In elections held last week, the Ladakhi people voted out the Congress Party, which has controlled the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) since its creation in 1995, and replaced it with another party, the Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF). The LAHDC, modeled after a Hill Council at Darjeeling in eastern India, has both legislative and executive powers. It is composed of 26 members elected for 5-year terms plus 4 appointed members.

As results became known last weekend, the Congress Party clearly won only one seat while the LUTF took 24; results of the 26th seat remain disputed. Out of 55,000 votes cast in the election on Oct. 16, the Congress Party only won 22,000.

The basic platform of the LUTF is a demand that Ladakh should become a Union Territory of India. The party was founded on that platform in the summer of 2002, and since then it has grown rapidly due to support from the Buddhists of Ladakh.

The Buddhist people of the Leh District of Ladakh feel that they would be discriminated against by the Muslim majority of Jammu and Kashmir, should the state ever become independent or even partially independent from India in a settlement with Pakistan.

Their solution is to form a Union Territory, which would tie them more closely to India, so they would no longer be under the authority of the Muslim-dominated state government. They advocate a three-way split of Jammu and Kashmir, into a Hindu portion ( Jammu), a Muslim portion (the Kashmir valley), and a Buddhist portion (the Leh District of Ladakh).

The Union Territory proposal is a central part of their plan. While Ladakh comprises a majority of the land area of the state, 70 percent of the 10 million people in Jammu and Kashmir are Muslims, primarily in the Kashmir Valley; only 2.3 percent are Buddhists, primarily in the Leh District of Ladakh.

The national government of India is opposed to such a division of the state. India sees itself as a secular nation, and does not like the concept of sectarian divisions such as the Buddhists are advocating. In addition, the central government sees the Buddhists as a strategic counterweight in the state to the Muslims of Kashmir.

As Ravina Aggarwal points out in her fine book Beyond Lines of Control, reviewed here on March 18, there is a long history of sectarian divisions in Ladakh, so a resolution to the problems will probably not be worked out quickly. The Congress Party has accepted its loss gracefully.