16 May 2024

Situating the Role of the Ladakh Buddhist Association in a Changing Political Landscape

On 5 May, 15 days before Ladakh’s inaugural parliamentary election as a Union Territory (UT), the Buddhists of Ladakh elected Chering Dorjey Lakruk as the president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) in a closely contested race against Rigzin Spalbar. In their election campaigns, both candidates advocated for Ladakh’s four points demand – statehood, Sixth Schedule status, the establishment of a Ladakh Public Service Commission, and better representation for Ladakh at the Centre in the form of one seat in the Rajya Sabha in addition to the existing seat in the Lok Sabha. While Spalbar garnered support from factions not entirely aligned with these demands, Lakruk emerged victorious with a narrow margin of 33 votes out of a total of 325 votes from General Council Members (GCMs). Despite both presidential candidates emphasizing the LBA’s apolitical stance in their campaigns, historical evidence suggests the LBA has had a significant influence on the region’s political trajectory since before Independence. Against this backdrop, this article endeavors to examine the past legacy, present situation, and future challenges of the Ladakh Buddhist Association at a critical juncture where Ladakh is grappling with unaddressed demands and regional aspirations.

Legacy of the Past

Since its establishment in 1938, the LBA has been pivotal in shaping modern Ladakh. From choosing to align with India over Pakistan and China to advocating for freedom from Kashmir and the establishment of a Union Territory, the LBA has been at the forefront. Despite the historical political alignment of Kargil more with Srinagar than Leh and occasional communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, LBA has worked tirelessly for the betterment of all of Ladakh. It has produced prominent political leaders like the ex-BJP Member of Parliament and founding member of Leh Apex Body (LAB) Thupstan Chewang, prominent Congress leader Tsering Samphel, and Dr. Sonam Dawa, another BJP leader who was Chief Executive Councilor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh (LAHDC) from 2015 to 2018 when for the first time BJP had a majority in the Council. Undoubtedly, the LBA can take a lot of the credit for Scheduled Tribe status to Ladakh, the formation of Autonomous Hill Development Councils, and the grant of status of Union Territory to Ladakh. The LBA has had power enough to challenge even political authorities – for instance, in 2019, then BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha and later winner of the seat, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, had to offer an apology in front of the LBA and other organizations for his apparently false allegations against Rigzin Spalbar, the Congress candidate.

A Turbulent Phase

2019 marked a turning point not only in the history of Ladakh but the LBA as well. While Ladakh was made a Union Territory in an unprecedented announcement by New Delhi in August, exactly a month before in July 2019, the then president of the LBA, Tsewang Thinles, was sacked from his position over allegations of sexual misconduct. Overnight, given public uproar and protest, PT Kunzang took over as the interim president of the LBA. The LBA lost its credibility and its image fell to its lowest. In 2021, after two years of Ladakh as a UT, Thupstan Chewang, founder of the LAB, was elected as the president of the LBA, and under his leadership, the LBA has somehow managed to make itself politically relevant to the people of Ladakh again, albeit under the shadows of the LAB and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA). The immediate danger of internal friction in the LBA, especially arising from the Zanskar region where some people had reservations about the on-boarding of KDA by the LAB, was addressed firmly by Chewang. In June 2022, Palga Rinpochey, a young Buddhist monk based in Ladakh, questioned the credibility of the LBA and took up the Buddhist cause in Kargil by starting a rally from Leh to Kargil to build a gonpa(monastery) in the Muslim majority town of Kargil, the effort was terminated only at the intervention of Ministry of Home Affairs. However, his public statement was unanimously condemned by the LBA and Ladakh Gonpa (Monasteries) Association (LGA), in September 2022, and the issue of the gonpa was peacefully resolved when both the LBA and KDA signed a joint resolution where it was agreed that the land issued to the LBA in Kargil, as per the J&K order 1969, would be used solely for the purpose as mentioned in the order and that two kanals of land at Kurbathang in Kargil would be allotted to the LBA exclusively for the construction of a gonpa.

The New President and the Road Ahead

The newly-elected Lakruk, is no stranger to the political landscape and dynamics of the region. A veteran leader, he has held important positions in the past, including Chief Executive Councilor of the LAHDC, and was a leader of the BJP before 2019. More importantly, he is one of the founding members of the LAB and was also a former Vice-President of the LBA. He is in a position now to thwart interest groups standing against Ladakh’s four points demand and who could spark communal tension between Leh and Kargil. This was evident from Lakruk’s opposition to Palga Rinpochey’s presidential nomination for the LBA election, citing the nomination as unconstitutional, as monks and non-Ladakhis (Tibetan in this case) are prohibited from running for the LBA presidency. This opposition had nearly cost him support from GCMs aligned with Palga.

Lakruk’s victory as the leader of the LBA not only reinforces the four points demand of the people but also bolsters the position of the LAB. However, the LBA’s paramount challenge lies in uniting the Buddhists of the region while concurrently aligning itself with the broader cause of Ladakh, encompassing Kargil. The outcome of the 2024 parliamentary election will determine how LBA navigates to reclaim its former prominence.

About the Author: Stanzin Lhaskyabs holds a PhD in International and Area Studies from the Centre for International Politics, Organization, Diplomacy and Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University.