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Autonomy -- `Neglected' Leh says it wants out...

Autonomy -- 'Neglected' Leh says it wants out...

Author: Anuradha Nagaraj
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: July 1, 2000

The tourists are in town but the marketplaces are not bustling.  For the last three weeks, frequent strikes and bandhs have brought life in Leh to a standstill.  The shutters are down and the Buddhists are out on the streets.  Led by the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), protests against the recently cleared Autonomy Bill in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly are growing louder and the demand for the status of a Union territory stronger.

While the spotlight is on Srinagar, the quiet movement in Ladakh is gaining ground.  Tired of being treated as ``second-class citizens'', the Buddhists are now saying that they don't want to have anything to do with the state of J&K.  The monks are spreading the word around, the monasteries are holding meetings, the LBA is doing all the paperwork and the people's voice is growing stronger.

The response to the last call for a bandh on June 19 surprised even the organisers.  People never known to be part of any agitation got their act together and even participated in some slogan-shouting.  It is the home stretch, they Ladakhis say, explaining why the movement has so much support despite the fact that it is tourist season.

Sonam Yerphel's bookshop does brisk business this time of the year.  As the snow melts and the tourists come, Yerphal makes a killing before retiring for winter.  The frequent bandh calls by the LBA have affected his cash inflow but he says it is all for a better tomorrow.  Yerphel says: ``We have educated youth but no jobs, remote villages don't have basic amenities.  Life here is tough and the government hasn't done anything to make things easier for us.  If strikes are the answer, then we are willing to put up with them.''

Skepotol Dorje doesn't know how a Union territory status will make a difference in his village but nods vigorously when Yerphel explains the logic.  He, like most other Ladhakis who are a part of the movement, does not understand the issue well, but knows it is important.

Tsering Samphel, president of the LBA explains: ``There is no homogeneity between the Kashmiris and the Ladakhis.  Our language is different, our culture is different, our religion is different.  We are not asking for anything unusual.  The movement for a separate identity began long ago.  We do not want to be a part of the J&K Government, more so after this whole autonomy thing began.''

Initial protests resulted in the formation of the Hill Council in 1995, which was created specifically to look after the developmental needs of the region.  It was a trade-off between the government and the LBA.  The Union territory demand, which was first raised in 1974, was put on the backburner and the Hill Council was formed.  ``It was a substitute and we thought it was a fair one,'' says Samphel.  ``But now things are different.  The Hill Council is marginalised by the government and has to fight for everything.  We are neglected and it is unfair.''

Agreeing with Samphel, Hill Council chief executive Thupstan Chhewang adds: ``It is simple.  Autonomy means more domination.  Everybody knows that Ladakh and more specifically the Leh region is neglected.  We are given a step-motherly treatment.  Something needs to be done and since the LBA has taken the initiative and we are fully supporting them.''

While the present protest in mainly from the Leh district, Muslim-dominated Kargil district is also giving the Union territory issue a serious thought.  While the Buddhist-dominated pockets in this district have already pledged their support to the LBA, the others are thinking about it.

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