Satya Pal Malik should give in to Kargil's demands for rotation of headquarters before move takes ethnic overtones

Sometimes politicians forget the simplest basics of what made them rise to the top of the political soup. You don’t get far unless you have a chair, a table, a hundred odd files, and a couple of henchmen to call your own. That’s the basis of the problem in Kargil. When the Centre put out an order creating a separate Ladakh division comprising the entirely disparate areas of Leh and Kargil, the politicians of the latter region were left high and dry. The result was entirely predictable — toil and trouble and slander of an otherwise admirable move.

As almost everyone who has travelled into this area knows, once you step into Kargil from the Kashmir Valley, it's not just the topography which changes, from blue-green meadows of Kashmir into brown and sable of rugged mountains marked by the shifting light and shade that is so characteristic of Leh in particular. The people are different, the languages are different and the customs even more so.

File image of Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik. PTI

File image of Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik. PTI

The gentleness of Buddhist culture, interspersed with the equally gentle Shia population has so far ensured that trouble in this area has remained virtually non-existent. Muslims constitute more than 76 per cent of the population according to the 2011 Census in Kargil district, Buddhists more than 14 percent and some 7.34 percent are Hindu. There are also Balti and Purigpa tribes, while further up into Leh are the Bot, Bakarwal and Brokpa tribes.

Leh has a rather less than overwhelmingly Buddhist population at over 66 per cent, with the numbers of Hindus and Muslims rising to the level at about 17 and 14 percent, respectively. That in itself would have been a key factor for division, and has been in the past. However, at present, just about everyone in an area with one of the lowest population densities in the world (3 per square kilometre) are united in their fear of being overwhelmed by the vastly more populous Indian heartland. Equally or more serious is the fact that being bracketed with Jammu and Kashmir does them no favours.

Every time trouble flares in the Valley, tourism to Leh and Kargil drops like a stone. And tourism is all that they’ve got in terms of livelihood. These factors are what determines positioning in politics. Support for Article 35A and its definition and rights of permanent citizens was one. The demand for more autonomy is another.

In 1993, the Centre compromised by creating the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), notified by law in 1995, with the intention of giving the area some autonomy in decision making and thereby doing away with the delay and backbreaking indecisiveness that marked its governance from Srinagar. Predictably, the move was undertaken during a time of Governor’s Rule, and equally predictably was promptly diluted by the state government run by the National Conference when it came to power.

It is due to the far-sightedness and innate humanity of a later chief minister Mufti Sayeed that greater powers were delegated to the LAHDC’s representatives. Both Leh and Kargil have thereafter seen far better governance under the LAHDC than seen under the various State governments in Srinagar.

Nonetheless, matters were far from easy. A district commissioner level officer continued to oversee the two areas, reporting to the divisional commissioner, who, in turn, had to deal with 12 other districts in the state. Demands for a Union territory status, therefore, continued, with the intention of cutting bureaucratic ties that bound them to the rest of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

By this time, Leh’s strategic status had increased considerably. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) snaked its way into the disputed area of Gilgit Baltistan, just adjacent to Kargil. In the wake of a series of protests, Islamabad was reluctantly giving the area some powers to decide their own affairs. And to the west, Chinese infrastructure in terms of roads and rail was steadily increasing.

In May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Leh with a clear aim of delivering on his promise of connectivity with the inauguration of two mega construction projects — the Zoji La tunnel that would provide the much-needed all-weather connectivity to Kashmir, and a bi-axis rail link that was part of 14 strategic projects conceived by the Ministry of Defence. The prime minister was received with acclaim, in stark contrast to his reception in Srinagar.

In September 2018, Governor Satya Pal Malik initiated further devolution of powers, providing more powers to levy and collect taxes, ownership of local roads and buildings, and notifying 100 posts of panchayat inspectors for the newly set up community development blocks. These new posts were to act as custodians of panchayat properties and records.

Further powers were devolved, including sanction of power connections, an issue that had caused considerable annoyance in the past. The present order which creates a separate administrative and revenue division — Ladakh Division — combining areas in Leh and Kargil districts is, therefore, an entirely desirable end point to these series of moves towards devolution.

Certainly, it was entirely foreseeable that Kargil would object to this shifting of decision making to Leh alone. After all, it hardly makes much difference if local representatives have to run to Srinagar or Leh to get their files cleared. This could actually reverse the degree of efficiency that was earlier evident through the Hill Council model.

There is still room for setting things right. The setting up of the whole administrative machinery that marks the Ladakh Division (with Leh as its power centre) will involve not just designation of a district commissioner and Inspector General (Police), but also parallel offices for all departments, their staffing, rules of business and decisions on the location of these offices.

Kargil is demanding a rotation of headquarters — much like between Kashmir and Jammu — and more offices for Kargil area rather than an over-concentration in Leh. It is undoubtedly true that recent announcements for new hospitals and a possible University are all directed at Leh. Rotation of headquarters, though an expensive and time-consuming exercise, makes administrative and political sense.

The government should quickly sanction this move before it acquires ethnic overtones as it could give air to demands for divisional status for Pir Panjal and Chenab areas. Though the fact remains that the basis of demands is the same — lack of governance from Srinagar — many are already viewing this with suspicion. Consider places like Reasi, which has a near mathematically equal population division of Hindus and Muslims. As long as they unite for better governance, it’s a good cause. When they are preyed upon by self-serving leaders now supporting such demands on Twitter, it could quickly turn dangerous. And once it slides down the path of ethnic division, the issue can quickly become irreversible.

It's far better to give in quickly to Kargil’s reasonable concerns, even while consulting with other demands for new divisions, and crafting them into a dialogue for better governance than to party politics. Else, the party could turn quickly into a nightmare.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 08:44:48 IST

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