Protests are in full swing in Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh. Thousands of protesters had rallied on February 3 in response to a shutdown call against demanding tribal status for Ladakh including the constitutional changes brought about by the reading down of Article 370.

Called the biggest protest since 2019, the shutdown in the region was called by the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), two influential groups who are spearheading an agitation to demand special rights for the people of Ladakh after the region was separated from Jammu and Kashmir.

The demands of the movement include the restoration of statehood for Ladakh. The region was changed from a state to a Union territory (without a legislature) on August 5, 2019. The other demands include "tribal status for Ladakh, with its inclusion in the Constitution's Sixth Schedule, job reservation for locals and a parliamentary seat each for the Leh and Kargil districts."

Speaking to The Citizen about the protests and their demand, Sajjad Kargili senior member of the Kargil Democratic Alliance said that they are struggling on four point agenda, which is statehood for Ladakh, sixth schedule for Ladakh and public service commission gazette post and reservations and separate parliamentary seat for Leh and Kargil.

“Since the past four years not even one gazetted post has not been filled where the administration has failed. Ladakh comes in number 2 position in India for unemployment and the number of unemployed youths is increasing day by day,” he said.

In 1949, the Sixth Schedule was enacted per Article 244 of the Indian Constitution. The Sixth Schedule was designed to protect the indigenous and tribal groups by establishing and functioning autonomous district divisions known as the autonomous district councils or ADCs.

Because of the Sixth Schedule, the indigenous and tribal groups in the north-eastern states have significant autonomy. Assam, Mizoram, and Meghalaya have three autonomous district councils while Tripura only has one.

“There is frustration and trust deficit and there is no democracy. When we were with Jammu and Kashmir at least we had four electoral representatives, but in today’s date we have no assembly. So without an Assembly, the bureaucrats are trying to do whatever they want without taking the people into confidence,” Kargil added.

There has been a round of meetings between the two organisations and a committee appointed by the Centre on December 4, 2023. In the first meeting, the committee addressed the constitutional safeguards for the region. However, both LAB and KDA stuck to all of their four demands. The next round of meetings will take place in Delhi on February 19.

Speaking to The Citizen, Ali Shah, a resident of Ladakh and a law student said that they want the government to listen to their demands. “We have been protesting for a union territory since the 1990s but now the protest has become bigger. Since I was a child, I have been hearing about the demand for UT and tribal status for Ladakh but now that I have grown up I realise its importance,” he said.

In peak and harsh cold conditions protesters of all ages and genders gathered at the Polo Ground in Leh to follow the 'Leh Chalo' protest call given by the two organisations. The leaders of LAB and KDA addressed the gathering.

The speakers included Magsaysay award winner Sonam Wangchuk. In his speech, Wangchuk recalled how several Union ministers of the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had promised to include the region in the sixth schedule after Article 370 was struck down in 2019.

Wangchuk also mentioned election manifestos released by the BJP for the 2019 General elections and the 2020 Leh Hill Council election. In those manifestos, the BJP "advocated constitutional safeguards for Ladakh and its inclusion in the Sixth Schedule."

“After these announcements, there is a deafening silence (from the Centre). Those who speak of the Sixth Schedule are being subject to harassment. Now, there are lobbies in the mining industry who want to destroy Ladakh. We are only demanding our constitutional rights, and we will not rest until it happens,” Wangchuk said.

The education reformer and climate change activist was placed under house arrest last year, following a five-day fast in support of protection of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule. The Ladakh police had, however, denied the charge.

Wangchuk has also announced that he would fast unto death from February 19 to press their demands.

Earlier, he was planning to go on a three-week fast from February 3 but postponed it after Chhewang, the chairman of the Leh Apex Body (LAB), asked him to wait till February 19, when prominent leaders from the Union Territory would meet Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai in New Delhi.

“We all are eagerly awaiting what would come of the meeting,” Shah added.

According to a report by ‘The Wire’, a similar demonstration was held in Ladakh’s Kargil district. The protest was also attended by thousands of people.

The demonstrators chanted slogans in favour of the Sixth Schedule and reservation in jobs for the people of Ladakh among others.

Slogans such as ‘Nahin chalegi, nahin chalegi, nainsaafi nahin chalegi (Injustice won’t work)’ and ‘Ladakh kay tribal status ko, nafiz karo nafiz karo (pronounce tribal status for Ladakh)’ echoed during the demonstration in Kargil district on Saturday. Some demonstrators were carrying placards which read: “We demand statehood.”

Chering Dorjay, one of the members of LBA and a former J&K minister, said that the outpouring of support for the shutdown call is a “clear message” to the Union government that it should concede the demands of the people of Ladakh.

“We are not demanding anything extra-constitutional. Tribal status is the right of the people of Ladakh. The Centre should respect our sentiments,” Dorjay, who resigned as the chief of Ladakh BJP in 2020, said.

The protests have only intensified, especially since 2021. In the past four years, Ladakh has shut down on multiple occasions amid fears of disempowerment of locals and overreach of bureaucracy. In August 2021, LAB and KDA joined forces to amplify their demands.

Meanwhile, Former minister Karbalai said they have been peacefully agitating for their four-point agenda. It also included the creation of two separate parliamentary constituencies for Leh and Kargil districts, recruitment and job reservation for the youth of Ladakh along with creation of a public service commission.

“Given the attitude of this government, we have decided to intensify our agitation and today’s programme was part of it. We will move to Jantar Mantar, Delhi in the third week of February and will follow it up by village, block and district-level protests across the UT of Ladakh. We will go for strikes if our demands are not met,” he said.

He said they have already forwarded their reservations over the constitution of the high-powered committee to the government and “we want the government to include our demands in the agenda of the dialogue and also give due representation to the representatives named by the apex body and the KDA”.

On December 4, the two civil society groups held talks with a committee formed by the Centre in New Delhi, where they also demanded job reservations for locals and a parliamentary seat each for the districts of Leh and Kargil. The next round of talks is scheduled for February 19.

Earlier in January 2023, the Union Home Ministry established a 17-member high-powered committee, headed by Minister of State Rai, with the objective of “ensuring the protection of land and employment" for the people of Ladakh.

“We are fighting for the restoration of democracy and this is our struggle,” Kargil added.

However, the protests took place days after the two key bodies dismissed the Central government’s “high-powered” committee over issues related to its mandate and the composition of the members.

“The protests will only continue to grow considering how our demands have not been met. What is also most unique about this protest is the involvement of the youth. So many young people have come to become a part of this,” Shah added.