LS polls: Sixth schedule, employment key issues in Ladakh

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Leh/Kargil: As Ladakh votes to elect its MP for the first time since the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, safeguards under the sixth schedule, statehood and employment are the key issues in the two distant districts of the constituency that is the largest in the country in terms of area.

Spread over more than 59,000 square kilometres — around 40 times the size of Delhi — the two districts of Leh and Kargil are divided by geography and religion. Buddhist-dominated Leh and Shia Muslim-majority Kargil have come together over four demands — safeguards under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, statehood, reservation in jobs for locals and a separate public service commission and two Lok Sabha seats for the region.

After the abrogation of Article 370, Ladakh, which shares its border with both Pakistan and China, was carved out as a Union Territory without legislature. While Leh welcomed the move initially, people in Kargil were unhappy about the split. However, soon the concerns over safeguards for land and jobs took over, and protests erupted.

Padma Stanzin, a student leader from Leh, said employment is a major concern as not a single recruitment on a gazetted post has taken place since 2019. “We were assured of better employment opportunities but that has failed. Some government recruitment has taken place, but all for class-4 posts.

Similar concerns were raised by Nordon, a young woman from Leh who stressed that the sixth schedule is not just a political demand but that of the people. “More than 90 per cent of the population here is tribal. Jobs are a major concern as Ladakh has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country.

“Any party that promises to fulfil our demands will get our support,” Nordon said.

The two main political parties in Ladakh are the BJP, which has fielded Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council Chairman Tashi Gyalson in the election, and the Congress, which has picked the Leader of Opposition in the council, Tsering Namgyal, as its candidate. The third candidate is Mohammad Haneefa Jan from Kargil, popularly known as Haji Haneefa, who is contesting the polls as an independent after quitting the National Conference.

In its manifesto, the Congress has promised safeguards under the sixth schedule, while Haneefa has mentioned all four demands. The BJP’s manifesto is silent on the sixth schedule and statehood, but Gyalson and other leaders of the party, during their campaign, have assured the locals that the talks will continue.

Locals say there is anger against the BJP for not keeping its word on the sixth schedule, which was promised in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as well as during the Leh hill council polls in 2020.

“We were assured safeguards, but nothing has happened so far. That is why we are demanding the sixth schedule so that our interests can be protected. For that a rally was held on March 3 and then from March 6, Sonam Wangchuk sat on a fast,” Stanzin said.

A sit-in protest that started in Leh on March 6 went on for 66 days and was suspended ahead of the election. Renowned educationist and social reformer Sonam Wangchuk had led the protest.

Mehdi Shah from Turtuk, one of the remotest villages of India, says there is fear over losing the cultural identity as well as damage to the environment.

“There is a fear of losing our cultural identity and the fragile ecosystem being damaged if rampant development takes place. That is why the demand for the sixth schedule has become the main issue in this election,” he said.

Haji Riyaz Ahmed, a septuagenarian who runs a shop in the Leh market, agrees that employment and livelihood are a major concern.

“Earlier, one could get a job after graduation. Now, even with a PhD, people are unable to get jobs. The employment that comes in the tourist season is temporary. Even in this market, there are only a few shops that belong to Ladakhis,” he said.

He stressed that the focus should be on promoting cottage industry centred around local products like apricots, Leh berry and Pashmina. He also countered the Leh versus Kargil narrative and said the voters are focused on their demands for preserving their culture and environment.

More than 200 kilometres away in Kargil, people voice similar concerns. While they say the Union Territory status was the demand of Leh, the four-point demand is now the key issue.

Haji Mohammad Qasim says Article 370 is not an issue for them, but they want someone from Kargil to represent them this time.

“Article 370 is not an issue. This time people want someone from Kargil to represent the constituency. Had the Congress fielded someone from here, we would have supported him. Now, we have an independent candidate and we are united in backing him,” he said.

Fayaz Hojazi said employment and education opportunities are the main concern, along with the sixth schedule and statehood.

He added that with most administrative departments and officials stationed in Leh, it is a problem for the locals. The journey from Kargil to Leh takes more than five hours and locals have to depend on private transport or taxis.

Mohammad Ishaq, a local journalist, said while the BJP is facing anti-incumbency, the other parties are banking on the fact that they have been backing the demands of the locals.

Ladakh has around 1.84 lakh voters, of whom around 96,000 are in Kargil district and more than 88,000 in Leh district. The constituency goes to polls on May 20.

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