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To the unsophisticated outsider, the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has been about religion, territory and fervent nationalism. But conflicts in the region, especially in the Ladakh districts of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, are far more complex than that. The political struggles in the region tend to aggravate already-existing conflicts among the various political, religious, social, and cultural groups in border areas such as Ladakh. An important new ethnography skillfully sorts out the sources of conflicts among the Ladakhis and places their many pre-existing struggles and social conditions within the context of contemporary border disputes.

Ravina Aggarwal’s Beyond Lines of Control effectively untangles the webs of beliefs, animosities, and political developments in Ladakh so that outsiders can begin to understand some of the forces at work in the region. She starts with the political history of Ladakh, a small, mountain kingdom sandwiched between Tibet to the northeast and Kashmir to the southwest that lost its independence to Jammu and Kashmir, and then British India, in the mid-19 th century. When the post-independence war between Pakistan and India ended with a cease-fire in 1949, Baltistan, previously part of Ladakh, remained part of Pakistan, while the mostly Muslim Kargil District and the mostly Buddhist Leh District remained part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in India.

Events in 1989 precipitated crises in Kashmir and Ladakh, and magnified these divisions. A Kashmiri separatist movement used the August 15 th anniversary of 42 years of Indian independence to launch a massive strike throughout the Kashmir Valley with a demand for independence from India. Their bid for secession provoked a counter protest in Ladakh. The Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) charged that the Jammu and Kashmir state government was corrupt and would discriminate even more against the Buddhists if the state should separate from India. The LBA supposedly promoted cultural preservation, religious unity, and justice for all Ladakhi Buddhists.

These events, referred to as the Agitation, quickly amplified Buddhist hostilities against the Muslim residents of Ladakh. The LBA instituted a Social Boycott of Muslims, at first targeted primarily toward the Sunni; but when the Shi’a Muslims did not join the LBA in its demands, the Buddhists soon extended their boycott to all Muslims. Cases of scuffles, fights, rioting, and arson marked the Agitation period. At one point the Jammu and Kashmir police opened fire on an unarmed crowd, killing four civilians and further building the bitterness of the Buddhist Ladakhis against the state government.

The LBA tried to enforce the boycott by forbidding Buddhists in the rural, mixed-religion villages in the border regions from having any interactions with the Muslims. However, conditions in the villages did not allow for easy boycotting—relationships across the sectarian divide were too close for people to easily split apart. Despite the presence of LBA monitoring, Muslim and Buddhist neighbors continued to borrow or purchase items that people had always borrowed or purchased. Quiet gifts for a neighbor’s wedding; lending cattle to a neighbor so he could plow his field; buying some onion sets from someone else who had extra: the everyday activities of village life had to continue despite the LBA boycott.

The national government responded to the Agitation and the Social Boycott by declaring a state of emergency, dissolving the Jammu and Kashmir government, and imposing the rule of a governor for the state. A compromise solution, worked out after several years of negotiations, was announced by the President of India in 1995 when he enacted the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. The LAHDC, modeled after a similar Hill Council at Darjeeling, was established as a governing body, most members of which were to be elected, with a lot of executive and legislative power.

But the political history of disputes, divisions, conflicts, and tensions in Ladakh only sets the scene for an examination of many other factions and fractures in Ladakh. The author shows, with considerable scholarly care, how different social and cultural issues have been exacerbated by the larger political maneuverings and border zone battles. Archery contests, festivals, rituals, association—the rich fabric of Ladakhi life is explored in Aggarwal’s analysis. It is difficult to capture, in a brief review, the fascinating detail and depth of this fine work.

To give one example, Chapter Four provides details about the caste system among the Buddhist Ladakhi people, and particularly the discrimination against the three lowest castes. The Garba caste, the smiths, live within the village but they are not allowed to eat or drink from the utensils of others for fear they would pollute them. The Mon, or musician, caste is even lower. Their houses are segregated from the rest of the village, and unlike the Garba, the Mon men are not allowed to participate in village dances, even though they are the musicians that accompany the dancing. The Beda, the lowest caste of all, are itinerant musicians and song writers who are forbidden from any socializing with others and are reduced to begging, along with their music making, for their livelihoods.

In the urban communities, the low-caste people have opened shops, gotten an education, and taken careers with the police, the army, and the service sector. In the rural areas, the Beda, particularly, experience frequent abuse, insults, and discrimination—a soldier who is not promoted, or a teacher who is not allowed to live anywhere in the village where she teaches. In one town the established residents threatened to destroy a new settlement of Beda people because the newcomers wanted to have some rocks. In another, members of all three castes are not permitted to take a short-cut path because the rest of the residents fear they might pollute a shrine if they walked past it.

The Agitation that the LBA started in 1989 may have talked about securing justice for Buddhists, but it did not end discrimination against their three lowest castes. In response, the low-caste members mounted protest marches in Leh, and the LBA, belatedly in 1998, began a half-hearted campaign in opposition to the caste system. Vocal members of these lowest castes have advocated reforms that would abolish the outward symbols of discrimination. Many of the younger members of the three castes are removing the caste designations from their Scheduled Tribe identity cards. The national and state governments, however, are doing little to end the caste discrimination.

As this example might suggests, one of the strengths of Aggarwal’s book is that it does not sugar-coat the peacefulness of the Ladakhi people, though it also does not directly contradict most of the information about the society presented by earlier scholars such as R.S. Mann and Helena Norberg-Hodge. It presents the fascinating details of contemporary Ladakhi society as she has observed them, layer after layer of nuances in the social, cultural, and religious situations, and details of how the larger tensions at the international and the state levels continue to have a profound impact on local peoples.

While Ladakh is often cited as having a peaceful society, probably quite correctly, it also has many complexities and conflicts that only a first-rate ethnography such as this one can effectively sort out. Aggarwal develops her facts and arguments well, and a thorough index (a blessing for any work of nonfiction) allows the careful reader to go back and retrace unfamiliar developments. Best of all, the author’s engaging writing style makes it a pleasure to learn more about this fascinating society.

Aggarwal, Ravina. 2004. Beyond Lines of Control: Performance and Politics on the Disputed Borders of Ladakh, India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

For the earlier stories in the three-part series, Violence Threatens the Peaceful Societies of North India, see:

March 3, 2005: Part 1, The Naxalites and the Birhor.

March 10, 2005: Part 2, Lepchas Designated as a “Scheduled Tribe.”