DRASS, Ladakh — “We will make noise. We will raise our voice. We will protest,” said Bilal Ahmed, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) president in Drass, one of the coldest towns in the world, located in Ladakh’s Kargil district.
“At the very least, the headquarters should be six months in Kargil and six months in Leh,” he said.
This is the second time that Ahmed has spoken out against the Narendra Modi-led BJP government following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status and the severing of Ladakh from J&K on 5 August.
The Modi government’s decision to make Leh the administrative headquarters has hit a nerve in Kargil, home to 1,41,000 people, who are mostly Shia Muslim.
Leh, Ladakh’s capital, has around 1,33,000 people, who are mostly Buddhist.
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For a long time, Kargil has had a grudge that successive governments in India have prioritised Leh, which has better road and air connectivity to the rest of the country.
Kargil, on the other hand, has a defunct airport and a treacherous mountainous pass called Zojila, which connects it to Kashmir. For five months starting in December, the region is cut off from the rest of the world. In Drass, the winter temperatures can drop to -30°C.
The previous two MPs from BJP—Thupstan Chhewang and Jamyang Tsering Namgyal—are Buddhists from Leh.
Soon after the Modi government severed Ladakh from J&K, Ahmed was the only BJP leader to say that Kargil wanted to remain with Kashmir.
The people of Leh, who have wanted to break off from J&K and the far-off state government in Srinagar and Jammu, were in favour of becoming a UT.
Drass, where Ahmed lives, is around 60 km from Sonamarg, the first district in Kashmir after one crosses the Zojila pass located 11,673 feet above sea level.
Leh, on the other hand, is more than 300 km away from Drass. Ladakh’s capital can feel as remote to the residents of Kargil, especially Drass, as Srinagar and Jammu do to the Buddhists.
The people of Drass, who live even closer to Kashmir than those in Kargil town, have asked to be made a district for a long time.
“Kargil has never asked for a UT. Leh always had,” said Ahmed. “No one from Drass lives in Leh, but at least 50% of people from Kargil live in Srinagar.”
“We want Kargil to be with Kashmir. This is about people, not geography. We have cultural, families and business relations that run very deep,” he said. “Even if we are a UT, the people here want to be merged with Kashmir.”
Even though he is from the BJP, Ahmed said that he had to say how people “really” felt.
“The MP is from Leh so he is speaking for Leh. I’m from Drass so I’m speaking about how the people of Drass feel,” he said. “It is my responsibility to inform the party and public what people in Drass feel.”
Recently, almost the entire Kargil cadre of the Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) joined the BJP.
Haji Ali Anayat, a PDP leader who joined the BJP, told HuffPost India, “BJP is the future in Kargil.”
The BJP is looking to the Block Development Council election, scheduled for 24 October, to further its “grassroots” expansion.
But for the party to grow in Kargil, which has so far shunned the Hindu nationalist party widely regarded as “anti-Muslim”, Ahmed reasoned that his party needs to listen to its people.
“If we want people to give BJP a chance then we have to be their voice as well. Otherwise, the BJP will not find any support among the people,” he said.
A BJP man in Kargil
Ahmed, who quit the Omar Abdullah-led National Conference (NC) and joined the BJP in 2013, says it’s not easy being a BJP leader in Kargil.
When he ran for the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council election in 2014, Ahmed received 150 votes. The winning candidate from Congress, he recalled, received approximately 1,200 votes. In 2018, when Ahmed contested again, he received 72 votes.
“People think of BJP as anti-Muslim. People would not call me by my name. They would say, ‘Look there goes BJP’ or ‘oye BJP where are you going.’ That is not good,” he said. “It does not feel right.”
Hoardings of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, who is the religious head of Shia Muslims the world over, are plastered all over Kargil.
Last week, the Supreme Court proceedings on the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was the talk of the town.
Ahmed believes the sun has set on the NC and the Congress Party, which he described as dull, dynastic and out of touch with the people. The BJP, he believes, is the party of the future.
The 40-year-old, who also works as a part-time contractor, said, “I want to rise in politics and BJP is the only party where it seems possible.”