DRASS, Ladakh — “I’m running to stop communal forces from coming to Kargil,” said Mohammed Shamim Ahmed, a former soldier with the Indian Army, as he spoke about his candidacy in the upcoming Block Development Council (BDC) election in Ladakh.
“The BJP is cunning. It has put the leaders of opposing parties under house arrest, and it is forcing an election so that it can win. This is not the right atmosphere to conduct an election, but I’m contesting in order to stop the BJP from coming to Kargil,” said Ahmed, as he parked his Maruti 800 near a blue board that read “Jammu and Kashmir Tourism welcomes you to Drass, the second coldest inhabited place in the world.”
Ahmed, who was a soldier for 16 years before he opted for voluntary retirement, is also a sarpanch (village chief) since he won panchayat elections last year.
Ahmed’s hometown of Drass, located 10,760 feet above sea level, is located in Ladakh’s Kargil district, where most people are Shia Muslims.
The board in Drass still reads “Jammu and Kashmir Tourism”, close to three months after the Narendra Modi government revoked J&K’s special constitutional status on 5 August, severed Ladakh from J&K, and made them both Union Territories (UT).
In fact, J&K’s red-and-white state flag is still flying next to India’s tricolour in front of the building of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil, an elected body that oversees development in the region. Locals say the flag will come down on 31 October, when Ladakh is officially notified as a UT.
The BDC election, in which the village chiefs vote to elect a Block Development Chairman, assumes significance as it is the first electoral exercise in J&K and Ladakh after the central government fundamentally altered the conflict-ridden region in a manner which has been described as “unconstitutional” and “illegal.”
Tens of thousands of paramilitary personnel were sent to the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, which is the world’s most heavily militarised zone. Thousands, including minors, were jailed in Kashmir, which lies about 123km from Kargil in Ladakh. Politicians and political activists were jailed or placed under house arrest. While mobile services and the internet were blocked for more than two months in Kashmir, phone connectivity and broadband internet were quickly restored in the Jammu division and Ladakh.
Mobile services on postpaid phones were finally restored, last week, in Kashmir but the region remains tense after militants killed three “non-locals”—an apple trader, a migrant labourer and a truck driver.
Election will go on
While the Congress and regional parties such as the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)—many of whose top leaders remain under house arrest—have officially boycotted the BDC election on Thursday, the BJP says these parties are backing independent candidates as their “proxies”, which is standard practice in Kashmir, where openly participating in an election bears the stigma of siding with the Indian state.
The BJP, which has thousands of village chiefs in place following the panchayat election in 2018, is looking to sweep the BDC election in J&K.
That this electoral exercise is not an expression of the will of Kashmiris, or that its village chiefs and candidates are in hiding because they fear being shot by militants, is not important for the BJP. The Hindu-nationalist party is focused on grassroots level expansion in the Muslim-majority valley.
In Ladakh, however, the BDC election is a “tough fight”, say candidates. There is no stigma attached to contesting an election, but the BJP is not looked at kindly by its majority Shia Muslim population. While people in Kargil have an affinity towards Kashmir, they are not part of its separatist movement.
The BJP has won the Parliament election from Ladakh, India’s largest constituency in terms of size. These victories are in large part because of Prime Minister Modi’s popularity ever since he took over the BJP ahead of the 2014 general election, and the support of the Buddhist majority in Leh, Ladakh’s capital, located around 234km from Kargil.
There are already difference between Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh. We don’t want these differences to exploited for political gain.Mohammed Shamim Ahmed
After the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August, the BJP is looking to expand its “grassroots” presence in Kargil. In the past few weeks, almost the entire PDP cadre in Kargil has “merged” with the BJP.
Haji Anayat Ali, a former PDP leader who joined the BJP on 26 August, told HuffPost India, “There is no place left for regional parties like the PDP and NC in Ladakh. Both parties are finished in Ladakh and very likely in Jammu and Kashmir as well,” he said. “BJP is the future in Kargil.”
Ahmed, who is contesting the BDC election, said, “No other party divides people on Hindu-Muslim lines to the extent the BJP does. There are already difference between Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh. We don’t want these differences to exploited for political gain.”
Why this soldier is standing for election
While Ahmed says he is contesting as an “independent” candidate, local observers say he has the backing of the NC.
The 38-year-old, who spent 16 years serving the Indian army as a soldier in Ladakh Scouts, said that he took voluntary retirement after he did not get promoted.
Ahmed decided to contest the panchayat election in 2018 and won. He says that while he received more than 300 of the estimated 500 votes cast in his area, the BJP candidate received just 10-15 votes .
“I had spent 16 years with the army and I did not see life going anywhere new,” he said. “I want to do something with my life while I am still young. I want to work for the development of my village, whether it is building schools or a naala or improving animal husbandry,” he said.
As a village chief (sarpanch), Ahmed oversees seven villages. In the ten months since he was elected, Ahmed has received around Rs 12 lakh from the Modi government for development works, and he is expecting a third instalment soon.
Ahmed, who lives in a joint family with a brother, also works as a contractor with the Public Works Department (PWD). These days, however, he is spending his days visiting the other village chiefs who will vote for or against him on 24 October.
There are at least three other “independent” candidates in the fray.
Ahmed, who is a father to four children, says his main priority is education.
The seven villages which he oversees do not have a high school (Class X), Ahmed says. The closest high school from the furthest village under his jurisdiction is 5km away, which can be a strenuous trek in the mountainous terrain of Drass, especially once winter sets in.
“I have written many letters to the director of education and sent a feasibility report as well, but nothing has happened so far,” he said. “The file seems to be stuck but I will keep pushing for it. Education is the most important thing, especially in our remote corner where we are cut off from the rest of the world.”
If he wins the BDC election and assumes charge of the whole block, Ahmed says the distance from the closest higher secondary school (Class XII) to some villages that he will have to look after is 30 kilometers.
“Children have to either travel 30 kilometers or go to Kargil for school,” he said, referring to Kargil town, which is around 60km away from Drass.
Leh over Kargil?
In Kargil district, the BDC election is being fought in 15 blocks including two in Drass, which has a population of around 22,000 people, according to the 2011 Census.
Many residents have asked successive governments to make Drass a separate district.
Kargil, Ahmed said, was tired of playing second fiddle to Leh, the Buddhist-majority capital of Ladakh.
That the Modi government has decided to make Leh the administrative headquarters of the new UT, Ahmed said, was just another instance of Buddhists being prioritised over the Shia Muslims.
“The Buddhists of Leh are our brothers. There is no doubt about that, but they are always given preferential treatment,” he said. “The BJP wants to create divisions between Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh, but we don’t want that. We only want fair treatment.”
The previous two MPs from BJP—Thupstan Chhewang and Jamyang Tsering Namgyal—are Buddhists from Leh.
Leh has a functioning airport that connects it to Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Srinagar and Jammu, and a road connecting it to Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Kargil has a defunct airport and Zo Jila, a treacherous mountain road located 11,673 feet above sea level, which connects it to Kashmir.
The Modi government had allocated Rs 6,000 crore for the completion of the Zo Jila tunnel connecting Kargil to Kashmir, but the company which won the tender — IL&FS — went bankrupt.
It is little wonder then that people in Kargil have an affinity to Kashmir, which acts as a lifeline until the Zo Jila pass closes for six months of winter.
When people get really sick in Kargil, they travel to Srinagar for treatment, even though it means having to cross Zo Jila, instead of Leh.
“We get everything from Kashmir. We have family relations there. We want to stay with Kashmir,” said Ahmed.
“The Modi government did not ask us what we wanted. Nobody even bothered speaking with us. Is it because we are small in number and live far away that our voices don’t matter in the rest of India? Is this how democracy is supposed to function?”
There are an estimated 140,000 people living in Kargil, and 1,33,000 people living in Leh.
The Buddhists of Ladakh, however, had a long-standing demand to break with J&K and become a UT.
Ahmed said that even though people in Kargil feel close to Kashmir, they have no interest in its separatist movement.
“These are two separate things. There is politics, and there is culture and family,” he said. “We have never been against India. We are nationalists. We have always made our demands in a democratic way. Then why are we treated differently?”