On 26 January 2023, as India celebrated her 74th Republic Day, Sonam Wangchuk, the popular engineer and educationist from Ladakh began a five-day climate fast at Khardung La near Leh. While protection of the fragile Himalayan region seemed to be the focal point of the protest, demands of constitutional safeguards for Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule were synchronous.
This demand is not new. Since the repeal of Article 370 and the creation of Ladakh’s union territory status, there have been continuous cries for both granting it statehood and including it within the Sixth Schedule. In December 2021, Ladakh MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal spoke in the Lok Sabha in favour of Ladakh’s Sixth Schedule status to secure the land, employment and cultural identity of Ladakh and its people.
Ladakh MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal raising the Sixth Schedule demand in the Lok Sabha
Image Credits: Sansad TV
Does Ladakh have a legitimate claim to Sixth Schedule status?
The administration and governance of tribal areas in India are anchored by the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. The Sixth Schedule exclusively controls the administration of tribal areas in the North Eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. The Fifth does so for tribal areas in the rest of India. Protections under the Sixth, however, are significantly stronger providing for self-governance to tribal communities through the creation of District and Regional Councils that have significant legislative and executive authority.
In the Constituent Assembly, many members expressed their concerns with the Sixth Schedule. They feared that the Schedule would keep the tribal areas perpetually isolated. Assembly member Kuladhar Chaliha claimed that these autonomous councils would further intensify existing separatist tendencies and would be a threat to the functioning of a stable government.
Coming in support of the Sixth Schedule Gopinath Bordoloi, the Chairman of the Committee that drafted the Sixth Schedule, defended it by arguing that many hill tribes in the North East were posturing towards complete independence. He suggested that the Sixth Schedule was the best way to integrate these communities into the Union by giving them some level of autonomy. J.J.M Nichols Roy, an influential figure in the creation of the Sixth Schedule, also supported the Schedule as an appropriate middle ground highlighting that legislative and executive powers of the autonomous councils were subject to the authority of the Governor. The Assembly finally adopted the Sixth Schedule into the Constitution.
From the debates and the text of the Sixth Schedule, it appears that a region was considered as candidate for Sixth Schedule status based on the following criteria. First, it should be a North Eastern hill tribe with a distinctive culture that needs special protections. The Ladakh claim falls short here as it is evidently not a hill tribe region in the North East, even though it does have a unique tribal identity that possibly requires protection. Anticipating this, those from the region have attempted to show that the needs of Ladakh's tribal communities are similar to those in the North East.
The second criterion is whether granting autonomy under the Sixth Schedule would facilitate the region's integration with India or, put differently, help alleviate any feeling of political disenchantment that could strain the relationship between the region and the Union. In this regard, the Ladakh claim may be valid. Ladakh has never had its own representative government, and the recent protests reflect a growing sense of disaffection. Previously, Ladakh was part of the Jammu and Kashmir State and had some representation in the state's assembly. However, with the revocation of Article 370 and its conversion into a union territory, Ladakh lost even that.
This likely explains why Ladakh has chosen to follow the Sixth Schedule route. Although concerns about safeguarding the tribal region could be addressed through the Fifth Schedule, Ladakh's status as a Union Territory, lack of statehood, absence of representative government institutions, and rapid development and extensive tourism have led many in Ladakh to see Sixth Schedule status as the best way to protect their interests.