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Lok Sabha MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal celebrating on Independence Day in Leh/Photo: ANI
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Above: Lok Sabha MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal celebrating on Independence Day in Leh/Photo: ANI

As Ladakh is set to be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, thereby declaring it a tribal region, celebrations have begun over its longstanding demand being granted

By Pushp Saraf

Celebrations continue in the idyllic trans-Himalayan territory of Ladakh. Soon after being elevated to the status of a Union Territory (UT), which will formally come into effect from October 31, it is set to be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, thereby formally declaring it a tribal region to maintain its distinct identity. This fulfils another long-pending demand of the region. Ironically, the step may appear to be largely incongruous with the Union government’s move to knock the teeth out of Article 370 and scrap Article 35 A of the Constitution in the name of total integration of J&K (of which Ladakh is a part) with the rest of the country.

Article 370 had guaranteed special status to J&K and Article 35 A defined its permanent residents while protecting their exclusive privileges. In reality, therefore, the designation as a tribal region would imply the continuation of status quo in the case of Ladakh—a decision which is justified in view of its tough, strategic, isolated and remote geographical location and lack of development.

Naturally, Ladakh is rejoicing. It is the only part of J&K which is jubilant over the scrapping of its special status and reorganisation into two UTs, the other being J&K.

UT status for Ladakh, which was one of the three administrative divisions of J&K, was approved in August, with Parliament giving its nod. On September 11 came the icing on the cake with the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) recommending to the Union home and tribal affairs ministries its inclusion in the Sixth Schedule to facilitate “(i) democratic devolution of powers; (ii) preserve and promote distinct culture of the region; (iii) protect agrarian rights including rights on land; and (iv) enhance transfer of funds for speedy development of Ladakh region”. The implementation of the NCST’s recommendation is considered a mere formality with a ministerial group having already considered the issue.

The Commission has noted “that prior to creation of Union Territory of Ladakh, people in Ladakh region had certain agrarian rights including right on land which restricted people from other parts of the country to purchase or acquire land in Ladakh. Similarly, the Ladakh region has several distinct cultural heritages by communities such as Drokpa (with three sub-ethnicities Brokpa, Dard, Shin), Balti and Changpa, among others, which needs to be preserved and promoted”. (Drokpas are considered the last descendants of the Aryan race; Baltis are an ethnic group of Shia Muslims mainly inhabiting Kargil district; and Changpa is a semi-nomadic tribe mostly in the high-altitude Changthang region which is the home of the pashmina goat.)

The NCST has mentioned other tribes also like Beda, Bot (also Boto), Garra, Mon and Purigpa, some of whom are Buddhists and some Shias. Communities like Sunni Muslims, who constitute a minuscule minority, don’t figure in the official list and they include “arguns”,   between Ladakhis and non-Ladakhis. The Commission has taken into account their claims for ST status while concluding that with their inclusion “the total tribal population in Ladakh region is more than 97 percent”.

It appears that the census had already been done in the case of each tribe. It indicates that preparations for according a tribal region status were being made in tune with the popular aspirations. According to NCST, the ST population was 66.8 percent in Leh, 73.35 percent in Nubra, 97.05 percent in Khalsti, 83.49 per cent in Kargil, 89.96 percent in Sanku and 99.16 percent in Zanskar, making Ladakh “pre­dominantly a tribal region in the country”.

“The tribal region status is the fulfilment of a long-pending demand,” says Thupstan Chhewang, who twice represented Ladakh in the Lok Sabha. Talking to India Legal from Leh, he said “this would safeguard the local land, linguistic and cultural heritage”.

For years, he had spearheaded an agitation that also took a violent turn for securing UT status for Ladakh. It was following his resignation in November 2018 from the Lok Sabha and the BJP in protest against the non-fulfilment of promises made by his party in the 2014 polls that the BJP swung into action to devote special attention to Ladakh. He simultaneously renounced electoral politics.

Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, a young BJP Lok Sabha member from Ladakh, is thrilled. He is certain that the tribal region status will guarantee people “a swift ride on the path of development and prosperity as per their aspirations”. On why his constituency should be a tribal region, he had in a letter to Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Arjun Munda in August reiterated the following reasons: 98 percent tribal population engaged primarily in primitive land-based economy, limited means of livelihood, poor connectivity, harsh climatic conditions, undeveloped markets for local produce, low employment opportunities, strategic location, fragile ecology and receding glaciers severely affecting the agriculture sector.

When it formally acquires the tribal region tag, Ladakh will be the only UT to be identified as such. At present, 10 tribal areas in the Sixth Schedule are part of one northeastern state or another. These are: Bodoland Territorial Council, Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and Dima Hasao (North Cachar) Autonomous District Council (Assam); Garo Hills Autonomous District Council, Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council and Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (Meghalaya), Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (Tripura) and Chakma Autonomous District Council, Lai Autonomous District Council and Mara Autonomous District Council (Mizoram). All these councils are empowered to make laws on many matters of local importance with the Bodoland Council comparatively enjoying greater powers. Concurrence of the concerned governor is mandatory in all instances.

In Ladakh, there already exist fairly influential elected autonomous hill district councils in both its districts—Leh and Kargil. While making its recommendation, the NCST has been careful in considering the issue of whether a UT stands on the same footing as a state and come to the conclusion that “Clause 3(58)(b) of the General Clauses Act 1897 defines State shall mean a State specified in the First Schedule to the Constitution and shall include a Union Territory”. It has recorded that “the autonomous district councils of erstwhile Union Territory of Mizoram had helped in mitigating the genuine aspirations of people”.

The NCST’s decision should mollify Kargil district where sections of the people had expressed anger over separation from J&K. Past experience shows that Kargil likes to wait and watch before following Leh. This may be because of the evident clash between rising political aspirations of the Buddhist majority in Leh and Shia-dominated Kargil. Kargil opted for an elected Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC-Kargil) in 2003, eight years after Leh had settled for the arrangement after a tripartite agreement with central and state governments. Likewise, Kargil offered initial resistance to the divisional status and now UT before falling in line. It expects its demand for rotational administrative headquarters of the UT to be met before it is formally inaugurated.

Luckily, the two districts have bonded over the tribal region status. This should augur well for the overall development of an area bound by historic ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties.

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