Most of the ground reports from the region over the last four months have been from Kashmir, Jammu and Leh
The hopes and protests of the people of Kargil, which is one of two districts in the newly formed union territory of Ladakh, remain largely undocumented
On 22 July, Hakima Banoo Ali completed her second- semester exams at the Central University of Kashmir, Srinagar, and returned home to Kargil for the 10-day break. Within a few days, advisories and rumours loomed heavy—tourists were evacuated from Kashmir, the Amarnath pilgrims were made to leave, additional troops were deployed in the valley and news came in of a threat at the border from Pakistan.
“We have seen what war means with our own eyes. It’s easy for the media to scream about war from New Delhi, but here it creates a real and tangible fear," she tells me on a cold December morning, sitting at a table outside the coffee shop near the Tourist Facilitation Centre (TFC) in Kargil, where temperatures have already dropped to sub- zero. “There was so much fear and confusion over those 10 days, we remembered the 1999 war, we remembered how the home right next to ours was completely destroyed by shelling. In discussions at home we would keep saying, Allah na kare ke aisa kuch humein phir se dekhne ko mile (God forbid we have to live through something like that ever again)." The 25-year-old master’s student in convergent journalism has not been able to return to college.
Early on 5 August, Union Home Minister Amit Shah introduced the J&K Reorganization Bill in the Rajya Sabha, which may have quelled rumours of war, but also changed the nature and status of Ali’s hometown forever. The Bill was passed in both houses of Parliament two days later. Article 370, which granted the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir its special status, was effectively revoked and the state was bifurcated into two union territories (UTs)—J&K and Ladakh. The latter, comprising Leh and Kargil, would be without an assembly and governed by the Centre.
Over the next few weeks, news channels showed footage of a locked-down Kashmir, with visuals of concertina wire and heavy military presence. A battle of narratives began regarding “normalcy" in the valley, even as the international media reported the detention of thousands, including political leaders, protests across the region and a complete internet and communication blockade.
Other sections of the press revealed that the people of Jammu and Leh were celebrating after the passage of the Act in Parliament. “We have struggled for 71 years to make Ladakh a union territory and to be a part of India," roared first time Lok Sabha member Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, who hails from Leh, in Parliament. He was quickly branded “the voice of Ladakh".
However, on the same day, the joint action committee (JAC) Kargil, comprising social, political and religious groups, called for a complete shutdown in protest. People took to the streets, chanting slogans of “na-insaafi nahi chalegi (we will not stand for this injustice)". Twelve protesters were reportedly detained, roads to the main town from areas such as Sankoo and Minjee were blocked, mobile internet was snapped—services were restored only earlier this week on 27 December, after a shutdown of over 140 days.
“The people of Kargil have never demanded a UT or abrogation of Article 370; we have already seen so many divisions in the past 70 years. We have been divided from Baltistan in 1947, then after that we saw so many divisions in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan," says Sajjad Kargili, independent politician and social activist. “We feel the pain of separation and are connected and dependent on the Kashmir valley."
Kargil has long been conflated—incorrectly—with the Kashmir valley, and a related misconception is that Leh is Ladakh’s only district. “We want Article 370 back, it gave us our special status and has been taken away without our consent. It is important to note that we have never been involved in the separatist movement, we have never had any militancy in Kargil and that is something we are very proud of," says Nasir Munshi, secretary, JAC. “We are Indians by choice and should be treated at par with Leh."
Four months on, Kargil is in a state of resentment and confusion. The JAC has presented its 14-point charter of demands, asking, among other things, for a separate union territory of Kargil. If that is not possible, it wants the current formation to be renamed the union territory of Leh and Kargil—they hope this will help Kargil get the attention it deserves.
Another key demand is the protection of land and jobs under the Sixth Schedule, which provides for the administration of tribal areas through autonomous district and regional councils. As promises that these demands would be met were made and not fulfilled by the former governor of J&K, Satyapal Malik—transferred to serve as governor of Goa just before the bifurcation—was officially implemented on October 31, thousands in Kargil took to the streets, terming it a “black day".
“We have only two public institutions now, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDCs) for Kargil and Leh," says Munshi. “At least make us a UT with a legislature and put us under the Sixth Schedule. We are eligible for sixth schedule since nearly 99% of the population here is tribal. And now in the new UT, the neglect has begun. Leh had internet while we didn’t. It has been over a month since the new LG took oath, and he has come here only once. So is the case with the secretary, Ladakh affairs," says Munshi.
But on 3 December, the government indicated that the Sixth Schedule demand was unlikely to be conceded. Union minister of state for home affairs G. Kishan Reddy told the Lok Sabha that two hill development councils which govern Kargil and Leh districts were already empowered—“the powers given to these councils are in line with the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India".
This has dampened celebrations in Leh, as the people have also taken to the streets to protest in temperatures as low as -6 degrees celsius. Kargil too remains uncertain—concerned about what the future holds.
A STATE OF UNCERTAINTY
At his home, adjacent to Hotel The Kargil which he owns and runs, Zaheer Bagh, 45, turns on a heat pillar and warms his hands on a cup of tea. Since 5 August, he says, his business has taken a hit of nearly 70-80%. He is presently living in the hope that Kargil will finally have a functional airport with domestic flights so that it can become a stand-alone destination, instead of a mere stopover for those travelling between Kashmir and Leh.
“They say that now they want to promote Kargil, especially as a tourist destination. But we had no internet for almost 5 months, the road is closed and we have no airport," he says. “For God’s sake, this is the time I start getting my queries for the next season. I have to ask people in Leh to check my mail."
Bagh cites a “crisis of leadership" and lack of “unity of command" as reasons for “continued neglect". “If you are smart enough, you have something called a backdoor channel. You are having a protest on the one hand—there is no gravity to the protest. In Kashmir, they have been protesting for three months, and there’s nothing moving there. Here, a few thousand people protested for barely two days. Do you think anyone is going to care?" he asks. “Earlier, we had two ears—J&K state and New Delhi. Now we don’t know how things will work."
One of the biggest causes for concern remains the prospect of demographic change, now that Article 35A—which granted the region exclusivity in ownership of land and government jobs—stands revoked. It’s feared this could lead to a dilution of Kargil’s unique culture, with six ethnic tribes and many languages across the 14,000 sq. km district.
Kaneez Fatima, a retired government employee and social reformer, is the region’s first woman to earn a postgraduate degree. She has worked tirelessly over decades to promote girls’ education in Kargil. Today, she has set up the Centre for Social Development and Policy Research, which seeks to provide a platform for intellectuals from various fields. “Aside from policy, the aim of the organization is also to promote and preserve the identity of Kargil through committed research. It is going to be difficult now, but it has become all the more important today," she says.
Having worked with the Union human resource development ministry and as a principal of the Navodaya Vidyalaya in Kargil, Fatima warns of the complete disconnect in eduction policy formulation for regions with topographical and climatic severities like Kargil. “Earlier, Kargil was part of the Kashmir board and funds used to come from the state. This will change. We function during different months from the rest of the country because of harsh winters and we need and utilize our funds by November, but from the Centre the call is for funds to be utilized by March which is the end of the financial year," she says. “Now, the textbooks need to come from Leh after the bifurcation—will this even be possible? We need a better infrastructure and system of education."
This lack of development in the field is scaring young students like Ali, who may lose a year since she has not been able to return to Kashmir to take her exams for this semester. “Earlier, we had job protection and had to compete for the Kashmir administrative services. Now that we are a UT, we will compete with people across the country for UPSC (Union Public Service Commission). We don’t have the same standard of education here, this will be very difficult for us," she says.
Ali is also part of the Student Educational Movement of Kargil (SEMOK), an organization of student activists that most recently protested the internet shutdown in Kargil on 27 November. They were unable to fill entrance examination forms, get news of examinations or study on their own. “I was also doing an online course to study Persian. But I had to suspend that since I haven’t been able to take my exams because everything happened online," she says.
Still, within the district, there is a difference of opinions among communities. During this time, the Buddhist representation has excluded itself from the JAC, even though it was actively part of the amalgam when it raised demands for a central university in Kargil and the call for a separate division for Ladakh within the erstwhile state of J&K last year. The community forms approximately 15% of the total population of Kargil.
Fifty kilometres away from the main town of Kargil, on the way to Leh, is the Buddhist-majority town of Wakha. With gompas and prayer flags on both sides of streets peppered with snow, a group of men, young and old, sit outside a small kirana store. One of them holds a rotating prayer wheel and chants under his breath. Stanin Lundup, 55, is a retired government schoolteacher.
“It’s good for us that Article 370 and 35A have been removed. When we were with the state, the funds would go to Kashmir and Ladakh would be neglected, now we will get them directly from the Centre and the region will develop," he says. “This has been our demand since 1949, we don’t agree with all the demands of the Muslim population, but what we do agree with is the demand for the Sixth Schedule to protect our jobs, land and identity."
But perhaps the deepest impact of the change since 5 August has been felt by the people of Drass, the second-coldest inhabited place in the world and the epicentre of the Kargil war in 1999. Only 140km from Srinagar, many of its residents have relatives in the valley, their children study in schools there and that’s where they get their stock for the winter. “For our private or government work, we had to travel to Kashmir previously. It was close, our children study there. Now we will have to go all the way to Leh, about 300km away from Drass. We can’t afford it," says 71-year-old Haji Ismail Mohammad Baji.
“We are far more patriotic than the people of Delhi and Nagpur. When the Kargil war happened, we put our lives at risk to help the army, and now we have been rendered stateless, our internet was shut down and we are cut off from the world," says Drass resident Ajaz Ahmad Lone. Most people are presently living off the stock they had collected before August. Vegetables, firewood and other essentials from the valley have not reached them and the roads are now closed. They say rations are being used sparingly, and people are even sharing them with fellow residents.
“We are cut off from the world for six months in the year when the road to Srinagar is closed. And now because of our distance from Leh, which will be the administrative headquarters, we will be ignored even more," adds Lone.
Regardless of religion, region, demands and views on Article 370 and the bifurcation, the people of Kargil hope the region will emerge from decades of neglect. Back at the TFC, Ali perhaps sums it up best. “We were proud to be citizens of J&K state. Now we are UT Ladakh, still we are proud. But what we want is equal share, equal opportunities, equal treatment and equal representation."
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.
Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint.
our App Now!!