03/29/2024, 12.21
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Ladakh: protests and hunger strikes for autonomy and environmental protection

In the region nestled in the Himalayas on the borders with China and Pakistan, the local population is demanding the creation of a local administration, after the Delhi government revoked autonomy for Kashmir in 2019, dividing the region into two. Activists fear the melting of glaciers, the launch of large industrial projects and the militarisation of the territory, including by Beijing.

Leh (AsiaNews) - Activist Sonam Wangchuk put an end to a 21-day hunger strike this week, but, she specified on social media, the protest for the autonomy of Ladakh and the protection of the environment is not over: " Tomorrow, after me, the women will begin a 10-day fast. The young people will follow and then the Buddhist monks. Then the women could start again or I could go back to fasting. This cycle will continue,” the activist said in a video.

For weeks, thousands of people have been protesting demanding the application of a section of the Indian Constitution, called the Sixth Schedule, which guarantees indigenous tribes control of their territories.

In August 2019, when the Delhi government, led by the ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, revoked Kashmir's autonomy, it divided the region into two, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, both administered by the central government.

Nestled in the Himalayas between China, Pakistan and India, Ladakh has often been at the center of territorial disputes and has long suffered the effects of climate change. Wangchuk himself is an engineer working at the Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh.

“We are already facing climate disaster and the glaciers in the mountains will be destroyed if there is no control over unbridled industrial development and military maneuvers,” the activist had previously declared. In fact, in June 2020, the region was the scene of a clash between Chinese and Indian troops. Although the two Asian powers have not reached open conflict, in recent years they have continued to mass soldiers along the border, with consequences also for the local population.

In some cases, the Chinese army has taken control of border lands, preventing herders from grazing their herds, or Nomads have been forced to abandon their lands due to the creation of new Indian industrial projects, Wangchuk explained.

Furthermore, in Ladakh, 97% of the population is tribal and practices Buddhism (in the Leh district) or Islam (especially in the Kargil district). The fact that since 2019 the Indian government has not guaranteed a legislative assembly to Ladakh has fueled the population's concerns about the management of the territories also at a political level.

If in neighboring Kashmir Delhi preferred to implement harsh repression, towards Ladakh the Indian government had expressed its willingness to examine the possibility of applying the Sixth Schedule.

The implementation of the provision would allow the creation of autonomous councils for land management, public health and agriculture. Ten such councils already exist in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, states where several tribal groups are present. At the moment, however, Ladakh is administered by a governor appointed by the Indian president.

On March 6, Ladakh representatives held yet another round of talks with some Indian officials, including Home Minister Amit Shah, but to no avail. So, even with temperatures below zero, hundreds of people continued to take to the streets to demonstrate, especially in Leh.

But also the inhabitants of the Kargil district, who have always asked to join Muslim Kashmir and in the past had accused the Leh government of discrimination, joined the protests, a historic event, according to some analysts.

“We are trying to remember and awaken the conscience of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to safeguard the fragile ecosystems of Ladakh and the unique indigenous tribal cultures that thrive here,” Wangchuk said at the end of the fast, adding: “We don't want to think of Modi ji and Amit Shah ji as mere politicians. We would prefer to think of them as statesmen. But for this they will have to demonstrate character and foresight."

The next Indian elections will be held from April to June and Wangchuk, in his latest statements, recalled the importance of the democratic process also for Ladakh: "We can force a government to change its behavior, or change the government", he said . “So let us remember to choose our voting power very carefully this time in the interest of the nation.”


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