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Wangchuk's hunger strike: Movement against 'corporate loot' of Ladakh natural resources

By Rimmi Vaghela 

Sonam Wangchuk's hunger strike in Ladakh entered 18th day on Sunday, with more than 300 hundred people supporting him under the open sky and of course at minus 10°C. Scores of people are joining his movement in all corners of the Himalayan region.
The issue has arisen after the revocation of Article 370, which snatched the special status from the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on August 5, 2019, by the brutal majority in Parliament. Leh-Ladakh was a part of the state of Jammu Kashmir. The manner in which this happened was extremely humiliating for the people of Kashmir.
The people of Ladakh and Jammu had a lot of hope in the beginning. But they were unaware of the evil plan to first divide and rule and then grab the rich lands of the Himalayan regions full of minerals, trees of economic value and picturesque sights for tourism. The idea behind this was to give huge tracts of land to the corporates at knock-down prices and allow multinational giants a free hand at the cost of local jobs.
Ironically, the country’s corporate media didn’t think it necessary to highlight such a militant movement. About 3 lakhs people live in this region. On February 3rd, more than 30,000 people gathered to raise their demands, i.e. the ten percent population of the region gathered at one place.
Let us examine why the place with its pristine beauty lies in the middle of a hostile environment on the road.
Ladakh, located in the northernmost part of India, has a distinct cultural and geographical identity that sets it apart from the rest of the country. After the abolition of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, Ladakh was given the status of Union Territory, separate from Jammu and Kashmir without a state assembly.
The creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory was initially hailed by some as a step towards greater development and autonomy, while concerns were raised about the region's lack of legislative powers and representation. Unlike full-fledged states, Union Territories have limited powers in areas such as land, law enforcement and tax collection.
Earlier it was said that the Valley of Kashmir dominated the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, according to the real situation that emerged after August 5, 2019, neither the Jammu region nor the Leh-Ladakh region, which was declared a Union Territory, were satisfied with the role of the Central government, and discontent in Jammu, Kashmir and Leh-Ladakh grew rapidly.
This movement was not a sudden result of any political interest. The people of Ladakh have been demanding statehood since 2020. It has gained momentum, driven by the locals' desire for greater political representation and administrative control over their region.
At the forefront of this movement is Sonam Wangchuk, whose hunger strike has attracted great attention and strengthened the demand for statehood for Ladakh. The character of Amir Khan in the second phase of the film ‘3 Idiots’ was inspired by Sonam Wangchuk. He is a renowned educationist, environmental activist and winner of numerous national and international awards.

Their most important demands are:

Statehood

The demand for statehood in Ladakh stems from the desire for more control over the local administration. Proponents argue that statehood would enable Ladakh to formulate policies tailored to its unique socio-economic and environmental needs, thus promoting sustainable development and the preservation of its existence. 
After the abolition of Article 370 in 2019, the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two Union Territories. The UT of Jammu and Kashmir will have a State Assembly, but the UT of Leh and Ladakh will have no democratic and constitutional right to elect their political representatives.

Sixth Schedule of the Constitution

The sixth schedule is the constitutional protection of the tribal population of the country. To protect their rights, the tribals can form an Autonomous Regional Council and an Autonomous District Council, which have the power to administer the tribal area so that people from outside cannot exploit the natural resources of the region. Right now, the regions of Assam, Tripura, Meghalay and Mizoram fall under the sixth schedule.
In its election manifesto for the 2019 general elections, the BJP itself has said that it would grant Leh-Ladakh the sixth schedule of the Constitution. Even the Home Minister has repeated this promise several times. But why is the BJP not ready to fulfill its promise? The reason is easy to understand. If the demand for the sixth schedule for Leh-Ladakh can be fulfilled, then the power will be in the hands of Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). Under the rules and regulations of the sixth schedule, the district and regional councils administer the area under their jurisdiction.
Strategic location coupled with fragile ecosystem of Ladakh makes the discourse on statehood even more complex
They can legislate on certain matters like land, forest, water, shifting cultivation, village administration, and inheritance of property, marriage and divorce, social customs and so on. So if the BJP approves the sixth schedule, it will not be able to grab the land of Leh-Ladakh and to give it away to the big land mafias of the country. Leh-Ladakh is rich in natural resources and minerals.

Broader representation in Parliament

The region had four seats in the Jammu Kashmir Assembly before the abolition of statehood after the abrogation of Article 370. Now they do not have the democratic right to elect their political representatives for the first time as they have nothing equivalent to a state government. Even now they have only one parliamentary seat. Therefore, they have demanded the State Assembly and two parliamentary seats for their political representation.

Civil service commission

The biggest problem of this region is unemployment. Since there is no statehood, the region has lost the minimum employment opportunities for its youths because there is no public service commission. They have no chance of employment in the civil service and not even in J&K Bank and other banks.
***
The strategic location of the region on the India-China border coupled with the fragile ecosystem and vulnerability to environmental degradation makes the discourse on statehood even more complex. According to Sonam Wangchuk’s version, even the defence forces in this border region are not happy with the Central government.
These are not simple demands. However, these are demands for the existence of the Ladakhi people and for saving their lands from corporate houses. The movement for Ladakh statehood stands for the struggle for dignity and existence, democracy and development opportunities in the Himalayan region. Sonam Wangchuk’s hunger strike symbolizes not only the quest for statehood, but also the quest for democratic rights, inclusive governance, sustainable development and cultural preservation.
We have seen the situation in Joshimath in Uttarakhand, in Hasdeo jungle in Chhattisgarh, in Andaman jungle and also in Lakshadweep. Now the same land grabbing mafia is showing its greed in the Leh-Ladakh region. Not only that, it is also about protecting the federal structure of the Indian Constitution. The autonomy of the individual states of the country is in grave danger. The movement of the people of Leh-Ladakh is a ray of hope when the unconstitutional and undemocratic clouds are engulfing the sky of freedom.

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