Tribal Territoriality, Asymmetric Federalism, and Majoritarianism in India’s Northern Himalayan Borderlands

From the Series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia

Photo by Mythri Jegathesan.

We are a separate nation by all tests—race, language, religion, culture . . . The right to self-determination claimed by us cannot be claimed with equal force by the people of Baltistan . . . populated by Muslims, as they are connected by ties of religion with the majority community in Jammu and Kashmir, nor by the people of Gilgit . . . whom not only identity of religion but of race as well binds to the majority community of Jammu and Kashmir.
—Memorandum presented to Nehru by Tsewang Rigzin, President, Young Men’s Buddhist Association of Ladakh, 1949
Dear Modi ji the sharks are after us, they are after our mountains and rivers, for mines and minerals . . . you have given us new life as UT [Union Territory] and we hope you will give us dignity too.
Facebook video appeal to Prime Minister Modi, by Sonam Wangchuk, Ladakhi education reformer and environmentalist, December 31, 2019

Separated by seven decades, these impassioned pleas for territorial sovereignty from Ladakhis in India’s northwestern Himalaya bristle with the familiar fears of borderland minorities. By mainstream Indian media accounts, Ladakh’s long-standing plea was fulfilled on October 31, 2019, when it went from being a district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), to its own Union Territory (UT). A few months earlier, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)–led central government revoked Article 370—a constitutional accommodation granting differential rights to federal subunits that dissolved J&K's statehood, bifurcating it into two Union Territories, J&K and Ladakh. Even as a communications blackout stifled Kashmiri voices, many Ladakhis took to social media and the streets to celebrate their first “Independence Day.” Thirty-four-year-old Jamyang T. Namgyal, Ladakh’s BJP member of parliament, made an impassioned speech in parliament thanking Prime Minister Modi and recounting how generations of Ladakhi leaders had been ignored by the Congress Party and their Kashmiri political aides. However, despite this celebratory rhetoric, Ladakhi territorial insecurities persist, as evident in Wangchuk’s appeal. Here, I provide a brief historical context to these insecurities, tracing its entanglements with majoritarian politics.

While Kashmiri struggles for autonomy occupy a central place in global and domestic discourse, few are familiar with Ladakhi demands for territorial autonomy. A former Buddhist kingdom, Ladakh was invaded by the Dogra army in the nineteenth century and incorporated into the princely state of J&K, which then became part of India in 1947. For the British, Ladakh and the northeastern frontier were conceptualized as India’s “Mongolian Fringe,” a site of geopolitical and racial anxiety given their proximity to China and Southeast Asia. As Sanjib Baruah (2020) notes, these anxieties were carried over to the postcolonial state; an explicit instance of which appears in a letter written in 1950 by Sardar Patel, India’s first home minister to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, where he noted, “All along the Himalaya in the north and northeast, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids.” As Tsewang Rigzin’s memorandum (quoted above) illustrates, this racial thinking inflected not just British and Indian state attitudes but also laid the ground for self-determination struggles.

This fraught relationship between India’s majoritarian core and its frontier minorities provides crucial context to Article 370, an example of asymmetric federalism, a constitutional arrangement guaranteeing protections for customary laws, land ownership, and preferential federal financial assistance. Indian asymmetric federalism attempts to accommodate the subnationalist demands of sovereign states and tribal communities who were incorporated into the newly formed nation post-independence. However, stripped of its historical context as fragile political negotiations between the Indian Union and recalcitrant sovereign entities, these protections are being framed as “special treatment” for borderland states that has delayed their integration with “mainland” India (Hausing 2014). Furthermore, for those who view India as an indivisible Hindu nation, these protections assert difference not loyalty to the nation. Asymmetric federalism then offers an uneasy compromise and perhaps even a constitutional cover-up for the violent histories of postcolonial nation-building.

But what explains the convergence between Hindu majoritarianism and Ladakhi demands for territorial autonomy? Post-independence, as a largely apathetic Congress-led central government ignored Ladakhi demands for autonomy from J&K, Ladakhi Buddhist elite found ready allies among Hindu nationalists (van Beek 2006). In 1979, religious tensions escalated and Ladakh was divided into two districts: Leh with a Buddhist majority and Kargil with a Muslim majority. A decade later, agitations for Union Territory fueled clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, shortly after which Ladakh was granted autonomous status with its own Hill Development Council. In contrast with struggles for autonomy in Northeast India, Ladakhi demands have never been characterized as a threat to India’s indivisibility because while tethered to a distinctive cultural and religious identity, Ladakhi demands were aimed at seceding from J&K, marking it more loyal to India (van Beek 2006).

A cursory glance suggests that cozying up to Hindu nationalists has reaped rich dividends. However, as Wangchuk’s appeal insinuates, despite the UT status, Ladakh still does not have “dignity.” This is because unlike J&K, Ladakh’s UT does not have its own legislative assembly and will be administered by a lieutenant governor. Moreover, without Article 370, the region is seen as open for “development” and, more insidiously, primed for demographic change. Concerned, Sonam Wangchuk crafted a series of videos on Facebook, appealing to Prime Minister Modi that Ladakh be granted Sixth Schedule, another instance of asymmetric federalism that offers protection for tribal majority territories (96 percent of Ladakh’s population is classified as tribal). Today, all Sixth Schedule areas are located in the Northeast. However, demands for Sixth Schedule require a stronger identification of Ladakh as a “tribal” territory and Ladakhis as “tribal” people, a discursive maneuver largely shunned by Ladakhi leaders due to the region’s civilizational history as a Buddhist monarchy and derogatory notions associated with the term. But in Wanghcuk’s Facebook video we find no such hesitation, instead, the video ends with a plea to protect “our colorful lives” with accompanying visuals of traditional Ladakhi dances and varied “primitive” subsistence livelihoods, clearly gesturing to the optics of what constitutes being “tribal” for the Indian state.

What is unfolding in Ladakh today illustrates the promise and pitfalls of the politics of recognition for India’s borderland minorities. While the grounds for Ladakhi demands might have shifted from racial difference to religion and now to being “tribal,” unchanged is the desire for territorial autonomy. In many ways, Ladakh is an anomaly within the larger discourse of tribal territorial rights since its Buddhist identity rather than its “tribality” has been more politically expedient (van Beek 2006). However, their minority status notwithstanding, Ladakh’s Buddhist elites’ decision to align themselves with Hindu nationalist interests serves only short-term interests and has violently undone generations of Buddhist-Muslim kinship in the region (Smith 2020). Though Ladakh’s territorial future remains uncertain especially given the recent heightening of geopolitical tensions between China and India, voices of critique are multiplying among the younger generation of Ladakhis wary of BJP’s growing political influence. One can only hope that this generation of Ladakhis and those who follow build a less divisive and more reconciliatory path forward.


Baruah, Sanjib. 2020. In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast. Standford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hausing, Kham Khan Suan. 2014. “Asymmetric Federalism and the Question of Democratic Justice in Northeast India.” India Review 13, no. 2: 87–111.

Smith, Sara. 2020. Intimate Geopolitics: Love, Territory, and the Future on India’s Northern Threshold. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

van Beek, Martijn. 2006. “‘Sons and Daughters of India’: Ladakh’s Reluctant Tribes.” In Indigeneity in India, edited by Bengt G. Karlsson and T. B. Subba, 117–41. London: Kegan Paul.