Insights into Kargil’s Political Landscape: An Interview with Adv. Mustafa Haji

This interview with Advocate Mustafa Haji (MH), conducted by Anwar Ali Tsarpa (AT), delves into various aspects of the LAHDC Kargil election and its broader implications. From the extended election duration and the shift in public perception post-Ladakh’s Union Territory status to the complexities of identity-based politics in Kargil and the potential transition towards agenda-based politics, the conversation provides valuable insights into the region’s political landscape. Advocate Mustafa Haji also discusses the status of gender equality within this context and the recent episode involving the “plough” symbol and its implications for the democratic process. This interview sheds light on the intricate dynamics of Kargil’s political environment and its ongoing evolution. 

AT: What are your initial remarks regarding the LAHDC Kargil election?

MH: The prolonged duration of this election, spanning nearly two months, created an unusual and somewhat dampened atmosphere among the electorate, leading to reduced enthusiasm and passion. Nevertheless, it remained imperative to see this election through to its conclusion. 

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AT: What are your overall observations about this election?

This marks the first election since Ladakh attained union territory status. There has been a notable shift in public perception regarding elections. In the former Jammu and Kashmir state, the focal point was the MLA Assembly Elections, which garnered significant interest and engagement from the populace. In contrast, the LAHDC elections have not generated the same level of enthusiasm and engagement. This change can be attributed to several factors.

Firstly, the coalition between the two major political parties, the National Conference and Congress, has somewhat diminished the competitive spirit of the elections. As evident, there are no large-scale rallies occurring due to this coalition. Secondly, some individuals perceive Hill Council elections as less significant, leading to a decrease in overall enthusiasm for the electoral process. However, it is important to note that in such circumstances, every available option and institution should be utilized effectively and judiciously, regardless of perceived importance. 

AT: Allegations have arisen from both the public and Council representatives, claiming that the LAHDC has been significantly disempowered since the transition to a Union Territory. Consequently, some may perceive the Council as less effective in addressing their concerns, which has contributed to decreased interest in the upcoming election.

Indeed, as you mentioned, this is a significant factor, and it stems from the transition to a Union Territory. The transfer of powers to the Lieutenant Governor (LG) and secretaries, rather than the elected representatives, has been a notable consequence. Over the past four years, there have been instances where LAHDC counselors were denied access to state events, and secretaries made them wait outside their office doors. In Kargil, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authority of the Executive Councillor for health was undermined. These incidents may contribute to the perception that an alternative system is now in place, leading to a diminished influence of the counselors. 

AT: Is this election primarily driven by agendas or identities? What seems to be the prevailing factor

When examining politics in India, it becomes evident that it has predominantly revolved around identity politics, encompassing factors such as caste, region, and more. Scholars like Asgar Ali Engineer argue that identity politics has gained prominence worldwide, displaying both advantages and disadvantages. In certain contexts, such as movements related to Right to Information (RTI), women’s rights, transgender rights, LGBT rights, and minority representation, identity politics has proven beneficial. However, it has also become a drawback because it has become deeply entrenched in our political landscape, making it nearly impossible to envision politics without considering various identities, including religion, ethnicity, and language.

Likewise, identity politics has a presence in Kargil, but it operates at a micro level. Unlike mainland India, it is not primarily based on religion and caste, as Kargil is a Shia Muslim-majority region. Instead, other identities have held significance for a long time, such as the dominance of the Syed community in the Suru region. It’s not for me to pass judgment on whether this is positive or negative, but it’s clear that identity plays a role. Similarly, linguistic identity, exemplified by Pugi and Balti, continues to be a factor even in the current election. These identities are intricately woven together, making it challenging to separate or view them in isolation.

While many people may have their own political agendas and manifestos, the reality often seems to prioritize one’s background when choosing a counselor. Ideally, politics should be centered on agendas and development, but in practice, it frequently revolves around familial or personal connections. However, a small segment of society believes that counselors should be selected based on their qualifications and merit.  

AT: In a closely-knit society like ours where most people know each other, where individuals hold multiple identities and have diverse relationships, what are the advantages and disadvantages for politics?

In our close-knit society with a population of approximately 1.5 lakh, everyone is familiar with each other’s closely guarded secrets. It’s akin to being in a Big Boss house where everyone is privy to each other’s actions and histories. In this unique environment, people often have prior knowledge about their leaders, which can be advantageous. This familiarity with one another is one of the reasons why, to the best of my knowledge, the MLAs and councillors of LAHDC have consistently chosen candidates who are, in most cases, more qualified than those seen in the rest of the country, particularly in the context of Jammu and Kashmir.

In Jammu and Kashmir, democratic elections have historically been conducted only two times, with allegations of rigging being commonplace, involving both the state and the people. I recently came across a book titled “Nice Guys Finish Second,” which delves into how governments were manipulated and overthrown. In comparison, Kargil’s political landscape appears to maintain a higher standard, with the selection of well-qualified candidates. The Chief Executive Councillors (CECs) we have had may not have achieved extraordinary feats, but they have generally been competent. This can be attributed to our closely-knit community, where mutual familiarity and trust play significant roles.

A notable disadvantage in our electoral system is that when selecting a candidate, political parties often prioritize factors like the candidate’s number of relatives and their potential vote bank. Consequently, the candidate’s quality and competence can be overshadowed. When faced with a choice between five nominees, the one with more relatives and a larger vote bank tends to receive preference over a candidate with outstanding qualities. This poses a challenge for political parties, as their primary aim is to secure victory in a given seat. In the pursuit of electoral success, compromises are made on certain candidate qualities, resulting in the potential exclusion of highly qualified individuals.

In the current election, I’ve observed candidates with commendable qualities stepping forward to contest. However, they share a common concern: when competing against a seasoned candidate, the opposing side often enjoys an advantage due to their extensive network of relatives and supporters. It’s worth noting that this factor holds less significance in MP or MLA elections, which take place on a larger scale. 

AT: Considering a society with intersecting identities (ethnic, religious, language, region), what is the potential for transitioning from identity-based politics to agenda-based politics?

There is a significant opportunity for such a shift in our society, primarily because we are no longer limited to a specific region or pocket. With young individuals receiving quality education at national universities and abroad, and our people becoming increasingly exposed to the outside world, the prospects for such a transition are promising. Our society is gradually evolving and embracing change. In this election, the youth got substantial opportunity, not solely due to their identity but primarily because of their qualifications. This represents a step towards granting opportunities based on merit.

It’s worth noting that this transformative process may not remain restricted to the Council alone; there is a possibility that one day we may evolve into a state, offering candidates opportunities based on their merit rather than just their identity. 

AT: How do you perceive the status of gender equality within the realm of this politics?

I’ve noticed that whenever there’s a program held in Kargil, discussions about gender equality and women’s empowerment are quite common. However, in practice, I’ve witnessed only a few of these ideas being effectively implemented. It’s encouraging, though, to see that the younger generation is more receptive to these changes.

In the seats designated for women, it has often been the case that the women themselves remain nominal figures, with their husbands or other family members actively representing them. However, this time, by the grace of Allah, we have women candidates actively participating in the election, marking a significant beginning. It is often said, “practice what you preach,” and while we frequently emphasize these principles in our gatherings and congregations, their practical implementation has been limited. This election presents an opportunity to gauge how much people are genuinely putting into practice what they talk about. 

AT: The “plough” symbol was initially denied to the NC Party, but following a Supreme Court order, it was eventually allocated to them, leading to a revision of the entire election process. What insights can we draw from this episode?

The Kargil Democratic Alliance and the Apex body have long advocated for the decentralization of power in Ladakh, which essentially means empowering the people and elevating elected representatives. Bureaucracy is often deemed incompatible with the participatory democratic framework of our country. Regrettably, the UT Administration has fallen short in this regard. Despite the UT Law department in Ladakh acknowledging that the party is entitled to a symbol according to the Symbol Order 1968, the symbol was not granted to the party.

Notably, the High Court’s single bench issued an order to provide the symbol well before the election was announced. Subsequently, the matter was challenged in the Division Bench, leading to contempt proceedings. Despite these legal developments, the case ultimately reached the Supreme Court. This sequence of events highlights a larger issue with bureaucracy, and it appears that the UT administration’s handling of this particular case represents a significant failure. This is evident in the fact that they seemingly did not exercise independent judgment, a point underscored by the Honorable Supreme Court. It appears as though external political pressures influenced their decision-making process.

As a consequence, they were required to pay a penalty of one lakh rupees. While the monetary penalty may not hold great significance for me, what truly matters is the undermining of the democratic process. Moreover, the Union Territory (UT) possesses substantial funds, but it is essential that they are utilized judiciously. Unfortunately, the UT Administration incurred substantial expenses related to the deployment of security forces, election officials, and other arrangements, as well as engaging the public in a lengthy two-month-long election process, all of which ultimately proved futile.

The Supreme Court aptly pointed out that “they brought this misfortune upon themselves.” This serves as a wake-up call for the UT administration to exercise greater discretion and prudence in handling such cases, avoiding any embarrassment for all stakeholders involved.


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