Monks And Muslims vote to demand rights for India's Ladakh

Almost half the people in the sparsely populated, cold desert region bordering China and Pakistan are Muslim

AFP May 20, 2024
Demonstrators attend a sit-in protest demanding constitutional safeguards and statehood in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, March 21, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer

Buddhist monks and Muslims in the Indian Himalayan territory of Ladakh turned out to vote Monday, demanding statehood and that their local culture be protected in the overwhelmingly Hindu nation.

Almost half the people in the sparsely populated, cold desert region bordering China and Pakistan are Muslim, with around 40 percent Buddhist, putting it among the least Hindu places in the country.

Ladakhis' demands have so far gone unfulfilled by the government of Hindu nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, primed to win another stint in power.

Voters including Buddhist monks in ochre robes lined up to cast their ballots at polling stations in Leh, the territory's main town, the surrounding mountains still snow-capped even as much of India swelters in a heatwave.

Buddhist gompas, monasteries and symbols are ubiquitous in Leh, as are memorials to soldiers killed in clashes with the neighbouring countries -- the area has been highly militarised since a 2020 border faceoff with China.

For decades Ladakh was part of the semi-autonomous Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

But residents have long demanded a legislature of their own, constitutional protection of the local culture, and measures to defend its fragile environment.

Read: China doubles down on its claim over parts of Ladakh in IIOJK

"We need protection," said Stanzin Norphel, 74, after casting his vote. "This government has destroyed Ladakh," added the retired local authority employee, who is Buddhist.

Modi's government split Ladakh off from Indian-administered Kashmir when it revoked the area's semi-autonomy in 2019 and made them both union territories, imposing direct rule.

At the time Buddhists in the high-altitude region celebrated, anticipating they would soon enjoy greater rights.

But the federal government has yet to fulfil its promise to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of India's constitution, which allows indigenous tribal people to make their own laws and policies.

All three candidates in the seat -- held by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party -- are promising to ensure the change happens to protect the local culture and land.

Umila Bano, 59, who is Muslim, said she voted for a candidate "who I think will actually work for getting us included in the Sixth Schedule".

"Ladakh needs it," she told AFP in Leh.

Read: China assails India for building road on border

Winter temperatures can fall as low as minus 40 degrees C in mountainous Ladakh, which is the largest constituency in the biggest election in human history, with polling stations set up as high as 7,742 metres altitude.

Spread over more than 59,000 square kilometres (22,780 square miles), it is bigger than Croatia but has just over 182,000 electors.

Monday's voting was part of the fifth round of India's six-week election, which is staggered across phases to ease the logistical burden of holding the exercise across the world's most populous country.

"People have been agitating, protesting for safeguards," Ladakhi environmental activist Sonam Wangchuk told AFP.

He led a 21-day sit-in and relay fast in April to demand special protections and full statehood, when he was joined by tens of thousands of Ladakhis.

Indian occupied Kashmir is set to have its first local legislative election since the 2019 changes later this year, he pointed out.

"But Ladakh, on the other hand, is kept like a former colony, where a commissioner or a governor will rule, and local people have no place to formulate policies."


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