‘We Demand Statehood’: Shutdown in Ladakh as Protesters Call for Inclusion in Sixth Schedule
New Delhi: Thousands of protesters on Saturday (February 3) rallied in the Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh in response to a shutdown call against the constitutional changes brought about by the reading down of Article 370.
The complete shutdown in the region was called by the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), two influential groups who are spearheading an agitation to demand special rights for the people of Ladakh after the region was separated from Jammu and Kashmir.
The two groups have been demanding the restoration of statehood for Ladakh, which was downgraded into a Union territory without a legislature in 2019. Additionally, they seek tribal status for Ladakh, with its inclusion in the constitution’s Sixth Schedule, job reservation for locals and a parliamentary seat each for the Leh and Kargil districts.
According to reports received by The Wire, the shutdown was observed in both the districts, with businesses suspending their daily activities, even in the remote Zanskar and Nubra Valley regions, while public transport remained largely off-roads.
Despite the intense cold, the protesters, including people of all ages and genders, assembled at the Polo Ground in Leh on Saturday morning, following the ‘Leh Chalo’ call of LAB and KDA. Some demonstrators in the crowd waved the Indian tricolour, while others raised placards spelling out their demands, in what appeared to be the biggest public congregation in the region since 2019.
Witnesses said that the ground reverberated with intense sloganeering as the leaders of the two groups joined the demonstration. A stage had been set up from where some prominent Ladakhi leaders and activists made their speeches, urging the Union government to concede to their demands.
“Bahaal karo, bahaal karo (restore, restore),” a speaker screamed into the microphone to which the demonstrators responded in unison with: “democracy bahaal karo” (restore democracy).
Magsaysay Award winner Sonam Wangchuk, who was among the speakers, said that the Union ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government had promised to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule, after the reading down of Article 370.
He also referred to the BJP’s election manifestos for the 2019 parliamentary election and 2020 Leh Hill Council election, which reportedly advocated constitutional safeguards for Ladakh and its inclusion in Sixth Schedule.
“After these announcements, there is a deafening silence (from the Centre). Those who speak of Sixth Schedule are being subject to harassment. Now there are lobbies in the mining industry who want to destroy Ladakh. We are only demanding our constitutional rights and we will not rest until it happens,” Wangchuk said.
The education reformer and climate change activist was placed under house arrest last year, following a five-day fast in support of protection of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule. The Ladakh police had, however, denied the charge.
Syed Zafar Mehdi, a trader, said that he had come all the way from Turtuk, the last village on the border between India and Pakistan in Ladakh, to participate in the demonstration. “I understand the importance of issues such as Sixth Schedule and statehood because our community lives in front of the enemy. I fully support the demands of LAB and KDA,” he said.
Later, the protesters took out a march from Sengge Namgyal square in the heart of Leh to the deputy commissioner’s office, covering a distance of about two kilometres. Throughout the march, they continued to chant slogans while displaying placards advocating for statehood, inclusion in the Sixth Schedule, and democracy.
A similar demonstration was held in Ladakh’s Kargil district. This protest was also attended by thousands of people. The demonstrators chanted slogans in favour of the Sixth Schedule and reservation in jobs for the people of Ladakh among others.
Slogans such as ‘Nahin chalegi, nahin chalegi, nainsaafi nahin chalegi (Injustice won’t work)’ and ‘Ladakh kay tribal status ko, nafiz karo nafiz karo (pronounce tribal status for Ladakh)’ echoed during the demonstration in Kargil district on Saturday. Some demonstrators were carrying placards which read: “We demand statehood.”
Chering Dorjay, one of the members of LBA and a former J&K minister, said that the outpouring of support for the shutdown call is a “clear message” to the Union government that it should concede the demands of the people of Ladakh.
“We are not demanding anything extra-constitutional. Tribal status is the right of the people of Ladakh. The Centre should respect our sentiments,” Dorjay, who resigned as the chief of Ladakh BJP in 2020, said.
On December 4, a committee formed by the Union home ministry had held the first round of talks with the leaders of LAB and KDA, without any significant breakthrough. While the committee had discussed “constitutional safeguards” for Ladakh during the meeting, the LAB and KDA have stuck to their four demands.
The second round of talks between the two sides is scheduled to be held on February 19 in Delhi, according to reports.
Ladakh was separated from J&K and downgraded into a Union Territory without a legislature in 2019, when the Narendra Modi government read down Article 370, sparking concerns of political and economic disempowerment in the arid desert region bordering China and Pakistan.