Srinagar: The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government’s move to rename the health centres as “Ayushman Arogya Mandirs” has stirred a fierce controversy in Ladakh, with the region’s most influential Buddhist organisation and elected representatives calling this an affront to the sentiments of the people living in the two-district Union Territory.

Decision, controversy

In November last year, the Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare decided to rename the Ayushman Bharat- Health & Wellness Centres (AB-HWCs) as ‘Ayushman Arogya Mandirs’ with the tag line ‘Arogyam Parmam Dhanam’.

The ministry wrote to the states and Union Territories in a letter dated November 25, 2023 to implement the rebranding exercise and asked them to submit photographs of these health facilities with the new title by December 31, 2023. It even earmarked Rs 3,000 per facility for this rebranding exercise.

However, the implementation of the decision has not gone down well in Ladakh, especially in Buddhist-majority Leh district, where a prominent religious group has taken strong objection to it and written to the elected bodies of the region to raise their concerns with the administration of the Union Territory over the matter.

“The recent order of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, renaming the Govt. medical aid centers/ health and family welfare centers as “Ayushman Arogya Mandir’ is unfortunate and tantamount to playing with the sentiments of the people of Ladakh,” Chering Dorjey Lakrook, acting president, Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) wrote to the chief executive councilors of the Hill Councils of both Leh and Kargil districts.

The LBA has asked heads of both the elected bodies to get the decision rescinded. “India is a secular country and using religious names and symbols in government departments is unconstitutional and unacceptable,” Dorjay said, in the letter.

Talking to The Wire, Dorjay, who was also a minister in the People’s Democratic Party-BJP government in the erstwhile state of J&K, said that this decision is not acceptable to them.

“It is a conspiracy against us. What is the fun of naming hospitals as mandirs? It is one of the steps towards making India a Hindu rashtra,” he alleged.

The LBA is the most powerful religious group in Buddhist-dominated Leh and is seen as the guardian of Buddhist identity in the region. It has considerable influence on social and political matters of the region.

Rebranded health centres in Ladakh. Photos: Special arrangement

The rechristening of health centres has also evoked criticism from elected representatives of the district.

The councillors of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council-Leh have written to the CECs of both Leh and Kargil that people’s sentiments have been hurt by the decision. “This decision might become a hindrance to health centres being universally accessible,” reads the letter signed by 10 councilors of the Hill Council, Leh.

Citing religious and cultural sentiments of the residents of Ladakh, they have also urged the CECs to get the decision repealed.

Smanla Dorje Nurboo, councilor Saspol constituency, told The Wire that people are offended by the decision.

“The health facilities should be accessible to everyone but this move will create hindrances in accessing these facilities,” said Smanla, who is also president of Youth Congress in Ladakh UT.

BJP blames local authorities

In an apparent damage-control exercise, CEC, LAHDC-Leh, Tashi Gaylson, who is associated with the BJP, has written to Lieutenant Governor B.D. Mishra to express his concern over the issue and said, in the letter, that the move has generated significant resentment among the public.

The CEC, however, put the blame on officials from the Ladakh health department for the controversy, saying they could have translated the title into the state language.

In a handout, the CEC said that the “GoI had no intention to offend anyone’s sentiments as the order clearly stipulated that the full and exact title could be translated into the state language”.

He claimed that the health department overlooked the directive and opted for the easiest path without considering the potential negative impact on people’s sentiments.

The controversy has erupted at a time when two prominent groups of Ladakh are involved in parleys with the Union government to seek safeguards for the region after its detachment from J&K in 2019.

Leaders of the Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance, two conglomerates seeking safeguards for Ladakh, last month met Union minister of state for home affairs Nitayanad Rai to discuss the concerns and issues emerging in Ladakh since the August 2019 decision by the Union government to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.

They reiterated their four-point agenda: statehood for Ladakh, safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, two Lok Sabha seats for the union territory and employment opportunities for the youth.

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