SONAM WANGCHUK came to limelight in 2009, when his story inspired Aamir Khan’s characters in the blockbuster Hindi movie “3 idiots”. Though he denies any link, the movie revolves around the educational reforms and innovations carried out by Wangchuk.
He belongs to an influential political family of Ladakh, but he preferred to go against the wishes of his father Sonam Wangyal, a minister in the erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir government, and did his B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering in 1987 without taking any financial assistance from his family.
After his graduation, he launched the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SEMCOL) and started educating the poor and needy in Ladakh. He thus came under spotlight for his education reform. He was later appointed an advisor of the education department in the Ladakh Hill Council.
The vision document “Ladakh 2025” on education reforms, drafted by him, was formally launched by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005. In 2013, he innovated “Ice Stupa”, an artificial glacier meant for storing extra winter water so that it could be used during summer, the time when farmers need it the most.
In 2016, he initiated another project called FarmStays Ladakh, which, run by women, enables tourists to stay with local families of Ladakh. Two years later, he was given the Ramon Magsaysay award for harnessing nature, culture and education.
In the wake of the current India-China standoff amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Sonam has launched a new campaign, called “Boycott Chinese products” or “Boycott Made in China”. He has been appealing to Indians to use their “wallet power’” against the recent Chinese aggression In Ladakh.
In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR, Wangchuk elaborated on his “wallet war against China”.
Q. Amid the India-China border standoff, you have called for boycotting all products made in China. Why?
A. If you are living in Ladakh, it would not have surprised you why we are so much against China. We have been seeing the misbehaviour of the Chinese government for a long time. They took away our friendly sovereign neigbour Tibet and then they waged a war against India and drew their line further towards Ladakh in the 1962 war.
They did not even stick to the line they themselves drew in 1962, and have been capturing Indian territory metre by metre every year. This time it is several kilometres. This has caused lots of suffering and anger among people in Leh and Ladakh, especially among our pashmina breeders because they cannot raise their goats.
They lost their pastures to China and are uncertain how Chinese authorities would behave when they go to border areas with their herds. Finally, the people in Ladakh have come out with one voice to use citizens’ wallet power to reply to China’s arrogant and colonising behaviour.
Q. But, in this globalised, inter-connected, inter-dependent world, is it possible to completely boycott all products manufactured in a country — and that too a neighbouring country like China. For, like other countries in the world, India is also dependent on China for a wide spectrum of products, including even pharmaceutical goods and medical equipment required for combating Covid-19 pandemic.
A. Yes we can. Where there is a will there is a way. We should say no to Chinese products in a phased and strategic manner. First delete Chinese software in a week, and then discard Chinese hardware in one year. This way we can discard almost all nonessential Chinese products in a year.
But for essential goods or components, we may have to take two years. Trust me, two years is enough time to evolve an ecosystem to replace essential Chinese products.
Q. In your “use your wallet” pitch to Indians and your “boycott products made in China” campaign, you have even made a two-part “Cheen ko Jawab ”YouTube videos. What led you to do it?
A. To know why I am against China you have to come and stay here (Ladakh) for a year. Only then you would know why we are so much against China. Actually we are not against the Chinese people. They are also victims of the Chinese government, our fight is with the Chinese government.
China is not a normal country. It is a totalitarian regime where people are kept like bonded labourers — that’s why Chinese goods are so cheap. There are hardly any labour-friendly laws in China. There are no environmental laws that protect the nature.
The Chinese government hardly respects human rights. Now decide whether we should trade with China or not.
Q. Western countries are procuring their goods from China. In fact they have moved their manufacturing hubs to China. Why do you still think we should boycott Chinese products?
A. Western countries have double standards. In their own country, they protect human rights, follow stringent environmental restrictions but at the same time shift their factories to China for cheap production, where there is no respect for human rights and no restrictions for saving the environment.
Q. The entire world is in the grip of the Covid-19 crisis. Why did you choose such a time for your “boycott Chinese products” campaign?
A. China is a rogue nation. It does not even respect international bodies. That’s why Corona virus spread from this country. It is not transparent and held crucial information from institutions like the WHO.
As a result we could not contain Corona in time. Such a country cannot be treated like a normal country. I would respect trade partnership if we were dealing with a normal country, which is open, transparent and democratic, where government is represented by the people. But China is expansionist and wants to colonise the world. So we cannot have the same business protocol with China as with the rest of the world.
Q. But India and China have been engaged in talks at various levels, with both sides pledging to resolve their bilateral differences peacefully. Don’t you think campaigns like yours would be a hurdle in this process?
A. Unfortunately India’s stand on this has been too soft for a totalitarian, arrogant China to understand. We always try to accommodate them. It might be okay for a friendly nation but China misunderstood and took us for granted.
I think India should match their bullet with bullet and man power with man power. But we as Indians should also do something, which is out-of-the-box that could take China by surprise. That is citizens’ power. China does not understand or respect diplomatic relations, territorial borders and it has little or no fear from Indian military power.
China does not worry as they are well-equipped and have a larger army than India. I strongly believe China will start behaving only when they see damage to their economy. This can only come from Indian citizens’ wallet power. When Chinese economy destabilises, their entire population would go for a revolt, for an uprising.
And this is the language China understands. We should hit where it hurts them the most.