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Perilous Path to Democracy

A village of 22 voters in Ladakh’s remote Nubra Valley has decided who will shape its destiny for the next five years

Firstpost print Edition

So, whom did 67-year-old Sonam Lamo vote for? “The party that is going to win,” she said with a smile while leaving even as a group of women entered the polling station. Sonam was one of the first to cast vote from the tiny village of Sunido, on the fringes of Nubra Valley, in Ladakh region. Just an hour after polling began and before the morning sun’s rays had enveloped the hamlet,  nestled in the Karakoram range, more than half of Sunido’s votes had been polled. The remaining seven voters were not present in the village, but the polling staff had to remain on standby. After that, it was a long wait for the four election officers, three police and two Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel.

The polling staff basked in the sun, discussing local issues over cups of hot salty tea while the ITBP personnel weighed the serenity of Sunido against the uncertainty of Kokrajhar, in Assam, where they were previously posted. “It’s our duty to be here till closing,” one of the polling officers said. “We must wait till the last minute, in case, someone comes to vote.” By evening, two more voters who had temporarily moved out of the village for work had arrived to exercise their franchise.

For 50-year-old sarpanch Tsering Namgail, it does not matter that the village has only a handful of votes—22 to be precise—in an election in which there are more than 900 million eligible voters. As the Ladakh parliamentary constituency went to polls on May 6, in the 17th general elections, residents of Sunido believed that every vote counted.

For poll officials, this tiny village was a cliffhanger

None in the village, except for Namgail, appeared sure of who they thought could solve their problems. “Only the BJP,” said the sarpanch, an ardent supporter of the Congress in past elections.

The change of heart this time was because of the new solar light generators that the previous coalition government in the state—of the Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party—gave the village, where electricity is supplied for only three hours every evening, from 7 pm to 10 pm. “They brought us out of darkness.”

In villages far from the towns, tourism and services in the military as porters and as soldiers are the major sources of livelihood. But there are still problems that can be resolved only by winning the favour of locals in the administration, such as infrastructure. Ladakh’s remote villages are often located amid hills and lack regular electricity supply and public transport, if they do not lack road connectivity entirely. For residents of these villages, where mobile networks also do not exist, travelling to nearby towns for medical check-up or work is an expensive affair that involves hiring a private taxi and planning days in advance.

Divided by faith

Despite the remote location, there is a growing polarisation in Ladakh that is pitting the region’s two main communities against each other. Many in Buddhist-dominated Leh hope a BJP victory will ensure speedy development. The optimism is propelled by the governor-led administration’s move to grant a division status to the area in February.  The administrative hold of the Kashmir Valley over the region has left deep resentment against Kashmiris that has eventually shaped bitterness against the non-Kashmiri ethnic Muslims of these parts.

“We were at the mercy of their whims,” said Stanzin, a teacher in Leh, about bureaucrats in the summer capital of the state, Srinagar. “Earlier, we needed to take a Kashmiri along to the government offices. When bureaucrats heard the Kashmiri language, they would work faster. Otherwise, we would have to keep knocking their doors.”

The Muslim-dominated Kargil district and Leh are not on the same page over what is good for the region. Muslims of Kargil see a second term for the BJP bringing greater subjugation, and find an acceptance of that thought among their brethren in Leh district.

“Muslims of the region have been facing oppression ever since the BJP came to power in 2014,” said a government employee in Leh. “If they come again, who knows what they will do to us.”

In Hunder village of Nubra Valley, where residents have set up several hundred tourist camps, income is steady for all—but frictions are on the rise. Gathered at one such camp a day before polling, a group of Muslim men spoke in hushed tones as seemingly Buddhist strangers passed by. “They are using different methods to keep us in check,” said a Muslim resident of the village referring to the dominant Buddhist community. “They have already called for a boycott of Muslims. Now they have banned tobacco here [in Nubra Valley] because Muslim’s only smoke and don’t drink alcohol.”

Close to the elections, a video of a year-old press conference held in Jammu resurfaced in the Muslim community, they said. Sharing the stage, in the video, with right-wing Hindu groups of Jammu was the Ladakh Buddhist Association, described by some Muslims as “Leh’s Hurriyat”. The speakers called for “joint responses” to the “common threats” that they said the people of both Jammu and Ladakh faced: of “Islamo-fascism, of Islamic Jihad, which  that is legislatively destroying the non-Muslims of Jammu and Ladakh”.

While the young men stated that they were politically indifferent, their apprehensions were clear. This campaign season, some Muslims were of the opinion, the coordination between the Jammu and Ladakh regions was greater. Apart from the arrival of prominent leaders of the BJP, what has added to the fears of the region’s Muslims are rumours of preachers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh flying in. “They landed in a helicopter in the Diskit bus stand,” said the Hunder resident to the approval of others in the gathering. “We hadn’t seen so many leaders from Jammu arrive in Ladakh in the previous elections. There aren’t even that many people in Ladakh.”

The parliamentary constituency, spread over two districts and four Assembly units, is the largest in terms of its area but one of the smallest in terms of the population: the 59,196 square kilometres is home to just 171,189 voters. By comparison, India’s largest parliamentary constituency, Malkajgiri (Telangana), is home to 3,383,324 voters.

Split in votes

The contest in Ladakh was among four candidates, the most prominent being BJP’s Tsering Namgyal, who is also the current chief executive councillor in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. With two independent candidates in the fray from the Muslim-dominated Kargil district, one a former Congress leader but both backed by powerful religious institutions, and the Congress fielding a Buddhist candidate, the split in votes may just end up benefiting the BJP.

In the previous general elections, Ladakh recorded the lowest winning margin of a candidate in the country with just 36 votes separating the BJP’s Thupstan Chewan from his nearest rival.

At the end of polling this time, Ladakh recorded a turnout of 63.7% with the Muslim-dominated Kargil district, also having more voters, recording a turnout of 79.5% while the Buddhist-dominated Leh hit 62.6%.

According to one 40-year-old Muslim voter from Leh, the Muslim votes in his village were aligned with those of the Kargil district. In the Leh district, few, whether Buddhist or Muslim, believe the Congress has any chance of winning. “We have decided to vote for Sajad Hussain,” he said, a day before the polls.

Hussain, a former journalist, has earned some respect and favour with the region’s Muslims, particularly the youth, owing to his public stances against right-wing politics. “We know the Congress won’t win this time; so, we are siding our votes with Kargil. This is to ensure that our vote is not wasted,” the man said. “At least, if we are able to send our representative to Parliament, he will talk about all of Ladakh.”

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