15 May 2024

The Ladakh Protests: About Representation and Agency

When Ladakh was granted Union Territory (UT) status in August 2019 satisfying a four-decade-old demand, it was widely expected that the people of the region finally gained the level of autonomy and representation they deserved. However, soon after the initial excitement people began to realise that the new change had failed not only to bring the expected outcomes but also eroded people’s agency in policy decisions.

The increasing insignificance of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), an elected body governing the region that enjoyed significant autonomy when it was part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the proposed land and industrial policies overlooking the concerns of the local population, are major concerns for the people. In this context, local leaders and activists unambiguously registered their dissatisfaction with the new changes and called for a comprehensive approach to the empowerment and development of Ladakh.

Nevertheless, there has been a delay by the central authority in addressing people’s anxieties around the question of land, identity, and representation. Subsequently, the persisting sense of anxiety has opened several avenues of protests in the region. These protests are not just about seeking agency and representation, but the people’s assertion of the need for a change in the central government’s policy and outlook towards the region.

Four Demands

On  3 February 2024, Ladakh witnessed one of the largest peaceful public demonstrations in its history. The two main urban areas in the region – Leh and Kargil – observed a complete shutdown demanding statehood and implementation of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in Ladakh. In the leadership of this protest were two socio-political organisations having two different sets of interests, Leh Apex Body (LAB) and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA).

The LAB or Apex Body of Leh’s People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh – formed in 2020, as a conglomeration of religious, political, and civil society groups, largely representing the interests of the Buddhist community in the region – is a platform that aims to protect the social, cultural, linguistic, ethnic and environmental heritage of the region by pushing for the implementation of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India.

The KDA includes representatives from political parties, religious groups, civil society organisations, student associations, and merchant and transport unions. It represents the interests of Muslim communities in the region, whose initial priority was the restoration of Article 370 and the statehood of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir.

The alliance of these two apex bodies – finding common ground and ignoring a few-decades-long communal tensions and political differences – is one of the most interesting socio-political developments in the region in recent years. Abandoning its earlier agenda, the KDA adopted statehood for Ladakh as its new priority to come to terms with the LAB. Thus, accommodating interests from both sides, these two bodies formed a common agenda with four demands —the restoration of statehood, inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, two parliamentary seats for Ladakh, and job reservations for local youth.

The new development on the political front in Ladakh cannot be seen simply as a short-term political alliance aimed at pressurising the central government. As some observers have noted it must be seen as a new chapter in the history of Ladakhi identity politics. In this new turn, the Buddhist factions of Leh have largely begun to accept the Shia majority in Kargil as their political ally while the Muslim population in Kargil has recognised the alliance with the Buddhist community, as preferable over solely aligning with Kashmir-centric Muslim identity.  

A Quest for Political Agency

Ladakh’s strategic location along the India-China border coupled with its unique natural and cultural resources reinforces its importance to India’s geopolitical and development considerations. Recent border confrontations,  including the Galwan incident in 2020, bring to the fore the criticality of the region at the national level.

While the central government envisions unprecedented infrastructure development as a means to bolster security and augment such focus, the people of Ladakh feel that securitisation could reduce their role in the policymaking process involving their region. Thus, the ongoing discord in Ladakh embodies an active negotiation process to diffuse authority from the Centre to the people in the region. An overt aim of such participation is to ensure greater consideration of Ladakh’s unique cultural heritage in the Centre’s definition of ‘development’ for the region.

The absence of local voices and exclusive reliance on bureaucrats appointed by the central government for crucial policy decisions can be seen as the catalyst for Ladakhi demand for increased representation in Parliament. To illustrate, the UT of Ladakh continues to be bereft of a state legislature. Before the bifurcation, Ladakh was represented by four legislative members in the lower house and two in the upper house, in the legislative assembly of the erstwhile  Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state. With the formation of the UT even this limited representation has disappeared.  

Though the demand for more representation in Parliament is essentially an effort to assert agency in policymaking, the demand for statehood must be seen as an attempt to redefine Ladakhi political identity. However, the prevailing discontentment of Ladakhis over issues of agency and identity are getting overshadowed by national security concerns.

A Question of Jobs

The two other demands – introduction of constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule similar to the position enjoyed by a few India’s North-Eastern states and the demand for reservation in jobs for locals by implementing a system akin to the previously held Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) – are also closely connected to efforts seeking representation. Though in principle they appear to be an attempt to regain the privilege they enjoyed as an autonomous region under the erstwhile state of J&K. The apprehension over changing demography and subsequently socio-economic conditions is also a crucial factor in incentivising the people to push these demands.

The number of unemployed graduates in Ladakh rose sharply between 2021-2022 and 2022-2023, by over 16 percent and around 26.5 percent of graduates remain unemployed. The absence of corresponding alternatives to the pool of gazetted posts, which was available before the implementation of the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019 has been a major factor in heightening concerns over unemployment.


Although granting a UT status to Ladakh appears like progress towards fulfilling the demand for representation, this alone does not fulfil popular expectations. While national security considerations may constrain the central government from involving the locals in certain decision-making processes, the absence of representation is perceived as an erosion of their agency, despite being custodians of a unique culture. In this sense, the four-points demand put forward by the LAB and KDA are not just demands for a constitutional safeguard for the region nor an abnegation of the Centre’s vision, but a stipulation for the people to be actively present in a discourse affecting their lives. It is a collective endeavour of the people of Ladakh to negotiate conflict by activating principles inherent in cooperative federalism which require the inclusion of regional identities.

Thus, the insistence on incorporating the unique socio-cultural and ecological attributes of Ladakh into regional planning by the central government is a plea to jointly construct the idea of ‘development’. This would inherently entail a reconciliation of the ‘indigenous’ with the ‘mainstream’ and a recognition of the periphery in national discourse.

About the Author: Dr. Junjun Sharma Pathak is an Assistant Professor at Amity Institute of International Studies, Noida. She can be reached at [email protected]

Key Words: Ladakhi Protests, Union Territory Status to Ladakh, Leh Apex Body, Ladakhi Identity, Borderlands