Development of Ladakh is crucial for India’s defence interests.

The trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh, with Zanskar ranges in the south and Karakoram ranges in the north bordering both Pakistan and China, is strategically vital for India’s national security. It formed part of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir which acceded to India in October 1947, after J&K was attacked by Pakistan supported tribal raiders. Large parts of the region, including the strategic Gilgit which, during the Maharaja’s rule, formed the Frontier district, remain under Pakistan’s illegal occupation. Pakistan has divorced these areas from Pakistan Occupied J&K and refer to them as Gilgit-Baltistan (former Northern Areas), administered directly by the federal government of Pakistan. A part of the area, including Aksai Chin, has been illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s most important strategic initiative in this region, also runs through areas under Pakistan’s illegal occupation. It is a land-locked area comprising the trans-Himalayan ranges; Zanskar, Ladakh, Pangong and Karakoram Ranges. The area’s population is mainly Buddhist with Shia Muslims of Balti ethnicity dominating the Suru and Sankoo Valleys of Kargil. Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield with Saltoro Ridge as the vital ground, forms part of this region, further enhancing the area’s strategic importance. Occupation of Siachen provides the Indian Army a major strategic advantage. Despite many desperate attempts, Pakistan Army has not been able to secure a toe-hold on the Saltoro Ridge. Occupation of Saltoro Ridge enables the Indian Army to oversee the ambitious CPEC, the strategic and military exploitation of which by China and Pakistan is a major cause of concern for India. It also prevents the possibility of a pincer-move by combined forces of Pakistan and China to cut-off the Nubra Valley and subsequent capture of Ladakh. Ladakhis are a very proud race who take pride in being nationalists. They consider themselves the guardians of India’s northern frontiers. They have resisted Kashmiri hegemony from when the state administration was transferred from the Maharaja to Sheikh Abdullah in 1949. In the first state reorganisation, Ladakh was made a district of the Kashmir Division ignoring its ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences. Sheikh Abdullah’s first cabinet did not have any representative from Ladakh. The National Conference was the sole political party, comprising mainly Kashmiri Muslims. Ladakh had only two seats in the State Assembly. Thus, ‘majority rule’ virtually became ‘Kashmiri Rule’. Land reforms initiated by Abdullah did not exclude the Gompas and drew strong opposition from the Buddhist monks, who enjoyed considerable clout. It was at Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention that the Gompas were exempted from the provisions of the Land Reforms Act. The situation became grave when Urdu was made compulsory for Ladakhis as well. The grant-in-aid given by the Dogra rulers to three primary schools run by Shias, Buddhists and Sunnis was unilaterally withdrawn. Separate allocation for the region began in 1961. Discriminatory policies of Kashmiri leaders pushed Ladakhis to demand separation from Kashmir to ensure development of their backward areas and maintain their religion and cultural identity. A major reason for the area’s under development was the Nehru government’s flawed policy of treating border regions as frontier regions. While frontier regions were supposed to be dynamic, temporary, and a buffer zone, border regions defined by a boundary line are fixed, sacrosanct and static. Since India had no expansionist designs, it should have concentrated on developing her border regions rather than keeping them underdeveloped under false pretext of denying readymade road axis to a potential aggressor. Neither the central nor state governments paid heed to development of infrastructure in this remote trans-Himalayan region, leading to anger and alienation among people. The region’s growing alienation led initially to the demand of a Central Administrator followed by demand of internal autonomy, regional autonomy, and direct central administration, done for a year after 1962, and finally veered around the demand for separate divisional status. An agreement was reached in October 1989 to form an Autonomous Hill Council on the pattern of Darjeeling Hill Council. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act was finally enacted by the central government in May 1995, granting an Autonomous Hill Council each for Leh and Kargil. Despite formation of the Hill Councils, they were not adequately empowered, remaining a contentious issue between the Ladakhis and Kashmir-centric state governments. The long pending demand of empowering the Autonomous Hill Councils was conceded when the Governor’s administration approved Ladakh Hill Development Council (Amendment) Bill, 2018, making the councils stronger administratively and financially. This was followed by establishment of a cluster university to provide better education. Finally, in February 2019, the government also conceded the demand for a separate Ladakh division, making it a separate administrative region, like Kashmir and Jammu. The region being vital for national security, it is essential that people there are kept satisfied to effectively serve as guardians of India’s borders. Population of border areas form an important centre of gravity for adversaries, who would prefer dissension in these areas. Such dissension can be exploited to threaten vulnerable lines of communication in case of conflict. Besides holistic development of the entire Ladakh region, particularly the border areas, connectivity must improve by building a direct rail link, road network including the much delayed Darcha-Padum-Neemo-Leh road and an airfield at Kargil. A strategic road linking Jammu region with Leh via Kishtwar is also needed. Widening and macadamization of Kargil-Zanskar road, opening of Panikhar-Pahalgam road should also be completed. Zojila tunnel is a strategic necessity. Till all weather road connectivity is established, airfares must be capped for local residents, particularly during winter months. Establishing professional colleges and higher education institutions, including a separate cluster university for Kargil, should be a priority. Inclusion of Bhoti language in the Eighth Schedule is a long pending demand. Both Kargil and Leh should be developed as centres of excellence for religious research and education. The discrimination in recruitment of Ladakhis in government offices needs redressal. Attempts to disturb the demographic balance in Leh must be aborted and emphasis laid on communal harmony. The Kashmir-centric leadership in the past has depended on the formula of divide and rule by pitting Kargil against Leh. The tendency of the successive Kashmir-centric governments to treat the people of this region as second class citizens needs to be put to end. Ladakh was opened to tourists in 1974. Initially, tourism was limited to mountaineering and trekking. Gradually, with the Valley being disturbed, Ladakh has grown into a major tourist centre. While development of tourist infrastructure is required to improve the local economy, safeguards against environmental degradation are critical. The region also has hydro-electric potential, which can be utilised. Ladakh also needs administrative reorganisation. Carving out some new districts and fresh delineation of assembly constituencies should make up the development agenda.

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