Climate Activist Sonam Wangchuk on fast unto death for Ladakh’s statehood and inclusion in Sixth Schedule

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India Tomorrow

SRINAGAR—Climate activist Sonam Wangchuk has gone on a fast unto death from March 6 demanding full statehood for Ladakh and inclusion of the Union Territory in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that aims to safeguard region’s land and gives nominal autonomy for the country’s tribal areas.

The 57-year-old Wangchuk, who is the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, is sitting in the open in Leh under open sky in sub-zero temperature. He is surviving on water and salt. Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer-turned-educator had inspired Aamir Khan’s reel-life character of Phunshok Wangdo in 3 Idiots.

His fast unto death agitation entered 17th day today.

Wangchuk is also demanding two Lok Sabha seats for Leh and Kargil districts and a separate Public Service Commission for Ladakh. Earlier, he had held protests in support of his demands in February 2023 at Jantar Mantar in new Delhi.

He has received support from Apex Body Leh(ABL) and the Kargil Democratic Alliance(KDA), the groups spearheading protests in the region.

The demand for statehood and special status has united Muslims and Buddhists in this communally sensitive cold desert. 

On Wednesday, Muslim majority Kargil town observed a shutdown and hundreds of locals came out in support of activist Sonam Wangchuk, whose fast under the open skies entered the 15th day.  The half-day shutdown call was issued by the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), an amalgam of politico-religious groups in the district.

Wangchuk went on fast unto death after the talks with the Centre failed on March 4. “On March 4, Centre straightaway declined to fulfill the promises. This is a total breach of trust and faith. If this continues, it will set a very bad precedent for all elections and governments to come,” Wangchuk said.

“The government likes to call India the ‘Mother of Democracy’. But if India denies democratic rights to the people of Ladakh and continues to keep it under bureaucrats controlled from New Delhi then it could only be called a stepmother of democracy as far as Ladakh is concerned,” Wangchuk said.

“It’s our right to demand the restoration of democracy. We reject the UT setup. The Centre will have to grant Statehood and Sixth Schedule [status] to Ladakh,” Sajjad Kargili, a KDA member, said.

On March 4, a six-member delegation of Apex Body Leh (ABL), and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) from the Union Territory of Ladakh called on Union Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi.

The Union Minister assured that the High Powered Committee (HPC) on Ladakh constituted to look into the demands of ABL and KDA have been discussing the modalities to provide such Constitutional safeguards. 

The HPC was formed in November last under the chairmanship of Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai to address concerns of Ladakh after protests in the region following revocation of Article 370 and bifurcation of J&K into two UTs in 2019. While J&K has been designated as a UT with a legislature, UT of Ladakh does not have a legislative assembly.

The HPC met thrice in New Delhi after which a sub-committee was formed to discuss the demands of the people from Ladakh. The sub-committee’s fourth meeting with the Ministry of Home Affairs took place in New Delhi on March 4 but the discussions were inconclusive with regard to the demand for statehood for Ladakh and inclusion of Ladakh in Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. This led to fresh agitation in Leh, with Sonam Wangchuk leading it.

Root cause of the agitation

The root cause of the agitation lies in the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019 that ended the state of Jammu and Kashmir and two union territories were created: Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir.

But this resulted in problems as the region had no power to enact laws and government itself effectively after declaration of Ladakh as a union territory. As the creation of UT of Ladakh took away exclusive rights over land and job for the locals that was guaranteed under Article 370, it generated fears of demographic change and marginalisation among the local people.

Various social and political groups organised themselves under the banner of the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh in 2020 to demand greater autonomy and protection of rights.

The major protest was organised on February 3, 2024, demanding Sixth Schedule status and statehood for Ladakh. There was complete shutdown in Leh and Kargil. The call for shutdown was given by the Apex Body Leh and Kargil Democratic Alliance.

As 97 percent of population in UT of Ladakh belongs to Scheduled Tribes, ABL and KDA demanded protection for its people on the lines of that given to tribal areas in northeast.

After the People’s Movement boycotted the 2020 Hill Council elections, several rounds of talks took place between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the representatives of ABL and KDA. This resulted in formation of a High Powered Committee. On jaunary 16 this year, ABL and KDA submitted their demands to the Centre.

But there was no response until the total shutdown in Leh and Kargil on February 3, 2024.

However, there was no response from the MHA until the announcement of a shutdown on February 3. A meeting between the MHA and 14-member delegation of ABL and KDA people took place on February 19.

“The meeting concluded to thoroughly deliberate on our primary demands: statehood for Ladakh, incorporation of Ladakh into the 6th Schedule of the Constitution, and the establishment of a dedicated public service commission for Ladakh on February 24,” a press release issued by the ABL and KDA had said.

But the meeting with the MHA on March 4 failed to arrive at any solution with regard to the demands of ABL and KDA. This triggered fresh agitation involving Sonam Wangchuk supported by ABL and KDA.

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