Why was Sonam Wangchuk on a hunger strike in Leh? What are his demands?

The engineer-innovator, who gained national fame after inspiring the lead character in the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots, is demanding an extension of the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule for Ladakh and environmental protection from ‘unchecked industrial and commercial expansion’

FP Explainers January 31, 2023 18:37:37 IST

File image of Sonam Wangchuk. News18

For the past five days, Sonam Wangchuk has been on a hunger strike.

The engineer-innovator who gained national fame after inspiring the lead character in the Bollywood movie “3 Idiots”, said he was striking to draw the BJP-led Centre’s attention to the ‘demands of the people of Ladakh’.

But who is Wangchuk? And what are his demands exactly?

Let’s take a closer look:

Born in Uleytokpo near Alchi of Leh district, Wangchuk won the Ramon Magsasay award for his community-driven reform of learning systems in remote northern India – thus improving the life opportunities of Ladakhi youth

The 56-year-old on Republic Day announced a hunger strike at the 18,380 feet high Khardung La in a thirteen-minute video.

His demands include an extension of the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule and environmental protection for Ladakh from ‘unchecked industrial and commercial expansion.’

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution speaks about the autonomous councils and districts created in tribal areas that enjoy several legislative and executive powers.

Such powers let the councils retain control over land, forest, sanitation, and employment – all with the stated aim of safeguarding cultural and indigenous identities, as per The Print.

Wangchuk in his video, said all is not well in Ladakh (in a reference to a song from the movie 3 Idiots).

“Ladakh, also known as the “third pole” of the earth, is dealing with serious issues as he mentions the 6th Schedule and protests related to it. To promote total economic development and decision-making autonomy, locals have been calling for the inclusion of Ladakh under the 6th Schedule. The topic has also previously been brought up in Parliament,” he was quoted as saying by Mint.

He further asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene and urged Home Minister Amit Shah to initiate talks on the Sixth Schedule for Ladakh.

“Ladakh has nearly 95 per cent tribal population, while the Constitution seeks 50 per cent of tribal population in an area for applicability of Sixth Schedule. Anticipations were being made that Ladakh would soon be included. Union Minister Arjun Munda had also given assurances,” Wangchuk was quoted as saying by The Statesman.

The newspaper also quoted Wangchuk referencing the 2020 Ladakh Hill Council Hill polls which the BJP won as well as the repealing of Article 370 – which led to the formation of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir as Union territories.

“People of Ladakh are stunned that why the government that answered its 70-year old demand for a Union Territory has not been listening to the demand,” Wangchuk said.

Barring the BJP, almost all major political parties social and religious groups and student organisations, have come together in Leh and Kargil districts in support of Wangchuk’s demands.

Wangchuk has also been ringing the alarm bell when it comes to the protection of Ladakh’s environment.

The Print quoted Wangchuk as saying, “If we no longer have a way to safeguard our land, the whole place will be overrun by huge populations and industries will come in. Glaciers will melt at a faster rate. Ladakh is a very fragile ecosystem, it cannot tolerate this.”

Sonam Wangchuk. Image courtesy Facebook

“The people here don’t want mining companies to come in. They don’t want industry to thrive at the cost of Ladkah’s environmental integrity,” Wangchuk further told the outlet.

“Recent studies from Kashmir University and other research organisations have concluded that glaciers in Leh-Ladakh will finish nearly to their two-thirds if they are not properly taken care of. A study by Kashmir University has found that the glaciers surrounded by highways and human activities are melting at a comparatively faster rate,” Wangchuk was quoted as saying by NDTV.

“Mining and such activities could melt glaciers. Moreover, Ladakh is strategically important for military and has played a role  in Kargil and other wars,” Wangchuk told The Statesman.

On Monday, hundreds of people Wangchuk on the final day of his five-day hunger strike including leaders of the Leh Apex Body of Peoples Movement for Sixth Schedule and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA).

The apex body and KDA, a separate amalgam of socio-religious, political and youth organisations, are jointly spearheading a campaign to press for their four-point demands which include full statehood and safeguards under the Sixth Schedule to the region.

“Today is the last day of my symbolic carbon neutral climatic fast and I am thankful to the people for joining me. The fast was an attempt to invite the attention of Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) so that our leaders can brief him about their concerns and demands,” Wangchuk told reporters at Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL) campus.

Wangchuk said safeguarding the Himalayas, including its glaciers, should be more important than making some “corporators happy” as it is having a direct bearing on the people of the sub-continent.

‘Worse than house arrest’

Wangchuk over the weekend claimed he had been placed under house arrest at his institute, a charge denied by police which says he was only prevented from observing a five-day fast at the top of Khardung La.

In a tweet Saturday Wangchuk shared a copy of a bond, which among other things sought an undertaking that he will not make any comments, statements, public speech, hold or participate in public assemblies or any activity related to the recent events in Leh district.

CALLING LAWYERS OF THE WORLD!!! The #Ladakh UT administration wants me to sign this bond even when only fasts & prayers r happening(.) Pls advise How right is it, should I silence myself! I don’t mind arrest at all #ClimateFast #6thSchedule #LiFE #saveladakh @AmitShah @narendramodi,” he wrote.

He said on social media that he was under a house arrest which was “actually worse than house arrest”.

“I have announced a five-day climate fast to save and safeguard the Himalayas, the glaciers, Ladakh and its people under the sixth schedule of Article 244 of the Indian Constitution. I was initially told that the policemen are deployed for my safety and I did not take it otherwise,” he said.

“Magsaysay awardee Sonam Wangchuk’s life inspired ‘3 Idiots’. He launched a campaign to safeguard Ladakh’s unique attributes and is under house arrest for this! Prevented from speaking on Schedule 6 and risks of climate change and on Republic Day! Reprehensible,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said in a tweet.

However, police denied such claims.

“He (Wangchuk) was not given permission by the administration to hold a five-day fast at Khardung La pass as the temperatures fall below minus 40 degrees Celsius there,” said Senior Superintendent of Police, Leh, PD Nitya.

“It was high risk for him and his followers to move to the place and accordingly, he was requested to observe the fast at his Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL) campus,” she added.

Police, she said, intercepted him when he tried to move towards Khardug La and requested him to return but he showed resistance and was brought back under lawful action to his institute.

“He has signed a bond and police were deployed as a precautionary measure as he did not cooperate with the police,” the officer said.

According to Wangchuk, on the first day of the hunger strike, he joined a prayer meeting at the Chokhang Vihara temple on the request of the public but was forcibly taken back by police to HIAL in violation of all rules.

“The system is misusing the police and they have no concern for my safety. They are doing all this for their own safety and want to restrict my voice to the campus only because the UT administration has miserably failed to address the issues and concerns of the people of Ladakh,” he alleged.

The SSP denied use of any force against the prominent public figure and also desecration of the religious place.

“Three youth who tried to create a law and order situation at NDA stadium (during a function) were detained and no FIR was registered against them. They were freed,” she said.

However, an FIR was registered against some foreigners who joined the hunger strike with Wangchuk in violation of visa norms.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: January 31, 2023 18:39:58 IST

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