India’s ‘Little Tibet’ seeks autonomy

A general view of Leh, on of Ladakh's two capitals.
A general view of Leh, on of Ladakh's two capitals. Author: Reflectionsbyprajakta @ Wikipedia
For more than two months, the inhabitants of one of the most mountainous countries in the world, Ladakh, have been protesting to demand autonomy that India has promised them, but has not delivered. They seek to protect their ecosystem and their Tibetan-rooted culture—no coincidence that it is known as Little Tibet—and they demand to stop being marginalised by New Delhi. Thousands have protested in the streets in February and March, calling for a new government system that responds to these demands: a state of their own within the Indian federation, or constitutionally protected autonomy.

Until 2019, Ladakh was part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government dissolved it and Ladakh became a union territory, administered directly by Indian central authorities. As early as 2020, voices were raised throughout Ladakh demanding legislative powers of their own. This 2024, the protests have become massive and—a major new development—have been supported by the two main communities in Ladakh: Buddhists and Muslims.

Ladakh, a territory of just under 60,000 square kilometres and home to 300,000 people, is divided into two districts. In the west lies the Muslim-majority Kargil district, home to just over half the population. In the east, the Leh district houses the rest of Ladakh’s inhabitants and has a two-thirds Buddhist majority. The languages spoken in the two districts are Purgi and Ladakhi respectively, both related to Tibetan.

The Muslim and Buddhist communities did not always agree on political demands. The dissolution of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, was celebrated in Leh, but not in Kargil. But the implementation of direct administration from New Delhi—both districts have only executive autonomy—has meant that, for the first time, organisations in Leh and Kargil have come together to demand self-rule and call for popular mobilisation. The protesters feel that the Indian government is increasingly excluding locals from decision-making, and believe that this will only be reversed if Ladakh is given more constitutional guarantees and its own legislative assembly.

The Indian nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised autonomy to Ladakh after the dissolution of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. Five years later, the promise has not been fulfilled. Modi’s BJP party argues that Ladakh has progressed economically over the past five years and that the limited powers that the councils of the two districts have are sufficient.

Environment, geopolitics, and hunger strikes

Protests also have environmental aspects. This is most visibly embodied by activist Sonam Wangchuk, who went on a three-week hunger strike in March to draw attention to Ladakh’s mountain ecosystem fragility. The activist has handed over the strike to a group of women, who in turn have been taken over by young people and now Buddhist monks. They also sought to organise marches, but the Indian government banned them.

Sonam Wangchuk and environmentalists say the Indian government’s new energy and infrastructure projects in Ladakh’s higher regions are leading to a loss of grazing lands and may be accelerating the melting of glaciers, while New Delhi is not taking into account the views and needs of the communities living there. The construction of roads, bridges, and tunnels undertaken by the Indian government in Ladakh since 2019 is best understood when one considers that this is a geopolitically sensitive territory: since 1947 it has been disputed by India and Pakistan as part of the Kashmir dispute and, since 1959, it has also been partially claimed by China, which occupies the easternmost portion, known as Aksai Chin.

In 2020, Indian and Chinese troops clashed on the border between Leh district and the Aksai Chin. As a result, the Indian army lost control of several hundred square kilometres. New Delhi wants to prevent this from happening again and is trying to strengthen land connections between India and Ladakh’s most remote areas. The Indian government is also aware of the benefits to be gained: Ladakh has uranium reserves and maybe also rare earths, a set of metals extremely valuable for industrial production.

Ladakh’s growing connection to the Indian economy is another reason for protests in recent weeks: residents fear being squeezed by foreign workers and investors. Another recurring demand is therefore for the Indian government to approve job reservations for Ladakh-born people.