Service, Sentiment and Samarthan: How Buddhist Ladakh Made the Loudest Noise for a Change

News18.com

New Delhi: As a fiery debate raged in the Lok Sabha on August 6 over Jammu and Kashmir’s fate, a young and largely unknown Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker stood up to say his piece. By the time he sat down, the first-time MP from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, had left his indelible imprint on a momentous day, put his spectacular constituency firmly on the map, and created ripples on social media.

The 34-year-old strongly backed the central government’s move to turn the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, Ladakh being one of them. “Today is a historic day… Have the patience to listen,” he told members of the 17th Lok Sabha.

His speech drew applause from the treasury benches and praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. The MP also became a Twitter trend with thousands of posts mentioning him.

Namgyal’s journey to Parliament has been a long time coming. He began his career in politics as a leader of the All Ladakh Student Association (ALSA) in Jammu and later joined the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) in Leh.

“We helped Ladakhi students with rental, learning, admission and medical issues. I used to get calls from aggrieved students with complaints ranging from eve-teasing, harassment, to food. We had a clear conscience to help people from our region. Back then, I hadn’t realised I would reach Parliament one day,” he told News18 on Thursday.

Namgyal has risen through the ranks within his party: from a student leader to a lawmaker. Following his graduation from the University of Jammu, he joined the BJP unit in Leh as an office secretary. “I wrote letters for party leaders and drafted media releases for a very long time,” the MP recalled.

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His big break into mainstream politics came when he was appointed the media secretary in former Ladakh MP Thupstan Chhewang’s general election campaign. “We used to go from village to village, campaigning and spreading information about our manifesto. My life took a complete U-turn after that,” he said in the interview.

Before being elected a Member of Parliament (MP), Namgyal served as private secretary to Chhewang, elected councillor for the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LADHC) in Leh and later its chairperson, as well as the BJP’s district president.

As a young lawmaker, Namgyal’s passionate speech in Parliament favouring the conversion of Ladakh into a Union Territory became an important voice at the end of the Budget session. He became an inspiration to the BJP cadre with his integral intervention in one of the most contentious Bills ever passed.

“In the last seven decades, Ladakh was not embraced, it was thrown in one corner and there were statements in this House that it was that land where not one speck of grass grows," he said in Parliament.

The demand to make Ladakh a separate Union Territory has been around for as long as the lawmaker can remember. “A lot of us grew up in an environment that harboured the sentiment that Ladakh must separate because many of Ladakh's problems like funding and infrastructure originate from Jammu and Kashmir’s dominance,” he said to News18.

For instance, if a student from Ladakh makes an error in his documents, it takes him 3-4 years to get it corrected in Srinagar because of rampant corruption. “We wanted to relieve ourselves from this,” the MP stated.

Politically, the flag-bearer for the demand to slice Ladakh out of Jammu and Kashmir has been the Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF), an association of political parties formed in 2002. The LUTF swept the LADHC polls in 2005. However, the-then Congress government at the Centre did not entertain the demand for separation. In 2010, the association merged with the BJP.

Besides, the LUTF and the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) are also focal to the controversy surrounding the persecution of Muslims in the region. It has been reported that these organisations use authority to politically and administratively marginalise them, especially the Shia sect of Muslims, through the LADHC.

Though, historically, Buddhists and Muslims have lived together in the region for centuries, differences surfaced between them in 1989 with the outbreak of communal violence. Buddhists boycotted all Muslim-owned businesses in the region until 1992. However, the Ladakh MP said this is not the case today.

“Some people are trying to portray the LBA in the wrong light. It was the LBA which had first presented a memorandum for Ladakh to be made a separate UT in 1948. It was the same association which got us the sewage treatment plant, the degree colleges and the LADHC in Ladakh. The efforts of one organisation has benefited everyone in the region,” he said.

Nevertheless, there are multiple accounts of bias in land allotment to Muslims. Members of the community allege the LADHC – the authority controlling state land in Leh district – left them out to favour Buddhists. The LBA has also hit out at Muslims in the region for practising so-called love-jihad: an alleged effort to target women belonging to non-Muslim communities for conversion to Islam by feigning love.

Now that Ladakh is a Union Territory, Namgyal believes the future is bright for the region. However, he is realistic about the amount of hard work he will have to put in to establish the UT.

“When Ladakh is re-invented with the necessary infrastructure, technology, resources and manpower, the lawmakers and officials who come after me will be able to operate with ease. The first one to set up a new order always faces challenges,” he noted.

The MP’s immediate focus for the region includes the appointment of the lieutenant governor, setting up administrative offices, and preparing a vision document keeping in mind the area’s solar-power potential, education, health, tourism and environment.

Namgyal said environment and ecology form an integral part of Ladakhi culture and identity; they are important indicators of life and living in the region’s long-term vision. “A lot of the environmental rules and regulations that are applicable to the rest of India will now be applicable to Ladakh after the scrapping of Article 370. The glaciers in the region are melting. Nothing was done about them in the earlier arrangement.”

“With all channels of corruption eliminated post-Article 370, the focus will be to reduce it now,” he added.

While the state of Jammu and Kashmir has split into two Union Territories, one with a legislature and one without it, what role Namgyal would actually play in the region remains unclear. With the Centre assuming control of the hill area and its population, Ladakh is likely to witness a facelift. However, the sentiment that drives the people of the region, and got them to August 6 in 2019, is resilient and determined.

“I picked up writing during my school days in Leh. I started writing in Ladakhi language, also called Bhoti. I used to write plays, short stories and poetry to raise money for women’s associations and vendors. This got me hooked to social work,” said Namgyal. “I don’t always need politics to serve my people.”