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Home / Analysis / By making Ladakh a UT, the NDA has finally restored its dignity

By making Ladakh a UT, the NDA has finally restored its dignity

The region’s unique geographical location gives India a chance to think about its own ‘Belt and Road’ plan

analysis Updated: Aug 07, 2019 17:35 IST
P Stobdan
P Stobdan
A young Buddhist monk flexes his muscles during morning prayers at Thikse Monastery, Ladakh, 2014
A young Buddhist monk flexes his muscles during morning prayers at Thikse Monastery, Ladakh, 2014(REUTERS)

By restoring the dignity of Ladakh, which was once compared to other Himalayan kingdoms such as Nepal, Mustang, Bhutan, Sikkim and Monyul, the Indian government has finally done the unthinkable. Ladakh feels liberated after 185 years of slavery and coercion. India’s Kashmir policy was based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s own wistful familial links with the Valley that undercut India’s interests in several ways. India’s Kashmir policy was based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s own wistful familial links with the Valley that undercut India’s interests in several poignant ways.

First, on October 26, 1947, when the brief subjugation-links with the Maharaja of Kashmir had elapsed, the people of Ladakh persistently resisted being a part of the Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) unitary framework. But Nehru refused to heed; instead, left Ladakh to the mercy of Kashmiris despite its territorial incompatibility. Sheikh Abdullah had no links with Ladakh whatsoever.

Second, Ladakh was made to suffer on demographic deficiency (low weight in electoral politics), often used as an alibi for the neglect. At the same time, New Delhi chose to turn a blind eye to the Kashmiri practice of sabre-rattling. In fact, as early as in 1950, father of Madeleine Albright, Joseph Korbel, who was then a United Nations observer, noted how Kashmiris were playing trickery on the people of Ladakh, if not frightening them to surrender under their control. Despite Kashmir’s dire record of tricks and mischief, the Indian leadership was hell bent on appeasing the Valley. The results of that policy had long become untenable. In the late 1970s, Sheikh Abdullah even launched a nefarious “Greater Kashmir” concept to obliterate the identity of Ladakh.

Third, the territorial reality was that 82% of J&K was neither Jammu, nor Kashmir; it was Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan. Why would 15% people rule the rest of 85%? It was a flawed arrangement, anyway.

Fourth, Ladakh remained critical for India’s national security. Imagine, without Ladakh, the China’s People’s Liberation Army would be sitting on the southern foothills of the Himalayas. It has been self-harming to have ignored Ladakh thus far, even failing to underpin its strategic value for gaining direct access to the Tarim Basin and the Tibetan Plateau. It has cost the nation heavily thus far, while keeping such a vast strategic frontier area in the hands of separatist-oriented Valley leadership.

Fifth, India’s fallacious old-fashion statecraft failed to check both China and Pakistan from eating into the state’s territory. Over 55% of the state’s 222,236 sq km of J&K was occupied either by China or Pakistan. Also, India’s tagging of Ladakh to J&K underscores its lack of strategic clarity. Further, the constitutional arrangement sought for J&K essentially contained the seeds needed for India’s own destruction. The cumulative impact of those missteps has been getting clearer by the day.

Sixth, the myth of J&K had long outlived its historical inviolability. It was never a functional state and has cost the country heavily. In any case, with Kashmir having bogged down in separatist mode, Ladakh risked sliding into disarray amid simmering anger among the people. The situation had become untenable in the post-Burhan Wani incident in July 2016 due to pro-Azadi protests, hartals and shutdowns spread to other parts of the state. It is certainly not a good statecraft if demographic scarcity becomes a liability, leaving Ladakh’s vast borderland vulnerable to enemy encroachment.

Seventh, Ladakh’s economic potentials have not even been thought of. Its colossal Indus water resources of Zanskar, Suru, Dras, Shayok tributaries only benefit Pakistani farmers in Punjab and Sind. India did nothing to harness the water flow. Only 5% of Ladakh’s arid land is irrigated. If Article 370 impedes outside investments, the only economic source of tourism remains hostage to instability in the Valley. Poor connectivity, in any case, limited the flow of tourists to Ladakh.

The nation was ought to rethink its J&K policy realistically, and in tune with the changed circumstances. New Delhi has been grossly ignoring the Ladakh’s Union Territory (UT) demand for too long, predating even the Telangana movement. In fact, for the seven decades, the people of Ladakh stood united in demanding a UT status. To be fair, the Bharatiya Janata Party promised to fulfil their aspiration in 2014.

Significance of reordering J&K is enormous. Clearly, it was not a choice, but a necessity, for there are far bigger imperatives on the strategic front for India.

The Chinese forays into Gilgit-Baltistan, albeit under the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) pretext, may not be without its historical claim over the region since the Tang Dynasty. China’s eventual control over Pakistan occupied Kashmir would have direct consequences for Ladakh. Why should we allow J&K to become a trilateral problem?

Ladakh’s unique geographical location should offer India a huge counter-offensive potential in terms of leveraging connectivity to the Eurasian region and China.

The best way to blunt the CPEC is to think about India’s own “Belt and Road” idea. Narendra Modi should offer Xi Jinping an alternative energy corridor originating from an Indian port running across Ladakh to China. Why not use the Aksai Chin highway jointly? The proposal could spring multiple advantages, ranging from attracting Chinese investments, earning transits fees, to nudging Beijing to depend on India, thereby buying guarantee against any Chinese misadventure across the Line of Actual Control. China stands to gain from a more reliable economic corridor through India than risking investments in terrorism-plagued Pakistan.

A fresh thinking was also needed to draw on the growing opportunities for uplifting the Himalayan region in terms of promoting sustainable economy and tourism, besides environmental protection. It is time for the government to set up a Himalayan authority. Some beginning seems to have been made when the chief ministers of eight Himalayan states met recently in Mussoorie. But for that to happen, the resetting of J&K was an imperative.

The separation of Ladakh from J&K could now become the kernel in India’s long-term domestic and foreign policies. It would be a coup de maître to deal with multiple challenges.

P Stobdan, a former diplomat, is from Ladakh

The views expressed are personal