On January 27, the third day of his five-day fast over regional demands for greater autonomy, Ladakhi engineer and educator Sonam Wangchuck claimed he is under house arrest. In a YouTube video, he accused the Union Territory’s Lieutenant Governor of “sowing the seeds of militancy in peaceful Ladakh”, and that he thought they were “better-off with Jammu and Kashmir than today’s UT.”
A few days ago on January 21, speaking from Khardung La, he posted a video on YouTube addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Saying Ladakh and the Himalayas are known as the “Third Pole” after the North Pole and the South Pole, Wangchuck reiterated the longstanding demand for including the region under Schedule 6 of the Indian Constitution to safeguard the environment of the region, and the rights of indigenous people.
Who is Sonam Wangchuck?
Sonam Wangchuk is a Ladakhi engineer and innovator. A graduate of Mechanical Engineering from the National Institute of Technology of Srinagar in 1987, he then studied Earthen Architecture at Craterre School of Architecture in Grenoble, France, for two years.
After his graduation, Wangchuk, his brother and five other founders started the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in 1988. The SECMOL campus, which runs entirely on solar energy, is known for its sustainable practices.
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One of these is the Ice Stupa – conically-shaped ice mountains that store water in winter, which in summer melts gradually to supply farm irrigation water. He was believed to be the inspiration for a character played by actor Aamir Khan in the 2009 Hindi film ‘3 Idiots’, bringing further recognition to his work.
In 2018, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award. It recognised “his uniquely systematic, collaborative and community-driven reform of learning systems in remote northern India, thus improving the life opportunities of Ladakhi youth, and his constructive engagement of all sectors in local society… setting an example for minority peoples in the world,” the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation said.
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Why is Sonam Wangchuck protesting?
In his recent video, Wangchuck said the demand for the inclusion of Ladakh in the Schedule 6 has been raised time and again. He mentioned how the Union Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda had responded to his letter in early 2020, saying his ministry was “seized of the matter” and had communicated a proposal to the Ministry of Home Affairs for declaring Ladakh a Schedule 6 area.
“So I felt assured that now Ladakh will be protected. But this happiness of all the people of Ladakh turned into sadness when months went by and there was no discussion,” Wangcuck said in his video. This followed protests by students, and former MP Thupstan Chhewang supported the cause. He created the Leh Apex Body of Peoples Movement for Sixth Schedule. Organisations in Kargil also came together to form the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA).
When the Ladakh Hill Council elections happened in 2020, Ladakhi leaders threatened to boycott the polls, but Wangchuck claimed in this video that the Home Ministry assured them of a discussion. BJP also put the Sixth Schedule issue in the manifesto for the state polls as well as in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, he said, discussions did not happen.
Wangchuck said the people of Ladakh believe that “lower levels of bureaucracy” may have been “influenced by industrial powers and business houses”, who wanted “mining to take place in every valley here”.
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Saying China undertook a similar kind of “exploitation” in Tibet, he cited threats to livelihoods and survival of the tribal population, with issues of water scarcity coming up as glaciers melt with increasing industrialisation. He also emphasised that Ladakh is a “sensitive” area from a military perspective and needs safeguards.
Notably, earlier this month, the main organisations spearheading the demands said they would not attend any meetings of the high-powered committee formed by the Centre on the matter. The KDA and Apex Body Leh (ABL) members rejected the committee over “the absence of a clear mandate”.
And what is the Sixth Schedule?
The Sixth Schedule under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution provides for the formation of autonomous administrative regions called Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). These have some autonomy on legislative, judicial, and administrative matters within a state.
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ADCs have up to 30 members with a term of five years, and can make laws, rules and regulations with regard to land, forest, water, agriculture, village councils, health, sanitation, village- and town-level policing, etc. Currently, it applies to the Northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram (three Councils each), and Tripura (one Council).
What are his claims on being under house arrest?
Wangchuk said the Leh administration has put him under house arrest and is asking him to sign a bond for his release. He claimed they cited concerns for his safety, and he was asked to shift his fast from Khardung La to the campus of his school, the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL). The terms of the bond include that he will not comment, issue public statements, make speeches or hold/participate in any activity that is “related to Leh district at present times”.
“The fast was an attempt to invite the attention of the Prime Minister so that our leaders can brief him about their concerns and demands,” Wangchuk told reporters. Senior Superintendent of Police, Leh, P D Nitya, denied the claims and told PTI that he was not allowed to protest by the administration as “it was high risk for him and his followers”, given the low temperature in the area he was to protest at.
In a video, Wangchuck was deeply critical of the Lieutenant Governor and the UT administration, terming their actions that of a “banana republic”. He spoke on the “failure” of the administration in the last three years on matters like government jobs, saying few vacancies were out, “that too for police jobs, to suppress the people because there are so many agitations and protests happening.”
What does Wangchuck plan to do now?
Wangchuk threatened to intensify his protest if needed. “This was just a symbolic protest and if there is no response, I will go on a hunger strike for 10 days, later 15 days and so on till my last breath,” he said. Former MP Thupstan Chhewang announced a grand rally on January 31 against the “failure of the government to protect the identity and culture of Ladakh”.
On January 15, the Apex Body and the KDA jointly staged a protest in Jammu in support of their demands, including the protection of land and jobs, and announced a similar protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi in the third week of February.