Ladakh’s Protest Movement Is Challenging Narendra Modi

The sparsely populated Himalayan region of Ladakh occupies a key strategic position on the border with China and Pakistan. With national elections underway, its people are protesting against Narendra Modi’s government and its record of broken promises.

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration demanding statehood for the Ladakh region on February 15, 2023 in New Delhi, India. (Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Ladakh may be one of India’s smallest territories in terms of population size, but it is generating a political headache for Narendra Modi as his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeks a third term in office.

Situated in the Himalayan mountain range on the border with China and Pakistan, Ladakh is currently witnessing a strong popular movement against both a sense of political marginalization and the development policies emanating from the Union government in New Delhi.

The protests are taking place in a region that occupies an important geostrategic position despite its small population. It demonstrates some of the challenges that the BJP faces in trying to push through its project across a huge country composed of many different regional and ethnic communities.

A Strategic Territory

Covering about fifty-nine thousand square kilometers of territory, Ladakh is home to nearly three hundred thousand people in its two districts, Leh and Kargil. By comparison, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, is roughly four times the size of Ladakh, but has a population of almost 240 million people. Leh has a Buddhist majority, while the population of Kargil is predominately composed of Shia Muslims.

As a union territory (UT), Ladakh stands apart from India’s twenty-eight states and is directly administered by the Union government. Unlike most of the other UTs, which have been in place for decades, it was only formed in 2019 as part of a move by the Indian parliament to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under Article 370 of the constitution. Ladakh was separated from Jammu and Kashmir, which also became a UT in the process.

Jammu and Kashmir is now slightly smaller than Ladakh, but it has a much larger population (over twelve million people). Ladakh’s geographical location has motivated the Indian government to increase military expenditure in the region to defend its borders against an assertive China. Unlike some of the other UTs, Ladakh has no elected legislature, although Modi’s government previously promised to grant it one.

Sonam Wangchuk, an environmentalist and Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, started a twenty-one-day “climate fast” on March 6, seeking to publicize the need to safeguard the region’s indigenous tribal cultures and fragile ecosystems.

In this effort, he has been supported by the Apex Body of Leh (ABL) and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), an amalgamation of various politicoreligious bodies. These two groups were formed to represent the people of Leh and Kargil respectively in talks with the High Powered Committee that the Union government set up to address the issues of the Ladakhis.

Broken Pledges

With national elections having begun on April 19 and continuing until the start of June, the protests in Ladakh are a challenge for the BJP-led government, which previously made several pledges to the people of the region.

The BJP promised in its 2019 election manifesto to grant Ladakh autonomous political structures under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. This encouraged people to vote for the BJP in elections for the national parliament, the Lok Sabha, and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council of Leh. However, the BJP subsequently chose not to act on its promises.

In May 2020, there were deadly clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley, resulting in the deaths of twenty Indian and three Chinese soldiers. Some intelligence reports suggest that China controls nearly one thousand square kilometers of Ladakh. The region also shares a border with Pakistan, and the Kargil War of 1999 between Indian and Pakistani forces put it on the international media agenda.

These border skirmishes and the slow capture of grazing lands in Ladakh by China have added to the region’s significance, attracting the attention of policymakers. According to Wangchuk, the Changpa nomadic pastoral tribes of Ladakh are facing a two-way onslaught: in the north, they are losing land because of Chinese incursions, while in the south, major Indian companies are taking their prime grazing lands by force.

So far, Modi’s government has not paid any attention to Wangchuk’s protest. His twenty-one-day hunger strike concluded on March 26. However, he pledged to continue fighting for the rights of the people of Ladakh. The popular movement now entered a second phase with women from various socioreligious backgrounds going on hunger strike for a period of ten days.

Wangchuk also announced plans to hold a “Pashmina March” from Leh to the Changtang Valley, highlighting the loss of grazing lands to China in the border villages where the Indian and Chinese states have never demarcated the frontier clearly. The Changpas, who live along the Line of Actual Control, bear the brunt of this conflict.

Without the safeguarding of tribal indigenous rights, in addition to China’s land encroachment, there is a new danger of resource exploitation by industrialists in these border villages. This could potentially force nomads to flee to Leh.

The BJP government imposed two orders to prevent the Pashmina March from going ahead on April 7 and again on April 17. The orders were made under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allows the authorities to prohibit gatherings of four or more people.

Ladakh and Kashmir

For decades, people in the Buddhist-majority region of Ladakh accused the dominant political forces in Kashmir, such as the National Conference or the People’s Democratic Party, of discrimination and paternalism. Historically, the politics of Jammu and Kashmir in its former boundaries have been focused on Kashmir. The Jammu and Ladakh regions both complained of the excessive importance assigned to the valley at their expense.

There were periodic movements of protest and agitation in Ladakh demanding separation from Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakhis felt that by distancing themselves from the existing state, they would be able to insulate themselves from the effects of civil strife in the valley. During the winter months, the entire Ladakh region remains cut off from the rest of the country for nearly six months. Its remoteness and inaccessibility strengthened the argument for establishing a separate territorial unit.

Ladakh existed as an independent state until its annexation under the Dogra ruler after it was conquered by the Sikh general Zorawar Singh in 1834, which made it part of Jammu and Kashmir. Following the Anglo-Sikh war of the 1840s, the British East Indian Company established Jammu and Kashmir as a princely state under its hegemony, and it remained under British control until decolonization in 1947. The three main component parts of the region — Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh — each had their own forms of religious and cultural heterogeneity.

Ladakh’s first member of the Lok Sabha, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, begin putting forward the demand for UT status in the 1950s. Another MP, Thupstan Chhewang, took up the call in more recent times. Chhewang was first elected in 2004 with the support of the Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF). The LUTF later merged into the BJP, and Chhewang was elected as a BJP MP in 2018, although he soon resigned from the party, accusing it of breaking promises to the people of Ladakh.

On August 5, 2019, the government in New Delhi separated Ladakh from the valley and made it a UT. While the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act established two UTs, only Jammu and Kashmir had a legislature, while Ladakh was denied its own assembly. China strongly criticized the move to convert Ladakh into a UT. Some commentators have argued that by abrogating Article 370, Modi’s government has given China an opening to intervene in Kashmir.

The move was initially met with huge celebrations on the streets of Ladakh. However, the celebratory mood did not last for long. While the demand for UT status had always been strong in the Leh district, the people of Kargil did not feel the same way, and there were protests in Kargil demanding the restoration of Article 370. The former BJP MP Chhewang is now involved in the demonstrations for a Ladakh assembly and the safeguarding of tribal rights.


The fact that Leh and Kargil are now joining forces to fight for a Ladakhi identity represents a profound shift in the political landscape of the region. While Kargil has long tended to align itself with the political parties of the valley, Leh has been more inclined to support national parties like the BJP. For this reason, one demand of the protest movement is to create two Lok Sabha seats in Ladakh, one for each district.

The movement has four core demands: recognition for Ladakh under the constitution’s Sixth Schedule; the grant of statehood for the region; the establishment of a Public Service Commission; and two parliamentary seats. Of these, the call for autonomy under the Sixth Schedule is most important.

The Sixth Schedule, which provides for certain tribal areas to become autonomous entities, is currently administrated in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram. It protects tribal populations by allowing for the creation of Autonomous District and Regional Councils, elected bodies with the power to administer tribal areas and frame laws on land, public health, and agriculture.

Almost 97 percent of the population in Ladakh is tribal, and its residents argue that recognition under the Sixth Schedule would safeguard Ladakh’s environment and its indigenous tribal culture from demographic change and resource exploitation by outsiders.

Representatives from the ABL and KDA have held four rounds of talks with the High Powered Committee formed in December 2023. After the talks did not yield any results, the two organizations called for the “Leh Chalo” protests, which brought normal life to a standstill on February 3. The latest round of talks ended on March 4 without any concrete results, which is when the first phase of the movement began with Wangchuk’s fast.

The movement is garnering support from all corners of India, with some famous personalities visiting Leh to show solidarity to the protesters. It seems likely that the BJP will lose its Lok Sabha seat in Ladakh when this year’s election is finished. The protesters are not arguing against all development projects in Ladakh — they simply want local people to have a say in such projects. This time, they are in no mood to retreat.