In 1989, the government of India granted a request from Ladakh to designate the Ladakhi as members of scheduled tribes—but the people of the region were not really satisfied. An article by Martijn Van Beek, published in a recent book, explains the background and thinking of the Ladakhis on this designation.

The author argues that achieving Scheduled Tribe status was a political goal, one that Ladakhis hope might some day lead to greater independence from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. But the Ladakhis do not think of themselves in the language of tribalism or indigeneity, as many other minority groups in India do. In fact, they feel they have little in common with much of the contemporary discourse in India on the subject of indigeneity.

Shortly after independence in 1947, Ladakhi political leaders recognized the value of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. It could provide the region with material benefits and might allow Ladakh to be designated as a Scheduled Area, such as one already established in the northeast region of India. However, the movement for ST status did not really gain momentum until the 1980s, probably because, as the author says, “Ladakhis themselves were not very keen to be identified with ‘real’ tribes” (p.120).

The people of Ladakh were classified into two “tribes” in the census of 1901, the Baltis (Muslims) and the Buddhists. However, previous and subsequent enumerations of the region used other designations such as “race” “caste” and “religion” to categorize the people. Documents generated within Ladakh rarely used the word “tribe”—the people didn’t see themselves in anthropological terms. The British colonial government, the state, and the local political leaders in Ladakh did not use the term.

The concept of tribe, according to the author, suggests distance from the dominating culture. He argues that elite groups in the region are proud of what they feel is their highly developed civilization, with its traditions of religion, arts, architecture, and literature.

The tribal designation, for some Ladakhis, suggests that they have a lower status than other residents of India. Their religious elites have a long history of being educated in the great monasteries of Tibet. Both Buddhists and Muslims managed sophisticated trading networks that operated over long distances. Some of their students have gotten educations at fine universities in India and England. With these perceptions of themselves, they have a hard time identifying with some of the tribes they are aware of elsewhere in India. The Ladakhis regard tribal peoples “with considerable disdain,” according to Van Beek (p.123).

The agitation for tribal status was a strategic ploy for advancement within the Indian political system. Activists in the 1980s believed that secession from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a possible long-term goal, meant that guarantees preventing outsiders from buying land in Ladakh might no longer apply. Abrogation of those guarantees, some felt, might result in outsiders buying so much property that the Ladakhis could become a minority in their own region. The tribal status appeared to maintain the ban on outsider purchases of land, while giving the Ladakhis some measure of separation from the state government.

Another factor is that the strategic location of Ladakh, at the northeast end of the disputed region of Kashmir and next to the border with China, has kept the region in the eyes of the central government in New Delhi (“The Centre” as Indians call it). As a result, Ladakh has benefited from generous per capita national government spending. The brief round of fighting with Pakistan along the Line of Control near Kargil in 1999 further highlighted the strategic importance of the region.

The Centre takes special pains to make sure the local population remains happy. Agitation for another type of political autonomy called Union Territory status may have helped prod The Centre into granting Ladakhis their Scheduled Tribe designation. And, another advantage of their location, Ladakh derives economic benefits from the presence of large army garrisons stationed in the region. But however much they may receive from the Centre, the people of Ladakh still don’t like being conflated with the “Scheduled Tribes”—even though they requested that status.

Van Beek, Martijn, 2006. “’Sons and Daughter of India’: Ladakh’s Reluctant Tribes.” In Indigeneity in India, edited by Bengt G. Karlsson and Tanka B. Subba, p.118-141. London and New York: Kegan Paul