Because mountains dwarf humanity, the crowd in the Ladakh polo ground looks lost. But there are 5,000 and more of them, ringed by snow-capped peaks, gathered to support Thupstan Chhewang who alone, they feel, will protect Ladakh’s distinctive identity.
I can understand the fears of those who have promoted the Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF), which sponsored the rally under Mr Chhewang’s election symbol of a swooping aeroplane.
On our left rises the gaunt nine-storey ruin of Leh palace. I had encountered a couple of revenue officers from Jammu the previous evening in this fortress, monastery, royal abode and administrative centre rolled into one like a Bhutanese dzong. Employees of the state government though they were, they had no idea that Ladakh had been an independent kingdom for nearly 900 years. Or part of Jammu and Kashmir for more than 160.
The ignorance of those who matter can be killing.
Though now split into two districts, Muslim majority Kargil whose Shias will not eat food handled by Buddhists, and Buddhist majority Leh, Ladakh is a single parliamentary constituency. A Muslim boy from Kargil says there isn’t a single Buddhist in his district. Actually, 15 per cent of the population there is Buddhist. Ghulam Hasan Khan, the sitting MP, was canvassing among his co-religionists in Kargil when I visited Leh, which has about 10,000 Muslim voters.
A National Conference spokesman in Srinagar calls Kargil the Bangladesh of Ladakh. Yet, he blames the militancy of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) for splitting the district. “The LUTF is another name for the LBA,” he maintains. Mr Chhewang, who presides over the LBA, lost last time by only 2,040 votes.
Thanks to the Buddhist agitation, Leh and Kargil are now both hill development councils. But it was a long time before the councils were given funds and powers to discharge their responsibilities. Predictably, Mr Chhewang is also chief executive councillor of the Leh Area Hill Development Council (LAHDC). His hope that party labels would be dissolved so that Ladakhis can work only for Union territory status is doomed to disappointment for affiliations with powerful national organisations bring their own rewards, even in these remote hills.
No one spares much thought for the four other candidates. Even the BJP’s Sonam Paljore basks only in the reflected glory of the party that rules at the Centre. Ladakhis were still hoping he would withdraw, for local BJP politicians support the case for Union territory status. The BJP’s eccentrically-worded election pamphlet seems not so much to denounce the demand as to condemn its supporters for inconsistency.
Tracing their wayward course, the pamphlet reads: “Unfortunately, the UT demand for Ladakh again SUBSIDED (in 2002), when our trusted people representative join in hands with Congress and PDP coalition govt. keeping aside their promises and assurances made to the innocent people of Ladakh and accepted ministerial berth in the Kashmir Govt. and ministerial status to LAHDC executives without financial and administrative power, is nothing but an eye wash” (sic).
If this rigmarole implies tacit support for Union territory status, so does the attitude of the Congress and its ally, the ruling People’s Democratic Party. Only Mr Khan opposes it because Omar Abdullah does.
As representative and symbol of the demand, Mr Chhewang should win hands down. The polo ground gathering was huge for a town of 30,000 inhabitants. I saw bearded Shias and capped Sunnis. There were lamas in red robes, women in voluminous Ladakhi skirts, men in brown gonchos and others in smart Western suits. On the dais, I spotted P. Namgyal, once a junior minister under Rajiv Gandhi.
But a single popular focus need not mean the outcome can be taken for granted. “Ladakh ka mausam aur Mumbai ka fashion koi bharosa nahi!” declared a young novice monk whom we rescued from a sudden storm on the road to Rohtang where the Tibetans finally massacred Zorowar’s Dogra army.
Come May 10 and the electoral climate may turn out to be as erratic as the other two.