KARGIL, Ladakh — “PDP will always be in my heart but PDP is finished,” said Haji Anayat Ali, a Kargil-based politician who left the Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party after the Narendra Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status on 5 August. He joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on 26 August.
“BJP is the future in Kargil,” Ali said in a recent interview with HuffPost India.
Earlier this week, Ali’s office in the main market in Kargil town was packed with people who listened to him explain why he had jumped ship after the Modi government severed Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir and deemed them two separate Union Territories (UTs).
“There is no place for regional parties like the PDP and NC (National Conference) in Ladakh. Both parties are finished in Ladakh and very likely in Jammu and Kashmir as well,” he said. “The main connection that Ladakh will have is the centre and the centre is BJP.”
These are the calculations that Ali made before heading to New Delhi where he, along with six other leaders from Kargil—most from PDP—were inducted into the BJP in the presence of Union Ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.
In the two months since the Modi government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, the BJP has sharpened its play for power in Kargil, the most populous district of Ladakh, where Shia Muslims are in majority. The party is hoping that the upcoming Block Development Council (BDC) election on 24 October, which the NC, PDP and the Congress claim to have boycotted, will be an opportunity to boost its political credentials among people who view the party as being anti-Muslim.
BJP’s opponents have accused the Hindu nationalist party of pitting Ladakh’s Buddhists against its Shia Muslims in order to gain a foothold in India’s largest yet sparsely populated Lok Sabha constituency.
“There is a communal wind in Leh but not in Kargil, so far,” said Qamar Ali Akhoon, a senior NC leader in Kargil, referring to the Buddhist-majority capital of Ladakh, located around 234 kilometres from Kargil.
The former state minister added, “When it comes to the BJP, one is always worried. You can see what is happening in the rest of India.”
The BJP has had two Members of Parliament (MP) elected from Ladakh in 2014 and 2019, widely attributed to Modi’s popularity, but the “big push” now is for “grassroots” expansion.
Of the 15 blocks in which village chiefs will vote to elect a Block Development Chairman, Ali expects the BJP to win at least five seats, including the independent candidates that the party is backing.
“The BJP has got a hold in Kargil and now it’s going to grow,” he said.
Window of opportunity
Ali, who was nominated as an MLC (Member of Legislative Council) by the PDP government in 2014, and made the chairman of the J&K Legislative Council in 2015, is Shia Muslim—who form the majority of the approximately 1,40,000 people who live in Kargil.
When he contested the J&K state Assembly election from the Kargil constituency in 2014 as a PDP candidate, Ali lost to the Congress candidate, placing second with 13,000 votes.
Following the abrogation of Article 370, and his joining the BJP, Ali claimed that the 13,000 voters who had voted for him when he was a PDP candidate have shifted their loyalties to the BJP.
He added that the PDP presidents of the 15 blocks in Kargil—along with all its office-bearers—have also joined the BJP. And that’s not all—according to Ali, the village chiefs who were backed by the PDP in the panchayat election in J&K in 2018 have also shifted their loyalties to the BJP.
It is the village chiefs—not the general voter—who will elect the BDCs of the 15 blocks in Kargil.
Following the abrogation of Article 370, two PDP leaders, Mohammed Ali Chandan and Mohsin Ali, who were in the 30-member Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil, an elected body that is in charge of development, have also joined the BJP.
This takes BJP’s strength from one member in the Kargil Hill Development Council — Stanzin Lakpa from the Buddhist-majority region of Zanskar — to three.
The present Hill Development Council, which was elected in 2018, comprises 10 NC members, followed by eight from the Congress. Four members who were nominated by the Governor of J&K last year are also linked to the BJP.
“I am confident that in the next Hill Council of Kargil, the BJP will have a full majority,” said Ali.
Not so fast
When it comes to grassroots expansion, BJP’s opponents say the party has rarely found support in the state and village-level elections in Kargil.
Take for instance, Zanskar, the Buddhist town of around 14,000 people which voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Opponents say that BJP made “false” promises of making Zanskar a district, and its workers threatened other party candidates who wanted to campaign in the Buddhist town.
In Zanskar, Akhoon, the NC leader, says that two of three BDCs are likely to be won by candidates backed by the NC and Congress respectively, while a “tough fight” is expected for the third.
Ali, on the other hand, was sure that BJP-backed candidates would lead all three BDCs, repeating that that PDP and NC will soon cease to matter in Ladakh.
“It’s only a matter of time,” he said.
Playing second fiddle to Leh
The Modi government’s decision to shift the Ladakh Affairs Department along with its secretary to Leh — essentially making it the administrative headquarters of Ladakh, the UT — has rankled the people of Kargil.
Bilal Ahmed, the BJP president of Drass, a town in Kargil known as the second coldest inhabited place in the world, is upset at Leh being chosen over Kargil yet again.
“At the very least, the headquarter should be six months in Kargil and six months in Leh,” he said.
Kargil has always felt that even though it has a slightly higher population than Leh, successive Indian governments have always favoured Ladakh’s Buddhist-majority capital.
The past two MPs from BJP—Thupstan Chhewang and Jamyang Tsering Namgyal—are Buddhists from Leh.
The approximately 1,33,000 residents of Leh district have a functioning airport which connects them to Delhi, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Srinagar and Jammu, and a road that connects them to Manali in Himachal Pradesh.
All Kargil has is the treacherous Zo Jila pass, located at a staggering 11,673 feet above sea level, which connects its residents to the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, located around 123 kilometres away from the main town.
That Ladakh should be a UT with no ties to J&K has been a long-standing demand of the Buddhists of the region.
The Shia Muslims of Kargil, who live much closer to Kashmir than Leh, have opposed breaking with J&K.
Not only do they have familial ties and properties in Kashmir, the valley is Kargil’s primary source of basic essentials — from vegetables and meat to medical supplies — until heavy snowfall makes it impossible for vehicles to cross Zo Jila and the pass is closed for almost six months starting in December.
But the Shia Muslims of Kargil, who are an ethnically and linguistically diverse group of Dards, Baltis and Purkhis, have no connection with Kashmir’s separatist movement.
Ali, who feels an deep affinity with Kashmir, said, “How can I say that I don’t have a relation with Kashmir when I have family members who live there, when I have children who study there. But politics and governance from business and family relations.”
Those who oppose the UT status for Ladakh say its political representation—four MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly), who become ministers in the state cabinet, two MLCs in the upper house, and an MP (Member of Parliament)—will now be reduced to one MP.
They also fear that travel and trade will become harder with two different administrations running in Ladakh and J&K.
Akhoon, the NC leader, says with the centre in charge, the Hill Development Council of Kargil will be rendered a hollow body with no powers.
The former state minister pointed out that a Hill Council with elected representatives existing within a UT was unprecedented.
“I don’t understand what kind of bizarre experiment this is,” he said.
On the other hand, those who support the UT status say having representation in the state Assembly of J&K has made no difference to Ladakh.
Ali, who was nominated by the PDP to become an MLC in 2014, now repeats the BJP’s charge that state leaders lined their own pockets while accomplishing little for J&K.
“The biggest problem have been the state leaders,” he said. “We would make a plan and send it to the state government, but it would just get stuck because no minister would act on it. Now, at least our project proposals will reach the table of the central government.”
What Kargil wants
The closest super speciality hospital to Kargil is the SKIMS (full form) medical facility near the volatile town of Soura on the outskirts of Srinagar, around 200km away.
Local says there are only a handful of ambulances which ferry the sick from Kargil to Srinagar, and many people die en route, as it can take hours to cross the Zo Jila pass, especially on days when there is a hold-up caused by accidents and falling rocks.
When the Zo Jila pass is blocked by snow and eventually closed for six months starting in December, locals have no choice but to drive almost 8-10 hours to Leh for treatment.
Lakpa, the BJP councillor from the Buddhist town of Zanskar, say that dirt roads make travel slow and painful.
“If people get really sick, then they are in a lot of trouble,” he said.
Better connectivity to Kashmir and to mainland India is the main demand of the people of Kargil.
The Modi government, Ali said, has allocated almost Rs 7,000 crore to build a 14-km long tunnel from Sonamarg in Kashmir to Drass in Kargil.
The project, however, stalled after the company which was to build the tunnel — ILNFS (Infrastructure Lending And Financial Services Limited) — went bankrupt last year.
“Things are slow but the process of asking for tenders has started again,” said Ali. “There is also some movement on expanding the (presently defunct) airport in Kargil.”
In addition to the lack of education and health infrastructure, building more schools and hospitals, successive governments have also ignored the apricot farmers of Kargil who, for decades, have been demanding a market for their produce, which is currently restricted to Kashmir.
Ghulam Mohammed, the chief of Hardass village, where almost every family grows apricots, said, “We are far away and isolated, but we are Indian citizens as much as anyone else. It is the duty of the Indian government to care for us.”
The fear of communalising Ladakh
Akhoon, the senior NC leader, said he was concerned about Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) growing presence in Leh, which is the ideological parent of the BJP.
Reports said that following the abrogation of Article 370, the RSS organised a seminar called the “Idea of Bharat” in Leh on 25 August.
“I think even the Buddhists would be afraid that the RSS would go too far,” he said. “We are very grateful to the Dalai Lama who visits us, treats the Muslim community with respect and makes it a point to call for communal harmony.”
Ali, however, disagrees that BJP is looking to polarise Kargil on religious lines.
“In politics, different communities align with the different parties,” he said. “Earlier, the Muslims in Kargil would vote for NC, while Buddhists were with Congress. Would you say that Congress was doing communal politics in Kargil?”