Wangchuk Fights Enduring Ladakh’s Statehood Battle

Renowned for his activism in climate change and education reform, Sonam Wangchuk concluded his 21-day hunger strike on Tuesday, signifying a notable advancement in Ladakh’s continuous endeavor for statehood and incorporation under the Sixth Schedule of India’s Constitution. However, he reaffirmed his dedication to persisting in the struggle. Wangchuk’s rallying cry rekindled a surge of support and unity throughout the region. Speaking to the assembled crowd as he concluded his fast, Wangchuk’s resolute voice resonated strongly. Wangchuk’s remarkable journey inspired the character Phunsukh Wangdu in the 2009 Bollywood hit film “3 Idiots.” 

His recent hunger strike, initiated on March 6, aimed to last 21 days, with the potential of extending it to the extreme “till death.” This protest followed stalled negotiations between joint representatives of Leh-based Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), advocating for Ladakh’s statehood and inclusion in the Sixth Schedule and the central government. Wangchuk’s strike not only garnered widespread local and national attention but also shed crucial light on the grievances of Ladakh’s people, significantly amplifying awareness about their cause.

Earlier today, actor Prakash Raj, known for his vocal criticism of the ruling BJP, visited Wangchuk and expressed his support for his protest. “When the governments do not keep its promises, the people have no option but to unite and raise their voices by their constitutional rights,” Prakash Raj said. “We have heard from the people and the scientists that the BJP has promised them the Sixth Schedule, and when we remind them of their promise, they see us as criminals”, he added. 

Previously, through video messages posted on the micro-blogging site X, Wangchuk, appearing frail, urged the people of Ladakh to vote “very carefully” in the upcoming election for the nation’s benefit. The single Lok Sabha seat in Ladakh is set to go to poll on May 20. 

Why was Sonam Wangchuk protesting? 

Upon commencing his 21-day hunger strike, Wangchuk highlighted pressing environmental concerns, stating, “Today our planet is facing significant challenges, including environmental issues, global warming, and climate change, particularly evident in the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau.” The views he expressed on March 6 highlighted the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, a point he reiterated in his tweet on the 17th day of his protest.

Simultaneously, Wangchuk emphasised the need for Ladakh’s statehood and its incorporation into the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. In an appeal directed at the Prime Minister, he lamented the perceived mistreatment of Ladakh residents regarding safeguards under the Sixth Schedule. He cited instances of unfulfilled promises made in two consecutive elections, culminating in disappointment after years of uncertainty.

The Sixth Schedule delineates administrative provisions for tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram, administered through autonomous district councils. Following the August 2019 abrogation of Article 370, which divested Ladakh of its statehood and semi-autonomous status within Jammu and Kashmir, the region’s quest for greater autonomy and inclusion gained prominence.

The Statehood for Kargil 

The Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) and the Apex Body, representing various political, social, and religious organizations from the two districts, jointly led the protest in support of their demands. These demands include job reservations for local youth and allocating one Rajya Sabha seat. The agitation commenced shortly after Ladakh was granted Union Territory status without its own assembly in August 2019.

The entire KDA leadership, along with over 200 volunteers, gathered at Hussaini Park on the morning of Match 24 to commence a three-day hunger strike in solidarity with Mr. Wangchuk. He has been observing a “climate fast” in Leh since March 6 to support these demands.

What happened in Ladakh post Article 370? 

The discontent in Ladakh arose from the revocation of Article 370 in 2019, which eliminated the special status previously accorded to the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. Following this change, Ladakh was designated as a Union Territory (UT) without its legislature, unlike Jammu and Kashmir.

Leh had long advocated for UT status, and Ladakhis welcomed this reorganisation, hoping it would shield them from perceived discrimination by Kashmir-centric parties. The region, predominantly inhabited by Buddhists, celebrated this decision. Conversely, the Muslim-majority area of Kargil expressed apprehension, primarily seeking statehood.

Prior to the revocation, Ladakh had representation through four members in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and two in the Legislative Council. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils of Leh and Kargil were established to govern the region, albeit with limited authority. However, the lack of political representation became a concern.

Subsequently, locals from both regions began to feel uneasy and agitated. They feared that an influx of non-locals and industrialists could alter the region’s demographics and lead to their marginalisation. Preserving their land and employment opportunities became paramount concerns.

In the lead-up to the 2019 elections, the BJP pledged to bring Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, citing that 97 per cent of its population is indigenous. However, this promise remains unfulfilled.

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