Out of deep freeze: Ladakh at Jantar Mantar

Sonam Wangchuk leading Ladakh protest at Jantar Mantar. [FPK Photo/Mohsina Malik.]

Inside Delhi’s dissent-show where the cold desert’s celeb avant-gardist was spearheading campaign for identity, rights and environment.

The nerd who inspired Bollywood blockbuster—3 Idiots—finally stepped out of his deep-freeze mode when he showed up in Delhi as a dissenter on February 15. He wore his signature smile but minced no terse words—reminding New Delhi of stern consequences, if cold desert continues to receive the cold shoulder.

The day-out was a clear departure from his vocal for local campaign that resonated with masses in India following the premier Narendra Modi’s avid address to nation.

With dragon on his doorsteps, Sonam Wangchuk endorsed the Made-in-India brand and apparently became a Delhi’s blue-eyed boy and celebrity-nationalist. He was even counted among the cabal catalysing the new India’s Vishwa Guru projection.

But when this moniker of Modi’s India lately sat on a hunger strike against Delhi’s “dogmatic” policies, his delusions surfaced in Leh’s subzero temperature.

Following his homeland strike, his show of dissent in Delhi raised demands including statehood, sixth schedule, job reservations, a separate public service commission and two parliamentary seats for Ladakh. Some hundreds from his native land gathered and raised the demand at Jantar Mantar.

Before his capital shift, the educationist-cum-environmentalist had thrown his weight behind the pre-August 2019 status-quo and threatened a possible hot pursuit in the cold desert if the demands remain unaddressed.

The poster and a posse of protesters. [FPK Photo/Mohsina Malik.]

Three years after the abrogation of Article 370—the landmark event that had created festivity in Leh—the dissenters of Ladakh raised a resounding slogan: “Yeh Tanashahi Nahi Chalegi, Democracy Ko Bahaal Karo (Dictatorship is not accepted, restore democracy)in the heart of the capital.

“Our voices are not heard,” the protesters said in unison. “It has forced us to come to Delhi for protest.”

The two political groups—Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance—an amalgam of trade unions, and social, political and religious groups from Ladakh held the protest.

“When Ladakh was turned into a union territory after August 5, 2019,” said Noor Mohammad, an elderly Ladakhi man, “we were promised development. But three years down the line, we’re yet to see any development.” 

Many times, Noor said, people of Ladakh put forth their demands and raised their voices against the injustice, “but no one from the government is ready to listen to our woes,” he said. “And that is the reason we came to Delhi to protest.”

Ladakh should get statehood and sixth schedule, he said, to secure its future, rights and environment.

The dissenters during the daylong protest. [FPK Photo/Mohsina Malik.]

The sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution empowers autonomous councils to govern rights over land, forest, sanitation and employment, with the interest of safeguarding cultural and indigenous identities. 

“Over 95 per cent of people are tribal in Ladakh which means that the sixth schedule is applicable in the region,” said Sajjad Kargili, a political activist from Kargil and a runner-up of the 2019-parliamentary polls.

“We’ve been demanding its implementation for a long time now. All we want is to safeguard our land, resources, water, and glaciers in the region and want our basic rights and our voices to be heard.”

‘Restore Statehood’ chant echoed the loudest. [FPK Photo/Mohsina Malik.]

Sensing ire coming from Ladakh, the Ministry of Home Affairs in January this year constituted a high-powered committee headed by Minister of State Nityanand Rai to ensure the protection of land and employment for the people of the region. But the dissenters dismiss it as a mere hogwash.

“The government is saying that they’ll provide the youth with jobs and the best opportunities so that we can excel and develop various sectors in Ladakh,” said Nazir Ahmad, a 25-year-old university student. 

“But how it is possible when everything is on paper? We want job reservations so that we do not have to run from pillar to post in search of employment.” 

In Ladakh, he said, various sectors including education and hospitals lack basic facilities, which is very concerning and alarming.

A motley group of people of different age group participated in the protest. [FPK Photo/Mohsina Malik.]

The people of Ladakh, the dissenters said, are also concerned about the worsening effects of climate change in the region. 

“Our ecosystem is very fragile,” said Ghulam Ahmed Noor, a 59-year-old pastoralist from Leh. “Any external element affects our surrounding badly which automatically puts an impact on the lives of the people in the region. We live in sub-zero temperatures. A drop or rise in temperature is very much concerning, as it will impact our lives and livelihoods as well.” 

For instance, Noor said, his whole livelihood depends on the cattle selling. “If I do not have fodder for them, then how will I survive and feed my family. My cattle will die due to the non-availability of food, and climate change will only escalate this situation. We want the implementation of the sixth schedule as soon as possible, so that our ecosystem stays protected.” 

It was a campaign for Identity. [FPK Photo/Mohsina Malik.]

Mining and infrastructure projects, the protesters said, have posed another challenge to environment.

“Ladakh is rich in resources like Uranium, but it is concerning when excessive mining is done for it,” said Norwang Tawang, a 26-year-old science student at Delhi University. 

“Excessive mining can result in landslides or any natural disaster, which will not be good for our fragile ecosystem. We do not want investors to open up their factories and industries for mining purposes or any other thing. The pollution created won’t be good for our health as well as the environment. I am here to raise my concerns against the mindless mining.”

They let the poster do all the talking. [FPK Photo/Mohsina Malik.]

Amid all this, Sonam Wangchuk stood assertive and attentive. The geek who apparently took Beijing head-on when New Delhi banned Chinese Apps like TikTok is now out to save his own native identity. 

“Ladakh has a huge shortage of water as glaciers have started melting at an alarming rate,” Wangchuk said. “If investors come, then our resources and environments will bear the brunt and people will suffer in the near future.” 

The region, he said, is among the vulnerable parts of the country to the impacts of climate change. 

“Glaciers are retreating and whole villages are forced to relocate in search of water,” he said. “This makes the situation very alarming. We’ve to safeguard our fragile ecosystem as soon as possible.”

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