Kavita Suri

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Parties unite to fight for Ladakh’s UT status

Backed by the Buddhists’ association, members of the ruling National Conference, the Congress and the BJP have resigned to serve a warning to the nation that Ladakh will no longer tolerate discrimination and only settle for parity with the Jammu and Kashmir regions, writes KAVITA SURI.

Campaigning is yet to gain momentum all over Jammu and Kashmir where the four-phased election begins on 16 September. The far-flung, land-locked mountainous region of Ladakh has sprung a surprise that threatens the political existence of parties in the Buddhist-dominated region of the border state. 

Almost all political parties and other organisations in Ladakh have buried their differences to form the Ladakh Union Territory Front to strive for Union Territory status for the region. The LUTF was floated on 25 August. Parties like the National Conference, the Congress and the BJP have dissolved their local units to form the front. 

A statement signed by the Ladakh Buddhist Association president, Tsering Samphal, the day the front was constituted read: “The heads of local units have unanimously resolved to form the regional organisation and disband all political parties functioning in Ladakh.” 

The statement was endorsed by the National Conference president for Leh, Tsering Narbo Lampa; BJP president Sonam Rinchan and Chairman of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Thupstan Chewang and all LAHDC councillors. The statement said the regional front would work with the sole aim of achieving Union Territory status. What has been threatening major political parties is the fact that most of their Ladakhi legislators, leaders with clout in the area or those who were to be fielded for the forthcoming polls in Ladakh by their parties, have either joined the front by resigning from their parties or are in the process of joining the front which seem to have assumed much importance within a few days of its formation. 
Backed by the LBA – a powerful organisation of Ladakhi Buddhists which fought hard for the formation of the LAHDC and tasted success during Governor’s rule (receiving the Assembly’s concurrence in 1996) – the front also has the support of important Buddhists leaders like Mr Samphal and Mr Chewang. 

Ladakhis have a strong feeling that the region has suffered much at the hands of the ruling National Conference and that it is time to accord it a Union Territory status. 
Besides, there is also a common feeling that the LAHDC has not been able to do much on its own as the NC holds the reins in its hands. Ladakh, they believe, should be given UT status to ensure its development and earn parity with Jammu and Kashmir in all spheres of life. The Ladakh region as a whole has been hostile to Kashmir rule. A sense of deprivation and alienation has long plagued relations between Kashmir and Ladakh, especially, the Buddhists. 
In the 1998 parliamentary elections, National Conference candidate Syed Hussain had defeated his Congress rival Phunsog Namgyal by 30,000 votes. The NC repeated the performance in the 1999 byelection. The NC fears that the closing of ranks by Buddhist leaders at the time of elections has the blessings of powerful leaders in Jammu and New Delhi. The ruling party sees this as a move to corner it. 

For those seeking trifurcation of the state on regional and communal lines, the move is a shot in the arm. The development has far-reaching ramifications for all political parties, particularly the NC which is under pressure to repeat its performance of 1996. That year, of the four Assembly seats from Ladakh, the NC bagged three from Leh, Nobra and Kargil while the Zanskar seat went to the Congress. 

Former minister P Namgyal of the Congress and some party office-bearers have joined the LUTF, besides a Rajya Sabha member, Koshak Thiksey, and two NC leaders from the region. 
Koshak Thiksey, LAHDC members Rigzin Namgayal and Tizing Thiksey, have resigned from the NC to join the Ladakh front. The NC Minister of State for Agriculture and Horticulture, Tsetan Namgyal, resigned from the party recently to join the LUTF. Mr Namgyal was elected from the Nubra Assembly constituency in Ladakh in the 1996 Assembly elections on an NC ticket. He had defeated his nearest Congress rival, Satnzin Tundup, by a margin of 83 votes. NC chief Omar Abdullah and Kargil MLA Qamar Ali Akhoon air-dashed to Leh to persuade party leaders against resigning. Though the NC leaders have submitted their resignation to the party leadership, they are yet to be accepted. Hectic lobbying is on to win Mr Namgyal back. 

The president of the LBA, which is instrumental in forming the LUTF, told The Statesman that the Congress and other members of the LAHDC had resigned en masse. “If we are not given UT status, this entire northern boundary will go,” warns Mr Samphal. 

“There is lack of concern about Ladakh among all political parties. That is the reason the LBA spearheaded a move to unite political leaders to fight on a common platform for UT status,” says Mr Samphal. In another development, the Leh-based Ladakh Muslim Coordination Committee has supported the majority opinion of offering support to the front with the motive of preventing “unnecessary divide of Ladakhis” and has decided not to field any candidate against the LUTF candidate. 

The NC faces stiff opposition from local Muslims in Kargil district. They are supporting an independent candidate this time. Two organisations, the Imam Khomeini Trust and the Islamia School, have opposed Mr Akhoon’s candidature. Ghulam Hassan Khan of the NC represents Kargil in Parliament. Considered the NC bastion till now, the party’s future seems bleak in these two Assembly constituencies in Kargil. 

With Muslims supporting the LUTF, speculation is rife that the Leh constituency will opt for uncontested polling. 

The LUTF received a shot in the arm when one of its contesting candidates, Sonam Wanchok Narboo – popularly known as Pintoo Narboo – virtually emerged the first victor in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly polls. He was the lone candidate from Nobra in Leh district on the last day of nominations for the first phase of the poll. 

Nobra and 25 other Assembly constituencies spread over six districts of the state are going to polls on 16 September. With this uncontested win for the Ladakh front nominee, the ruling party got its first jolt in the region where the LUTF is giving the NC sleepless nights. Mr Narboo would be declared elected if his papers are found to be in order on scrutiny by the Election Commission. He will then become the first person to be elected unopposed to the new Assembly.

The BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir unit said the formation of the LUTF should serve as a warning to all national parties that people of the region would no longer 
tolerate discrimination. 

“Continuous discrimination against the Ladakh region by successive state governments had generated resentment among the Ladakhis who are now clamouring for development and parity with Jammu and Kashmir regions,” said the state BJP general secretary, Nirmal Singh. 

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