One day in 1999, a group of Buddhist monks beat up a magazine vendor on a street in Leh and destroyed the current issues of a magazine he was selling. The monks were offended by an article that was critical of Ladakhi Buddhist monasteries. The organization that published the magazine was quite angry about the incident, as was the street vendor. The monks also remained upset. Ultimately, however, they all found a face-saving formula involving mutual payments and they agreed to drop the matter rather than take it to court.
Fernanda Pirie recalls the incident in her outstanding new book on conflict resolution in Ladakh. When she asked the founder of the organization whose magazines had been destroyed why he was willing to settle with the monks so easily, he replied, “like all Ladakhis I do not like to fight; we like to settle our disputes because everyone knows each other; we have to get on and do not like lingering disputes” (p.5).
The focus of Pirie’s book is on the Ladakhi need to maintain order in their communities through the control of anger and conflict situations that could lead to violence. The author bases most of her discussion of Ladakhi social characteristics on her primary study site, the small village of Photoksar, located in the mountains south of the capitol, Leh.
She reviews a number of important social factors in the village. A variety of cross-cutting ties such as mutual-assistance groups, kinship connections, and neighborhood relationships help hold the village together. Differences in wealth among the households are constantly downplayed by the villagers. Since Ladakhis realize that disparities in wealth can produce resentments, they avoid discussing or even acknowledging such topics. When the villagers line up to begin a social event, as they frequently do, they arrange themselves primarily by gender and age, in order to avoid the temptation of highlighting relative wealth. Leadership positions are rotated so no one, even highly competent people, can gain status above others.
The villagers censure public displays of anger, disharmony, or discontent. Occasionally they might exchange sharp words, but those occasions are a source of shame and the families of individuals who have argued will continue to maintain warm personal relations. Pirie did witness some tensions, but mostly people would listen to someone spout off, then shrug their shoulders and say nothing. People would laugh at adversity, or sometimes sigh in resignation when things were not going well, but they would preserve their dignity at whatever cost.
Village women are especially critical of quarreling by men. They severely berate their husbands if voices are raised at a party. People who quarrel are described as tsokpo, bad, a word which conveys a strong sense of moral disapproval. The Ladakhis do not believe in justifiable anger or revenge. No matter what the provocation, a harsh response is absolutely unacceptable. They similarly censure anger, selfishness, and laziness.
When people have an argument but settle it or walk away from a conflict, it is merely a matter for village gossip. But when a dispute is not resolved, the village becomes seriously concerned. The issue is not the nature or causes of the argument—it is the fact that harsh language has been used. The villagers are, of course, interested in the issues being disputed, but the community must immediately restore harmony.
People will quickly call on relatives of the involved parties to help, and if they can’t resolve the matter they will go to the goba, the village headman, or his assistant, the membar. These officials are not really interested in the background of the quarrel—they are simply concerned that disharmony in the village has arisen and it must be settled. If the goba and membar are not able to resolve the conflict, the matter is quickly referred to the village meeting, the yulpa, the highest authority in the community.
The officials and the yulpa may impose fines, sometimes fairly steep ones, on the parties who have fought. But the essential ingredient in resolving the conflict in the village is the apology. The person who argues but then apologizes will be quickly forgiven. However, someone who refuses to apologize is subject to ostracism. Since no one can continue to live in the village in a situation where he or she is being ostracized, people will break down and apologize when faced with that threat.
The villagers idealize a peaceful community, one free of anger and conflict. Conflict, they feel, is a manifestation of a society that is degenerate—yet they recognize that their own village is far from ideal. When she suggested that the village did not seem to have much conflict, one of Pirie’s informants quickly disagreed. “Oh no, we have a lot of arguments, which is very bad … We drink too much chang,” he told her (p.126).
Pirie disagrees with scholars who have attributed the social structures and morals of Tibetan societies such as Ladakh to their Buddhist religion. She found that the monks and religious practices in rural Ladakh are not connected with the political, social, and moral order of the village. Strict conflict resolution approaches help them control their own lives, resist outside interference, and define their village identity.
She learned that these same attitudes also prevail in the more modern, urban environment in Leh. When a dispute threatens to upset one of the neighborhoods, the residents will approach the goba of the city, who has the same concern for resolving conflict as the rural people do. Urban Ladakhis strongly disapprove of fighting, quarreling, and violations of the social order. Those actions are shameful. They retain their sense that the community—or neighborhood—serves as a social space where external threats and internal divisions are kept at bay.
Pirie concludes that a fundamental ideal of the Ladakhis is to have a harmonious, united, and peaceful village. They believe that order is an individual responsibility, not a divine condition or an idea based on laws. It is established by individuals acting voluntarily, and it is not imposed from above. Village peacefulness “is a spider’s web of delicate, cross-cutting, inter-linked relationships. Like a spider’s web, however, this order can be easily ruptured” (p.127). This is a wonderful book.
Pirie, Fernanda. 2007. Peace and Conflict in Ladakh: The Construction of a Fragile Web of Order. Leiden and Boston: Brill