Tibetan prayer flags blow in the wind in India in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

India’s break-up of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories has inflamed the region’s predominantly Muslim population and sparked an outcry in neighboring Pakistan and Islamic circles further afield.

But the controversial move, which stripped the two states of their previous special status under the Indian constitution, appears to have been welcomed in neighboring Ladakh, which will likewise now form its own union territory.

Significantly, it will constitute the first administrative entity in Hindu-majority India where nearly half the population is Buddhist, a shift in designation that will no doubt raise antennae in neighboring China.

Protests over the lifting of the constitutional provision, known as Article 370, have so far only taken place in Kargil, a predominantly Muslim district in Ladakh near the Jammu and Kashmir border.

“Dignity has finally been restored,” wrote Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat from Ladakh, in The Hindustan Times on August 7. The Ladakhis, he argued, had never been content being dominated by the overwhelming Muslim majority of the old state, as allowed for under Article 370.

But there is also uncertainty about the future of Ladakh’s new union territory, both domestically and internationally.

Children play at the foot of the Thiksey Buddhist monastery east of Ladakh’s capital of Leh. Photo: AFP Forum

“People here are happy on the face of it, but concerns remain over protection of land and fear of outsiders flocking in,” says a Ladakh native who requested anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

Article 370 had granted the old state a certain degree of internal autonomy and, along with the Indian constitution’s Article 35A, had barred Indian citizens from other parts of the country to purchase land or property there.

With that provision now lifted, locals are wary of being overwhelmed by entrepreneurs from India’s lowlands keen to cash in on Ladakh’s lucrative tourism industry, a major and growing source of income for many Ladakhis.

Questions are also already being raised about Ladakh’s new union territory’s governance. Unlike states and several union territories, including the new Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh will not have an elected assembly.

Instead, the local government will be headed by a lieutenant governor appointed by the national president. The absence of a locally elected assembly may be explained by New Delhi’s desire to keep the sensitive border area under tight central control.

Ladakh has been spared from the violent insurgency that has plagued the Muslim-dominated parts of the old state since the early 1990s. As such, it has become a popular destination for domestic and foreign tourists.

With its spectacular mountains, some rising to 7,000 meters above sea level, it is now a haven for trekkers, mountaineers and travelers who just want to experience its unique, Tibetan-Buddhist culture.

According to official statistics, a total of 327,366 tourists, including 49,477 foreigners, visited the Ladakhi capital of Leh and its surroundings in 2018, an increase of over 50,000 compared to the previous year.

Only 275,000 people live within Ladakh’s 59,000 square kilometer area, sparsely populated compared to the nearby state of Punjab’s nearly 30 million inhabitants in its 50,000 square kilometers.

Students celebrate Ladakh’s first Independence Day as a union territory of India in Leh City. Photo: AFP Forum via The Times Of India/Piyal Bhattacharjee.

But the region’s delicate geopolitics are likely a bigger point of concern for Ladakh’s future peace and prosperity.

The previous princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which existed before the British left their Indian colonial empire in 1947, included not only the two areas now controlled by independent India – the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh – but also parts now under Pakistani and Chinese control.

Approximately 45% of that colonial-era territory is currently controlled by India, 35% by Pakistan and 20% by China.

After a brief war in 1947, Pakistan seized control over much of the western part of Jammu and Kashmir. Under a 1963 border agreement, penned after the China-India 1962 war, Pakistan recognized Chinese sovereignty over a nearly 7,000 square kilometer area north of the Karakoram range.

The Karakoram range had previously been considered Pakistani territory, while the area is also claimed by India, as part of its claim to the entire former colonial-era princely state’s territory.

The situation is also entangled by the fact that China also controls Aksai Chin, an even larger area which India considers part of Ladakh. Whether Ladakh’s new union territory distinction inflames tensions around these contested claims is yet to be seen but is a distinct possibility.

Originally an independent kingdom populated by Tibetan tribes, Ladakh was occupied by an earlier Sikh Empire in 1834. In 1846, it was incorporated into Jammu and Kashmir, then a new princely state which acknowledged British paramountcy.

But there were different opinions as to where the northern border of the state should be drawn. In 1865, William H Johnson, a British surveyor, proposed a boundary through Aksai Chin which was later modified by British intelligence officer Sir John Ardagh.

It subsequently became known as the Ardagh-Johnson Line, the border India still recognizes today. But China never recognized the line.

Source: Maps of India via Twitter

Instead, its claims follow roughly along another boundary which was drawn in 1893 and named after George MacCartney, the British consul in Xinjiang’s main town of Kashgar, and Sir Claude MacDonald, a British minister to the then-Qing rulers of China.

Although the Chinese don’t recognize it as the MacCartney-MacDonald Line, the old boundary is approximately where Beijing thinks the border should be, giving China control over most of Aksai Chin.

The area, which consists mostly of a largely uninhabited high-altitude rock desert, is so remote that the Chinese built a road through it in the mid-1950’s, extending from Xinjiang to Tibet, without the Indians realizing until 1957.

Five years later, India and China fought a brief but bitter border war, mainly in the northeast, but also along the line of actual control between Aksai Chin and Ladakh.

Barring a few incidents, including an episode that saw Indian and Chinese troops throw stones at each other during a stand-off mainly on the eastern border in August 2017, Aksai Chin has been peaceful since 1962. But that is not the case on Siachen Glacier, considered the highest battleground on earth.

Located where the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan peters out in northwestern Ladakh, intermittent battles have been fought there since 1984.

India and Pakistan maintain troops respectively at and near the glacier, and clashed in Ladakh’s Kargil district and other areas in 1999, an armed confrontation which saw hundreds of casualties on both sides.

Chinese and Indian security officials at a Himalayan border area. Photo: Pinterest

China, an ally of Pakistan, has criticized India’s decision to carve up Jammu and Kashmir, which will no doubt open a Pandora’s Box of conflict scenarios from Beijing’s perspective.

Shortly after the announcement to lift Article 370 was made in New Delhi, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi landed in Beijing for talks. But China’s concerns are different from those of its Pakistani ally.

For one, Pakistan will likely opt to increase its cross-border support for Kashmiri militants, many of whom are Islamic fundamentalists. But a renewed and potentially even more diehard Islamic insurgency is not what China wants close to its border with Xinjiang, where it has launched a vicious campaign of suppression against its Muslim population.

More instability in Kashmir is also not in China’s geo-strategic and economic interests, particularly as it aims to establish the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an undertaking replete with multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects designed to give China access to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

The creation of a new administrative entity with a distinct Tibetan-Buddhist culture and profile in Ladakh will no doubt be equally disturbing for China, which annexed Tibet in 1959 and has since brutally bid to erase the region’s culture, religion and traditions.

The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, has resided in exile in India since 1959 and has remained a sharp thorn in India and China’s bilateral relations. The exiled spiritual leader has visited Ladakh on several occasions, most recently in July 2018.

But while Ladakhis in the capital of Leh and other areas tentatively celebrate their new status as an Indian union territory, China has new and potentially destabilizing cause to be concerned.

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