One Activist’s Climate Fast Stirs Demands for Change in Ladakh

Enthusiasm has turned to frustration and bitterness for a leading conservation activist in India's Himalayan region of Ladakh, which was separated from Jammu and Kashmir when the former state's limited autonomy was controversially revoked in 2019.

The move by India's parliament prompted widespread anger and a monthslong security clampdown in the Kashmir Valley, where the Muslim-majority population bristled at the increased control over their lives by the Hindu-led federal government.

But in the Himalayan highlands of Ladakh, the partition of the former state into two union territories with limited local control was seen by the 97% tribal population as an opportunity to set their own path and preserve the region's pristine natural wonders.

More than three years later, that vision has turned to ashes for one of its strongest proponents, Sonam Wangchuk, who recently staged a five-day fast demanding that New Delhi follow through on promises made in 2019.

"We were better off with Jammu and Kashmir than today's [union territory]," Wangchuk lamented in a video he made public before completing his fast at the Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh, which he founded.

A former engineer turned educational reformer, Wangchuk has been working on the development of Ladakh for the last 30 years. He is credited with designing solar-heated buildings and artificial glaciers, while more recently providing the people with better education facilities.

Wangchuk was the 2018 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, sometimes referred to as the Asian Nobel, for "harnessing nature, culture and education for community progress." His life story was the inspiration for one of the lead roles in the 2009 film "3 Idiots," one of the most successful in the history of Indian cinema.

In a telephone interview with VOA, Wangchuk acknowledged his initial support for the partition of Jammu and Kashmir and the revocation of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution, which had granted the region a separate constitution, a state flag, and a high degree of autonomy over its internal affairs.

"On the one hand, it was good for the people of Ladakh to have their own path of development," said the tireless advocate of a carbon-neutral lifestyle, who had hoped the change would help to safeguard the region's fragile ecology. "But on the other hand, we were concerned about how will the safeguards of Article 370 continue?"

Reflecting a growing local consensus, Wangchuk now argues that Ladakh should become a state with its own legislature. And as a key demand of his fast, he appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant the region special protections under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution.

Such measures, granting wide powers to local councils, were established to protect primarily tribal populations against exploitation and now exist in special administrative regions in four states in India's remote northeast — Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.

Wangchuk said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government had promised to include Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule at the time it was separated from Jammu and Kashmir but that the issue has since been ignored.

The activist's fast, which he began on a frigid hillside before he was placed under house arrest and forced to move to his institute, struck a nerve in the region and mobilized large numbers of like-minded supporters.

"There is no state assembly. The bureaucrats are taking all the decisions. People feel that they have lost their voice, which has created a sense of alienation," political activist Sajjad Kargili told VOA. "Ladakhis are now unitedly raising their voice for statehood and Sixth Schedule."

Tsering Namgyal, the leader of the opposition on the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, agreed that Wangchuk's climate fast has galvanized public opinion in the region.

"It proved to be a massive boost in getting the demand for the Sixth Schedule echoed nationally and internationally. It remains to be seen what step the government of India and the Home Ministry will take in the wake of such a huge public outcry."

As for his own future plans, Wangchuk said, "I am happy with the response I received nationally and internationally. I want the government to pay attention to people’s concerns and work for their betterment." But if the government still does not pay attention, he said, he will continue to protest until the people's needs are fulfilled.

When asked whether he wanted the region's leaders to join the protest, Wangchuk said that he wouldn't compel anyone, and if they wanted to shake hands in protest, he won't stop them either.

Source: Voice of America