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The Hunger Strike for Ladakh's Autonomy and Environmental Preservation

The Hunger Strike for Ladakh's Autonomy and Environmental Preservation


Written by Shahad Ghannam

South and East Asia,

Global Human Rights Defence

Introduction to the protest

In a remarkable display of resilience and determination, Sonam Wangchuk, a renowned Ladakhi innovator, activist, educator, and 2018 Nobel Prize Week Panellist concluded his 21-day hunger strike in Leh, Ladakh. He documented this journey on social media platforms, such as YouTube and X (previously Twitter). The hunger strike, which commenced on March 6, 2024, was marked by Wangchuk’s survival on merely salt and water, amidst severe temperatures that often fall below zero (Masoodi, 2024). This phase of the protest, inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance, drew significant attention and support from across the Ladakhi region and beyond, with thousands joining in solidarity. The protest is a loud call for the rights and autonomy of the people of Ladakh, demanding statehood; inclusion under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution; a separate public service commission; and two parliamentary seats for the region, driven by concerns over demographic shifts and ecological vulnerabilities exacerbated by increasing tourism and development pressures (Livemint, 2024).


1 Historical and ecological context  

The origins of this protest can be attributed to the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in 2019, which had profound implications for Ladakh. Previously, Ladakh was part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and as such, it enjoyed greater protections and a degree of autonomy, due to the state’s special status bestowed by the said Article. This status allowed for the preservation of land rights, employment, and cultural identity, safeguarding them from outside influences. Following the abrogation, J&K was separated into two Union Territories that retained a legislative assembly, while Ladakh was reconstituted without one (FP Explainers, 2024).


Ladakh, located in the North-Western part of the Himalayas, is characterised by its unique demographic composition, which is predominantly tribal (97 percent), with a rich tapestry of Indo-European and Tibeto-Mongolian ethnic groups such as the Baltis, Purigpas, Dards, and Drogpas. Additional sub-cultural groups, including the Mons and Bedas, along with various religious sects — Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and a smaller percentage of Sikhs, Christians, and Jains —  further enrich the region’s cultural mosaic (Jabeen & Dolma, 2023). This sociocultural diversity is intricately linked to the ecology of Ladakh, a cold desert known for its high altitude ecosystems and biodiverse habitats, home to diverse wildlife and drawing tourists from around the globe, are now increasingly vulnerable due to several factors, including climate change (Gyaltson, 2022).


The region’s glaciers have retreated by 6.7 percent as of 2021, jeopardising the region’s most important source for drinking, irrigation and energy generation for both wildlife and humans that is now scarce. The water quality is additionally deteriorating rapidly due to pollution at the hands of military, tourist, and labour camps, leading to an unhealthy aquatic ecosystem and drinking source (Prakash, 2023).


These changes are not only environmental but also cultural, as the removal of protections provided by Article 370 poses significant risks. The legislative change has opened the door to unrestricted industrialisation and land acquisition, and the potential to alter ownership laws and disrupt the ecological and cultural landscape. This is currently exemplified by the dual threats of reported Chinese incursions in the East and Indian corporate activities in the South (Stobdan, 2024). Thousands of acres of pastoral grazing land, essential to the livelihoods of local nomadic tribes, are being lost to these incursions and commercial interests. The loss of this land threatens the traditional ways of life for these communities, which are deeply intertwined with the region’s ecology. Frenzied harvesting of crops in the region, with advanced harvesting techniques, to promote economic growth similarly harms the ecological balance and traditional ways of life (Namgail, 2024). Moreover, the aggressive push for solar energy projects and other industrial activities by Indian corporations, sanctioned by governmental policies, has led to further alienation of the local population, depriving them of their lands and a say in their resources and consequently their indigenous rights (Bhattacharya, 2024).


2 Call for sixt schedule granting statehood 

The lack of autonomy of the Ladakhi over their land sparked widespread protests and hunger strikes since 2020, as leaders and various groups in the community, from both the Buddhist-majority Leh and the Muslim-majority Kargil districts, united under the banners of the Leh Apex Body and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA). Their joint demand was for statehood through the integration of Ladakh into the Sixth Schedule to protect the rights of the territory’s population (Business Today Desk, 2024).


The Sixth Schedule, introduced into the Indian Constitution in 1949, is a special provision under Articles 244(2) and 275(1), allowing North-Eastern tribal areas  (such as in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram) to govern themselves while still being integrated into the broader Indian framework, thus safeguarding the customary laws, practices, and traditions of its communities. The schedule allows for a degree of autonomy in governance and administration through the formation of Autonomous District and Regional Councils with legislative powers over various subjects pertinent to the local populace, such as land, forestry, agriculture, inheritance, marriage and divorce, and social customs, albeit with the requirement of the Governor’s assent (The Constitution of India, 1950, arts. 153-167). The Governor, appointed by the President of India, is the constitutional head of the state and a representative of the central government, with the power to divide districts into autonomous regions for tailored administration. Financially, the councils are empowered to manage budgets, collect taxes, and oversee local economic development, including placing barriers on mineral extraction. They also hold executive authority to spearhead infrastructure projects, enhancing local education, healthcare, marketplaces, and transport services. Judicial powers enable the establishment of local courts, although with limitations on handling severe crimes (The Constitution of India, 1950, arts. 244(2) and 275(1)). Ultimately, Ladakhi’s protest for incorporating Ladakh under the Schedule could be a pivotal step towards recognising and preserving the region’s unique ecological, cultural and economic interests that will otherwise remain at risk. The Sixth Schedule provides a legal framework to protect Ladakhi’s rights against both internal and external threats, ensuring that land and resources cannot be altered without local consent.


Despite these provisions, a few challenges persist in its implementation. First is the fostering of multiple centres of power that can lead to potential conflicts of interest. This arises from the internal divisions within Councils due to cultural diversity among tribal groups and the centralisation of power among tribal elites. These dynamics complicate governance, provoke jurisdictional disputes, and diminish the effectiveness of local development efforts. Second, there exists a gap between the approved budget and the actual funds received by Sixth Schedule regions from the state stunting developments in the autonomous regions. Incorporating Ladakh into this Sixth Schedule also poses significant challenges due to clear constitutional stipulations that limit this provision to the North-Eastern regions of India. Thus, governmental and legislative action would be necessary to amend the Constitution (Economic Times, 2024).


3 Indian government’s engagement on the issue 

In 2019 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had pledged at number three in its election manifesto the integration of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule. Despite the BJP being voted into power, there has been a resounding silence to meet the promise. Efforts to dialogue with the central government to meet assurances for statehood, including an initial meeting in December 2023, a thorough deliberation in February, and another in early March 2024, with the Home Minister, Amit Shah, all failed to yield a satisfactory response to the Ladakhis’ demands. The lack of progress set the stage for a direct action approach to seek resolution, in the form of a “till death” hunger strike.


4 Impact of the protest

Wangchuk’s hunger strike and the ensuing mobilisation highlight a broader struggle for environmental justice, human rights, and self-determination. Despite the challenging conditions, the protest saw remarkable participation, with “60,000 to 70,000 people coming here [Ladakh] to protest with their feet” reported Wangchuck on X. The continued activism signals a deep-rooted commitment among not only Ladakhis but also the general public, to seek meaningful engagement and solutions from the Indian government (Masoodi, 2024; Livemint, 2024).


As the hunger strike concluded, the mantle of protest was passed on in a rotational approach, with women’s groups in Ladakh announcing the next phase commencing on March 27th, 2024, followed by youth and Buddhist monks, and so on. This serves as a poignant reminder of the collective power of peaceful protest and the importance of upholding democratic principles and human rights in the face of environmental and cultural challenges.


Despite the grave implications of this protest and the widespread support across the region, “not a word from the government” has been received as Wangchuk reports on the 20th day. The silence from the central government raises concerns about the recognition and respect for the rights and demands of the Ladakhi people. This absence of engagement underscores a broader issue of governance and the mechanisms through which marginalised communities seek redress and recognition of their rights within the democratic framework of India (Economic Times, 2024; Livemint, 2024).


4 International context and legal frameworks

The core issues at the heart of this protest resonate with the principles of the right to a clean environment, cultural preservation, and self-determination; fundamental rights recognised under various international legal frameworks, to which India is a signatory or has ratified, obliging it to adhere to these standards.


The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), ratified by India in 2007, is particularly relevant here. It emphasises the rights of indigenous populations to self-determination (Article 3), to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions (Article 5), and to the conservation and protection of their environment (Article 29) (UN General Assembly, 2007). Wangchuk’s call for the Sixth Schedule’s application to Ladakh aligns with these articles, advocating for autonomous governance that allows for environmental stewardship and cultural preservation within Ladakh. Including Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule would enable the formation of Autonomous District Councils, granting the authority to legislate on matters crucial to the local populace, thus reflecting the principles enshrined in the UNDRIP.


Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India ratified in 1979, upholds the right of all peoples to self-determination (Article 1) and the rights of minorities to enjoy their own culture (Article 27) (UN General Assembly, 1996). The hunger strike and the broader movement for Ladakh’s autonomy and environmental protection touch upon these core rights, underscoring the need for governance that respects Ladakh’s unique cultural and ecological context.



The silence and inaction of the Indian government in response to these protests raise serious questions about its commitment to international human rights obligations. The lack of dialogue and recognition of the Ladakhis’ demands contradicts the spirit of these international instruments, highlighting a gap between India’s international commitments and its domestic actions.


As the world watches, the protests in Ladakh remind us of the collective power of communities to advocate for their rights and the essential role of governments in honouring their commitments to protect and uphold these fundamental freedoms. In this spirit, the journey of the people of Ladakh continues, echoing a universal call for justice and sustainable development.




Bhattacharya, S. (2024, April 4). Icy Desert Ladakh Turns Up the Heat on Modi Ahead of Indian Elections. The Diplomat. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from


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Economic Times. (2024, March 26). Climate activist Sonam Wangchuk ends his hunger strike. Retrieved March 26, 2024, from


FP Explainers. (2024, March 26). Why is Sonam Wangchuk, who inspired ‘3 Idiots’, on a hunger strike in freezing Ladakh? Firstpost. Retrieved March 26, 2024, from


Gyaltson, T. (2022, May 3). Ladakh’s Fragile Ecosystem. Reach Ladakh. Retrieved March 26, 2024, from


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Livemint. (2024, March 26). Sonam Wangchuk ends 21-day hunger strike in Ladakh: Who is he and why was he protesting? Livemint Retrieved March 26, 2024, from


Masoodi, N. (2024, March 26). ‘I’ll Be Back’: Sonam Wangchuk Ends 21-Day Fast Over Ladakh Demands. NDTV. Retrieved March 26, 2024, from


Namgail, T. (2024, March 26). Here is why Ladakh needs the Sixth Schedule and statehood. Down To Earth. Retrieved 12 March 2024, from


Prakash, P. (2023, February 5). Explained | Sonam Wangchuk’s climate fast, Ladakh’s fragile ecology and the Sixth Schedule. The Hindu. Retrieved March 26, 2024, from


Stobdan, P. (2024, April 13). India-China border dispute: Beyond the hype, the reality of the LAC. Indian Express. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from


The Constitution of India. (1950, January 26). Arts. 153-167, 244(2) and 275(1). Retrieved April 15, 2024, from


UN General Assembly. (2007). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), A/RES/61/295.


UN General Assembly. (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), December 16, 999 U.N.T.S. 171.

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