Are autonomous hill councils the answer to highlanders’ woes? Not necessarily, if the Ladakh Hill Council is taken as an example.
“Sher-e-Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah will, I have no doubt, do whatever lies in his power to improve your lot… In Ladakh you are backward and unless you learn and train yourselves you cannot run the affairs of your country.”
Thus spoke Jawaharlal Nehru on 8 July 1949, addressing a crowd in Leh during his first visit to the Ladakh region of India´s and Kashmir state.
Ladakh´s political leaders spent much of the next 40 years trying to convince the Centre that self-rule was not only possible, but necessary for the proper development of the region and the protection of its ´unique identity´. The arguments they used to support Ladakh´s case included national security, patriotism, economic progress, and cultural preservation.
For decades, Ladakhis practised the art of representing themselves as victims of state governments and bureaucrats in Srinagar, at best disinterested and at worst out to destroy Ladakh. If only the Ladakhis were left to themselves, went the argument, their society would regain its course towards general prosperity, ecological balance, and cultural richness.
When, in September 1995, Ladakh´s Leh district was finally granted a measure of ´independence´ from Kashmir after decades of struggle, expectations were high among political leaders and the population at large (see Himal/vol 8 nos 2,4&5). Modelled on a similar administrative arrangement for the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill District Development Council (LAHDC) was given far-reaching powers in nearly all aspects of local government except the judiciary.
At that time, the autonomous council formula was regarded by some as the most promising model for resolving the longstanding antagonisms between Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, the constituent regions of J&K. The National Conference party of tonomq Abdullah put an “autonomy” solution to the Kashmir problem high on its agenda, and two commissions continue to deliberate on a series of proposals. Some provisions of India´s Panchayati Raj Act are to be incorporated into such a package of administrative reform.
The first Hill Council, dominated by the Congress party, is now halfway through its tenure and even the friendliest observer cannot fail to see the problems. The transition from ´agitation´ to ´governance´ has been a difficult one for the executives of LAHDC. Held responsible for everything from petrol shortages to inclement weather, the popularity of the hill councillors among the people of Leh has declined steadily since they took the oath of office three years ago. They, for their part, blame the state government for obstructing their work. Whoever is to blame, frustration is increasing among the population, whose alienation from state and local leaders is reaching a potentially dangerous level.
The spring of 1998 brought yet another election campaign to Ladakh, the fifth in less than three years. Months later than the rest of India, on 3 June, the “cold desert” region went to the polls to elect their Lok Sabha representative. The landslide victory of the National Conference candidate, Aga Syed Hussain of Kargil must be seen as a strong warning to the Council and the political establishment in Leh. Since elections were first held in Ladakh in 1962, the Lok Sabha seat had always gone to a Buddhist candidate from Leh, and never to the J&K National Conference. Only in 1989, at the height of the communal agitation for Union Territory status, was the seat captured by a Kargil Muslim, the independent Commander Ghulam Mohd. Hassan.
This year´s campaign was unusual in that no less than four parties contested: the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party also joined the fray, apart from the ´traditional´ antagonists, the National Conference and the Congress (I). Candidates of the new entrants ate into the support of the incumbent, P. Namgyal, the respected and experienced former Union Minister of State and the Congress party candidate. During the campaign, even the Congress campaigners were hard pressed to come up with examples of the Council´s achievements, and preferred to highlight instead the personal qualities of Namgyal.
Indeed, the Council seems to have enough to answer for. Rather than taking Ladakh in new directions, adopting appropriate development strategies, protecting local farmers, the environment and Ladakh´s ´identity´, it in effect merely continued along established paths. “The signatures are different, that´s all,” says one disillusioned Leh-pa. Corruption is said to be rampant; the pace of illegal construction in Leh continues unabated; the education system remains in shambles; filth is piling up on the streets and stream beds; unemployment continues to rise; and prices are skyrocketing. Little wonder that people are disillusioned with their hard-won autonomous status.
Before his election and induction into the Executive Council, candidate Rigzin Jora had said that “we will no longer have to blame outsiders, but only ourselves”. However, old habits die hard, and the Srinagar government continues to be targeted by the Council and the Congress party. “The source of all evils”, as the 1989 slogan had it, is accused of obstructing all initiatives taken by the Council.
The complaints are not entirely unwarranted. Due to the ´normalisation´ of the law and order situation in the Kashmir Valley, the councillors soon found the sympathetic Governor K.V. Krishna Rao replaced by a ´popular´ National Conference government headed by their old nemesis, Jjarooq Abdullah. According to Congress members, Farooq has done everything in his power to obstruct the Council. Indeed, under the Hill Council Act, reluctantly approved by the J&K Assembly in October 1997, the chief minister´s power to do so is considerable. Practically all major decisions of the LAHDC, all plans, budgets and activities, have to be approved by the state government.
Chief Executive Councillor Thupstan Chhewang complains: “We have been having problems with functioning because whatever proposals we have sent, whatever rules and regulations are to be enacted with the concurrence of the government, all these issues have been pending with them for months.” Chhering Dorjay Lagrook, firebrand MLA for Leh, of the Buddhist Association Youth Wing, says, “Basically, they are anti-Ladakhi. They have never made any concession, whether it is ST [Scheduled Tribe status] or the Hill Council, with conviction, but only because they were compelled.”
Thupstan Chhewang gives the example of the 1997-98 budget. The lahdc had asked for INR 360 million. The state government unilaterally reduced the amount to INR 270 million, although later it did add an extra five. Kargil, by contrast, had asked for only INR 230 million and, says Lagrook, “The government gave them also 27 crore [270 million]. Why should Kargil and Leh be given the same resources in this case, but not when it comes to schools, Development Blocks, and so on?” (The Hill Council Act provides for hill councils for both of Ladakh´s districts, Kargil and Leh, although only Leh has so far set up one and the Muslim-majority Kargil continues to be administered directly by Srinagar.)
But opponents of the LAHDC leadership point out that the Council has not even been able to spend the 320 million it did get in the last budget. This invites unwelcome comparisons with the old district administrations, which had exhibited the same inability to spend allocated sums. Chhewang comlains, “The money was released late, in September when the season in Leh is practically over.” Moreover, the Public Works Department was faced with an acute shortage of superintendent engineers to supervise several of the larger projects.
The formulation of a Master Plan for the development of Leh town and its immediate surroundings – what is known as the “Notified Area” of Leh – has also been obstructed by Farooq Abdullah´s government, maintains Executive Councillor for Public Works Sonam Dawa. A draft plan was submitted to Srinagar suggesting changes, which were incorporated and a final version resub-mitted. No action has been taken on it since, and so in the absence of the planned Leh Development Authority, unregulated development of the town continues.
“People are expecting us to perform, but how can this system function if the government does not let it,” asks Thupstan Chhewang. “A proper atmosphere has to be created. But every time there are elections, relations get strained, and it takes time to get relations back to normal. And every time there are elections we lose two months because the election code of conduct means that we cannot sanction any plans.”
Prisoners of Shangri-La
The renowned Tibetologist, Donald Lopez Jr, recently published an excellent account of how Tibetan Buddhism in the West was decontextualised and sanitised. Lopez Jr, echoing a recent spate of similar warnings about the dangers of stereotyping Himalayan populations and their cultures, suggests that such images deny full humanity to Tibetans and in the long run do more harm than good. For Ladakh, a similar story applies.
This rose-tinted vision of the Himalaya and Tibetan Buddhism brings not only a significant number of tourists to the region, but also a generous flow of foreign aid. Ladakhis, never slow to cash in on a business opportunity, have been effectively marketing their situation to meet the expectations of Western donors, who more often than not tend to be badly infected with the Shangri-La bug.
In line with Western expectations which are commonly informed by Helena Norberg-Hodge´s book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Sierra Book Club, 1991), Ladakhis have successfully represented themselves as poor victims of Westernisation and what some call “industrial monoculture”. At the same time, the population of Ladakh is deemed to possess the kind of social and economic characteristics and practices that are among the top criteria of contemporary sustainable development ideology: democratic decision making, environmental sensitivity, and little differentiation between rich and poor.
Ladakhi ngos have become adept at emphasising their ´ancient´ traditions, incorporating the current development jargon, and successfully applying for funds. The success of groups such as the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), the Leh Nutrition Project (LNP), and, more recently, the Students´ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in accessing a considerable amount of foreign funds over the past decade has led to a proliferation of ngos in Leh district. Almost every village, it seems, now has some non-profit school project, while more and more environmental, rural development, and public health-oriented organisations are putting up signboards in Leh town.
It could be argued, as some Ladakhis do, that it is only fair that the colonial powers repay some of the wealth they have extracted from the blood, sweat and tears of their former colonial subjects, although this is a problematic argument with respect to Ladakh (where the British were often seen and in some respects did act as protectors of the interests of the locals against the usurpatory designs of the princely Dogra rulers).
One famous Ladakhi ngo, which had been plodding along in what many locals and outsiders thought was an unproductive direction, suddenly in the late 1980s received a vast increase in its funds through the effective marketing of both Ladakh and the project in line with Western expectations and stereotypes about the region. This economic equivalent of steroids promoted the rapid growth of the organisation and reinforced the negative trends which soon became evident in its work. In spite of more than a decade of vehement local criticism and warnings about the direction the project was taking, foreign donors continue to line up to give money, partly encouraged by the reports of consultants equally blinded by the Shangri-La imagery.
Several other ngos have gone through similar developments, leading to great increases in staff, cars, and other “operating costs”, while achieving little of substance in the field. In a few recent cases, some foreign donors have finally owned up to the years of mismanagement that they themselves had encouraged and funded. These donors have either cut back support or pulled out altogether. But as one ngo leader points out, for every donor that pulls out, there are many more willing to take its place.
The donors are keen to support projects which appear to meet the politically correct criteria of the day: community participation, uplifting the poor, protecting the environment, empowering women. And how nice if all this can be done in Shangri-La! Ladakh appears to have it all: a barren but picturesque landscape inhabited by photogenic, smiling villagers; a warm, fuzzy 2500-year-old philosophy made safe for 20th-century Western new-agers, with a built-in ecological ethic; an “evil threat” in the form of Westernisation and (bonus!) Islam; and articulate English-speaking leaders who are excellent spokesmen for fund-raising efforts.
Ladakhi ngos are the perfect ´counterpart´ to the development industry, never mind whether all this money actually accomplishes very much. In any case, if the living conditions of the people in Ladakh continue to deteriorate, this merely indicates the need for more aid to the ngos .
Already, every Ladakhi, it seems, has a guest house, a taxi, an STD/lSD/PCO shop, and a German Bakery. Before long, there will be an ngo for every cause, every village, every monastery, every household. And the Western funders will still be clamouring for more.
A common complaint is that the councillors have been more concerned with their status according to J&K state protocol than with establishing a working relationship with the bureaucracy. “They have managed to antagonise the entire bureaucracy,” points out Pinto Narboo. It seems undeniable that the councillors have lacked tact in dealing with the Indian Administrative Service officers as well as with local bureaucrats.
Commissioner vs Councillor
The achievements of lahdc have been few and far in between, even though it may seem to be a model of calm in comparison to the turbulence in other autonomous councils of India, such as Darjeeling and Jharkhand. While quite a few obstructions may indeed be attributed to ill will in Srinagar, it wouldn´t be easy to absolve the Council of blame for its lack of performance.
According to the Hill Council Act, the Deputy Commissioner serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Council, and presides over meetings. But real power is supposed to lie with the Chief Executive Councillor, who is elected by the members of the Council from among themselves. While the previous Deputy Commissioner assigned to Leh, PK. Tripathi, was said to be very cooperative, his successor,claim the councillors, is creating severe obstacles. Allegedly obsessed with his own status and power much like the councillors themselves, according to some – R.K. Goyal has been accused of incompetence and obstruction. Says Thupstan Chhewang, “They are posting very junior persons here. They have an ego problem because they cannot tolerate that a popularly elected official should be boss over them.”
Apart from the slowdown in all administrative affairs, the feud between the Deputy Commissioner and the Chief Executive Councillor led to the enactment of a farce: on Republic Day last year, the two held separate, simultaneous flag-raising ceremonies as they could not reach agreement on whose prerogative this event should be. Meanwhile, the executive councillors repeatedly scoffed at Farooq Abdullah, refusing to receive or even meet with him during his several visits to Leh over the past two years.
Other than bickering with local and state bureaucrats, the apparently monolithic Congress-dominated Council has been diverted by internal revolts. As early as the time of their swearing in, the councillors from Changthang were reported to have accused their colleagues of regional bias and even corruption. This winter, one of those involved in that episode, Councillor Rigzin Namgyal, defected to the National Conference, giving that party its first presence in the Council.
More serious was the resignation of Khanpo Rinpoche of Thikse monastery, soon after his induction into the Executive Council in September 1995. He said in an interview in May that he did so because he felt he could strengthen the Council through his rapport with Farooq Abdullah. The Rinpoche, with a career in Ladakhi politics going back 35 years, ended up joining Farooq´s NC, and was ´given´ a Rajya Sabha seat as reward.
Many are convinced that the Council´s ineffectiveness has to do with the members´ lack of political acumen and administrative experience. The one executive councillor who had both, Mohd. Akbar Ladakhi, unfortunately passed away in June 1996. “Those remaining are amateurs, part-time politicians,” said one observer. Currently, the most senior councillor is Sonam Dawa, a former Chief Engineer of J&K, who is respected for his integrity but accused of being too bureaucratic. Sonam Dawa himself makes no secret of the fact that he does not like the job, and that he might seize the first opportunity to return to his previous position as Director of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, a private organisation that has done much to promote sustainable development in the region.
Fit to rule?
When one considers the history of Ladakhi politics in the past decades as well as the ways in which consecutive Kashmiri governments have dealt with the region, the developments since regional autonomy was achieved in 1995 should not cause too much surprise.
Among the first initiatives of the Council was the launching of a monthly newsletter, Ladags Phonya. This newsletter is supposed to serve, together with local radio, as the main public information instrument of the Council. Yet, there are councillors who do not even know of its existence, and its appearance is extremely irregular. Rumour and gossip remain the main source of information among the population. If the Council is to survive the coming restructuring of the State´s administration -which will be done on the basis of the recommendations of the long-delayed reports of the autonomy commissions and the Panchayati Raj Act – the people need to be informed more regularly and in more depth about what the Council does, and can do.
There is little doubt that an abolition of Leh´s Hill Council, as has been threatened by Farooq Abdullah, would trigger a fierce, possibly violent, response from sections of the population, especially the youth. Ladakh´s representatives at the Central and State levels should work together with the Council in a major effort to generate popular support for the institution of the Hill Council and the principle of autonomy in general. The councillors are required to look beyond the immediate party-political interests of the Congress. Similarly, Ladakh´s leading National Conference members, such as Thikse and Togdan Rinpoches and Tsetan Namgyal, as well as the newly elected Kargil-based MP Aga Syed Hussain, must prove that they represent Ladakh´s interests rather than those of Farooq Abdullah´s or some faction within Ladakh.
It is clear that ´independence´ has not been enough. The present Council has a little more than two years left to show that Ladakhis are not only able to rule themselves, but that autonomy serves the demands for peace, prosperity and stability in the region. The state government will have to realise that the proper functioning of the Council is also in its interest. It is time to forget personal feuds and political rivalries, and get on with the job that they were elected to do. The cost of failure would be enormous. Ask a Kashmiri.