Untangling the Ladakh Knot

by Mar 24, 2024Governance0 comments

There could be a middle ground in resolving the demand of pitting Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution


The political climate is heating up in Ladakh, India’s coldest and highest plateau. No resolution is in sight at the close of the second week of the 21-day fast by climate activist Sonam Wangchuk and his supporters from the Ladakh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance.

They seek the inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which would, among other things, grant constitutional status to the Ladakh and Kargil autonomous councils, allowing them to impose taxes and make laws in areas such as village administration and forest management, while staving off industrial and mining giants in this ecologically sensitive region. Additionally, they seek separate parliamentary constituencies for Buddhist-dominated Ladakh and Shia-dominated Kargil.

While the central government has reportedly offered to extend special provisions along the lines of Article 371, it has not conceded to the Sixth Schedule demand.

It bears recall that when the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir was announced on 5 August 2019, the decision was welcomed by both Ladakh and Kargil because they saw it as a stepping stone toward their long-cherished demand for statehood. Their enthusiasm was dampened when Ladakh became a Union territory under a Lieutenant Governor and without its own Assembly. However, they held on to the hope that the two district councils would receive the same status as those under the Sixth Schedule.

Their expectations received a fillip when the 119th meeting of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) held on 11 September 2019 recommended that the Union territory of Ladakh be brought under the Sixth Schedule’s ambit. The NCST cited four reasons for this—democratic devolution of powers, preservation and promotion of the region’s distinct culture, protection of agrarian rights, including over land, and, finally, to enhance transfer of funds for the speedy development of Ladakh.

However, with this not coming to pass, Wangchuk as well as the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) have rallied together since last year. They held their first major protest in January and February 2023, with Wangchuk then beginning another “climate fast” last June. On 3 February 2024, LAB and KDA called for a complete shutdown, with thousands gathering in Leh with demands to protect its cultural identity, environment, job reservation for locals, and a parliamentary seat each for Leh and Kargil.

Although several rounds of meetings between protest leaders and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) took place between late December and early March, these resulted in a stalemate. The MHA contends that the Sixth Schedule is meant exclusively for the Northeast, with only Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram covered under its provisions.

The Sixth Schedule, which comes under Article 244 of the Constitution, provides for the formation of elected, autonomous administrative divisions known as Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). These councils perform certain state-like functions since they have the authority to impose taxes, manage forests, and control revenue. Essentially, they exercise some measure of legislative, judicial, and administrative autonomy within a state. Significantly, laws passed by the central and state legislature do not automatically apply to these regions, but have to be notified by the Governor.

Notably, there have also reportedly been calls in the past, such as by the NGO Vikalp Sangam, to include Ladakh under the Fifth Schedule so as to grant it greater autonomy and safeguards over its land, environment, and culture.

The Fifth Schedule, also under Article 244, applies to scheduled areas within states—districts in which the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population makes up more than 50 per cent of the total. It currently applies to ten states – Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Jharkhand. Unlike the Sixth Schedule, it does not involve elected bodies. Instead, the Governor nominates a Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) composed of ST legislators without any judicial or revenue powers. Additionally, in contrast to the Sixth Schedule, laws passed by Parliament and state assemblies are directly applicable to these areas. The Governor, however, has the power to adapt them to local conditions and circumstances.

It may be noted that under Article 371 of the Constitution, there are some special provisions for various states. It originated with special provisions for Vidarbha and Marathwada (now in Maharashtra) and Saurashtra and Kutch (now in Gujarat), tasking the governor with special responsibility to ensure region-specific development, technical and vocational education, and employment opportunities. Clauses pertaining to other states under Article 371 were incorporated later via amendments.

Article 371A was introduced following a 16-point agreement between the central government and the Naga People’s Convention (NPC) in 1960. Facilitated by the diplomat Major Bob Khathing, this agreement led to the creation of the state of Nagaland in 1963. Per this clause, Parliament cannot legislate in Nagaland on matters of religious or social practices, Naga customary law, and land ownership, among other things, without the concurrence of the state assembly. Similarly, under Article 371G for Mizoram, Parliament cannot legislate on such matters unless the assembly so decides.

Then, Article 371B, applicable to Assam, and Article 371C for Manipur empower the President to constitute a committee within the state legislative assemblies, consisting of tribal representatives and any other members as he/she may specify. It also provides for the governor to make an annual or “on request” report to the President on the administration of the state’s hill areas.

Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh also have special status ascribed to them via Articles 371F, and 371H, respectively. In Andhra Pradesh, clauses D and E under Article 371 empower the President to provide for equitable opportunities and facilities for people belonging to different parts of the state in matters of public employment and education. Following Telangana’s creation in 2014, Article 371D was extended to the new state by the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act. Article 371J contains special provisions for Karnataka, while Article 371I mandates a minimum of 30 members in the Goa assembly.

Given the above background, what could be the way forward in Ladakh? In the narrow, conventional sense, neither the Fifth nor Sixth Schedule can be applied to the Union territory of Ladakh even though 97 per cent of its population is tribal.

Instead, the way forward lies in amending the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils Act of 1997 to grant it more powers. Right now, the councils hold powers akin to those of a zilla panchayat under the 73rd Amendment Act. This, along with a provision similar to Article 371 with respect to safeguarding land rights, as well as an institutional arrangement to examine environmentally sensitive projects related to tourism, infrastructure, and mining could potentially be the solution.

However, the initiative for talks must come from the MHA. Sonam Wangchuk and other protesters are following a Gandhian way of making their point. From 1947 until now, we as a nation have been able to accommodate democratic aspirations by making necessary adjustments in our maps, boundaries, nomenclatures, and special provisions. Let’s do the same for Ladakh, the crest of India— both, literally and metaphorically.

(Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)

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