups represent nearly all the religious and political bodies of Ladakh. Though they initially had different demands, they now have a common agenda: statehood. They also advocate for other constitutional safeguards on the lines of what is given to the Northeast. The two bodies have mass acceptance in Ladakh. Calling their emergence as an outcome of their disdain for the UT administration would be a misnomer, though. Rather, it has dawned upon the people of Ladakh that a UT without even a legislature is nothing but a reminder of disenfranchisement and collective despair.

Mustafa Haji is a lawyer, J&K and Ladakh High Court

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