In India's northern territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, a movement of religious leaders and citizens demanding statehood and greater environmental control is growing. The residents, led in part by Sonam Wangchuk, a 56-year-old Buddhist engineer and innovator, are demanding democratic rights for their region, which has been the subject of conflict since India's independence in 1947.
Wangchuk began a five-day hunger strike on January 26, in a remote desert in Ladakh. In doing so, he reunited Buddhists and Muslims in the region who had been divided for more than 60 years. This division began, in part, in 1947 during the partition of India between India and Pakistan. At that time, the Buddhist-majority Ladakh was incorporated into the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. The ensuing unrest between Pakistan and India, as well as China's posturing in the region, has led to lingering mistrust between the two religious communities.
In 2019, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Narendra Modi, decided to revoke Jammu and Kashmir's special status as a state. In its place, they created two union territories: the territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the territory of Ladakh. At first, Buddhists in Ladakh celebrated the change, hoping it would lead to greater self-reliance. However, the actions of the Indian government soon caused concern among the people of Ladakh.
Chering Dorge, former BJP chairman in Ladakh, told reporters in 2020 that almost immediately control of local affairs was taken away from the locally elected council. He also expressed concern that "state land could be transferred to industrialists or the military without council consent." (Al Jazeera)
Amid concerns, protests began in the region as early as 2019, but Sonam Wangchuk acted to bring the disparate factions together in a unified concern for local control and environmental protection.
“Our protest is not just political,” noted Sajjad Kargili, a social activist from the Muslim-majority Kargil region of Ladakh. “It is to safeguard our lands, our culture, our local languages and our environment. (Religious News Service)
Leading the protest movement is a coalition of religious leaders known as the Leh Apex Body and the Kargil Democratic Alliance, both made up of a mix of social, political and religious leaders.
According to Feroz Khan, a leader of the Kargil Democratic Alliance, "religious leaders are more trustworthy than political parties" in the region. (Religious News Service)
At the center of local residents' concerns are major developments and industrial projects, including seven hydroelectric dams and a large solar power plant planned for an environmentally sensitive area.
Social activist and Leh Apex Body member Jigmat Paljor said, “We are not against development, but these projects should not come at the expense of livestock and nomadic livelihoods. (Religious News Service)
These concerns are based on worries about the predominantly rural and tribal composition of Ladakh's populations. These groups rarely have a say in projects that could affect them deeply.
Wangchuk's hunger strike has helped unite people in small towns and villages in Ladakh. Buddhists in these rural areas coordinated symbolic retreats to show their solidarity during times of his hunger strike.
"On the last day of his fast, Buddhist monks led prayers at the Chokhang Vihara temple where more than 500 devotees had gathered," Ladakh Buddhist Association vice president Chering Dorjay Lakrook said. “All the Buddhist monks supported Wangchuk's protest. (Religious News Service)
In February, political and religious leaders in Ladakh staged a protest in New Delhi, hoping to garner support from the Indian government. However, the government's response has been minimal, according to Sheikh Bashir Shakir of the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust, a socio-religious organization in Kargil.
“The government's stalling tactics have emboldened us,” Shakir said. “Our humanism and inclusive approach will hopefully inspire other nonviolent struggles around the world. (Religious News Service)