A message from Ladakh

Why Kargil voted against the separation with Kashmir in local council polls

October 13, 2023 12:27 am | Updated 12:27 am IST

The wait during the counting of votes

The wait during the counting of votes | Photo Credit: ANI

The topography of Ladakh, which became a Union Territory (UT) in 2019 after Jammu & Kashmir was split into two UTs, is as complex as Mars. Equally complex and baffling is the region’s politics. Layered in multiple religious, cultural and linguistic identities spread through a sparsely distributed population and comprising the Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil districts.

The recent elections to one of the twin hill councils of Leh and Kargil, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council-Kargil (LAHDC-K), only brought to the fore a political barcode that needs closer scrutiny for clarity.

It’s important to understand the scale and demography of Ladakh before we decipher the politics of this cold mountain region, which was part of the Kashmir division of Jammu and Kashmir till 2019, when the Centre ended J&K’s special status and carved up the State. In size, Ladakh is around forty times the size of Delhi, which is 1,483 square kilometres, against Ladakh’s area of 59,000 sq km. The population of Ladakh is 2.74 lakh (2011 census), which is far less than the population of Delhi’s south tehsil, where 27.3 lakh people live. Distances between villages in Ladakh could easily vary from 20 km to 80 km.

Cutting to the recent elections, the LAHDC-K saw 77.61% out of 74,026 voters elect a new hill council, in the first such election since 2019. The Kashmir-based political party, the National Conference (NC), won the majority of 12 seats, the Congress 10, the Bharatiya Janata Party two and Independents two in the 26-member hill council. The size of voters might be small but it sent out a big message. There is both a sense of hurt and a constant unease in Kargil about Ladakh becoming a UT and its centuries-old relationship being severed from Kashmir, once an integral part of the famous Silk Route, cutting across several civilizations in its wake.

For several voters in Kargil’s Drass, one of the coldest regions in the world where temperatures dip to around minus 40 degrees Celsius in winters, Kashmir remains their first love. In the past when the treacherous route to Drass from Srinagar could cost travellers their lives due to snowfall and slipping roads, most schools there were run by teachers from Kashmir. Marriages between locals of Drass and Kashmir are still common. The influence of Kashmir in Drass is visible in the architecture of their homes, which have typical Kashmir corrugated tin-style sloped roofing and wooden windows. In Kargil’s Mushkoh Valley, Shina-speaking people have more in common with Kashmir’s Gurez valley than any other part of the region. Shina is an Indo-Aryan language popular in Pakistan-occupied Gilgit Baltistan at present. Kargil may be home to a mostly Shia population, but comes from different linguistic groups like Puriks, Brogpas, Baltis, Shinas and Ladakhis.

In Kargil, the politics is not determined by the political parties but two religious seminaries, the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT) and the Islamia School Kargil (ISK). The IKMT, which emerged in the late 1980s, is a direct fallout of the Iranian revolution of 1979 led by Iranian Shia leader Ruhollah Khomeini. However, the IKMT, which traditionally supported the Congress, was propped up in an attempt to split the ISK, which had supported the NC since the 1950s. Both these seminaries oppose partition of J&K into two UTs, especially the separation of Kargil from Kashmir.

In fact, voters of Kargil cast the ballot against the separation with Kashmir in these polls. It has remained a common refrain among voters as well as local leaders. Haji Abdul Qayoon, an old leader of the NC from Drass, sums up the 2019 move of the Centre as an event, “where words fail to express the pain it caused”. “How will an officer feel if he is reduced to a peon?” he said, when asked about 2019. For the NC, the elections were for Kargil’s identity and affiliation with Kashmir rather than anything else. The Congress managed to keep the politics, based on secular credentials, alive. The BJP-led Central government, which did take rare development initiatives in the past four years, the voter base could not expand because of strong identity politics.


Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.