Border standoff, demand for constitutional safeguards kept Ladakh in news in 2020

Tariq Ahmad Sofi
·5-min read

Leh, Jan 2 (PTI) A year after getting the status of union territory, Ladakh remained in the news throughout 2020 for varied reasons - from the over seven-month-long India-China border standoff to the growing demand for constitutional safeguards to preserve the unique culture and identity of the region.

The demand for the constitutional safeguard gained momentum with the holding of election to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh, which incidentally was the first democratic exercise in the union territory after being carved out of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kahmir in August 2019.

Lt Governor R K Mathur time and again assured the people about protection of culture, land, environment and jobs.

'The Vision 2050 should reflect the reality of Ladakh, and strike a balance for the welfare of people. The Vision 2050 should be Ladakh-specific and in harmony with its unique culture and identity,' Mathur had recently said, speaking at the second planning board meeting to discuss 'Ladakh vision' here.

He said the concerns of the people of Ladakh such as protection of culture, land, environment and jobs would be incorporated as valuable inputs in Vision 2050.

On the pandemic front, sparsely-populated Ladakh recorded the first COVID-related death in June when a veteran Congress leader and former union minister P Namgyal was tested positive hours after his death. However, the region, particularly Leh district, witnessed a surge in the positive cases in the later half, ending up with figures of over 125 deaths.

Twice declared coronavirus-free in the month of May despite evacuation of over 500 stranded pilgrims from Iran and hundreds of others from different parts of the country amid strict lockdown, the union territory has so far recorded a virus caseload of nearly 9,500. However, an encouraging 97 per cent of the total count has been cured of the infection, officials said.

The military face-off erupted on May 5 following violent clashes between the Indian Army and the Peoples Liberation Army of China in the Pangong lake area, which left 20 Indian soldiers dead in one of such incidents in Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh in June.

The Chinese side also suffered casualties but there has been no official word from Beijing. According to an American intelligence report, the number of casualties on the Chinese side was 35.

India and China have held several rounds of diplomatic and military talks in the last few months to resolve the standoff. However, no concrete breakthrough has been achieved so far.

A shadow of uncertainty hung over the LAHDC-Leh polls when an amalgam of various political, religious and social organizations assembled under the banner of Peoples Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh (PMSSL) in September and announced a boycott of the elections to press for its various demands including extending the Sixth Schedule to Ladakh.

However, a timely intervention by Union Home Minister Amit Shah led to the withdrawal of the boycott call and successful conclusion of the elections in October. The BJP won clear majority in the polls, securing 15 out of 26 seats leaving Congress at second spot with nine seats.

After the initial round of talks with the home minister in Delhi in September before withdrawing the boycott call, PMSSL headed by former Ladakh MP Thupstan Chhewang stepped up its activities back in the union territory and reached out to the leadership in Kargil to garner their support for the demand.

Viewed as a significant development, the apex-body of PMSSL and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) leadership decided to fight together any law which would be considered against the interests of the people of the union territory.

The decision was taken at a joint meeting on December 2, a first of its kind between the representatives of the two bodies.

The people in Leh have been demanding inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to safeguard their culture and identity, the KDA had opposed the u ion territory status to the region and has raised the demand for statehood for Ladakh.

In an interactive session organized by PMSSL in Leh on Tuesday, Chhewang said they will approach KDA to join their delegation to meet the home minister on January 5.

However, KDA is waiting for a separate invitation and a senior leader of the grouping said they are ready for the talks provided they get the invitation from the home ministry as they are equal stakeholders in Ladakh.

Union Minister Anurag Thakur, who had joined several of his colleagues and national leaders to campaign for the party during the polls, had assured the people of Ladakh that there is no need to worry about their land and jobs as the Narendra Modi government would provide more than what is there in the 6th schedule.

In October, the J&K administration apportioned assets, liabilities, posts of the erstwhile state between it and Ladakh. The apportionment came into force with effect from October 31.

Despite challenging situation due to outbreak of the pandemic which brought life to a standstill for months together, Lt Governor Mathur toured different parts of both the districts and reiterated the commitment of his administration towards equitable development of the region.

The LG administration intends to establish a UT secretariat, police headquarters and Raj Niwas at Kurbathang in Kargil after an agreement with the Army pertaining to land, for which discussions have already begun, the officials said. On the Smart Cities Mission, both Kargil and Leh have been selected for smart city assistance, the officials said, expressing hope that the next year would see a flurry of developmental activities and enough employment opportunities for the unemployed youth.

After the blast off ceremony in October, the construction of Zojila Tunnel along 434-km Srinagar-Leh national highway was set in motion to provide all-weather road connectivity to the region which usually remains cut off from outside world with the closure of the highway owing to heavy snowfall.

Union Minister for Road, Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has fixed the target of completion of the tunnel within four years, while the contractual time frame is of six years.

In November, Ladakh administration has rolled out its first tourism incentive policy with stress on ensuring equitable and sustainable development of all regions, a move aimed at creating infrastructure and attracting tourists. PTI TAS AB ZMN