In at least one Ladakhi community, the villagers are convinced that the basic order of life is harmony, unity, and peacefulness. A recent journal article by Fernanda Pirie—her third major piece published in the past year—discusses the strategies people in the remote village of Photoksar have for managing conflicts.

Nearly a year ago a book about Ladakh included her article analyzing gender relations and social stability in the village where she did her field research. A journal article earlier in 2006 argued that, for the people of Photoksar, avoiding conflict is essential to maintaining control over their society. The religious beliefs of the villagers have little to do with their nonviolence. A more recent article by Pirie builds on those two earlier works and repeats some of the same ideas, but it provides more information about village political and social structures that foster their peacefulness.

The village maintains its peacefulness, in part, because of the way the people administer their affairs. The adult men who attend the yulpa, the periodic village assembly, can vote on issues but in fact they rarely do. Instead, they normally make consensus decisions. After a meeting, people will discuss the settlement of an issue in terms of “we”—we made this or that decision. In their minds, everyone has made the decision. While there are differences of opinion, people do not form factions or opposing camps over issues before they are decided.

The people of Photoksar distinguish between differences, which are normal, and substantial disputes, which are not. Differences and disputes are two separate phenomena. Their words for “dispute” can be translated as “shouting,” “quarreling,” “fighting,” “arguing,” and “hurling abuse.” While differences are normally settled between individuals, disputes threaten the whole community. Of course, some interpersonal problems float on the border between the two concepts. The author was aware of two men who had bad relations—they had not spoken to one another since the previous year—but their difficulties had not yet escalated into the level of a real dispute.

Differences begin to threaten the community when an argument, even between a husband and wife, degenerates into a dispute. Resolving the problem is essential. Mediation efforts will frequently follow a hierarchical pattern. The family may get the neighbors involved, but if that doesn’t work they may approach an outside mediator. The mediator may attempt various approaches to resolving the problem, but if the results of the mediation fail, the matter may be referred to the headman of the village. If he can’t resolve the dispute, it may be brought to the yulpa for a decision.

One approach might be to take the matter to the police, but that strategy is rarely used since the police can make a problem worse rather than better. The villagers told the author that they avoid the police because they often demand money or beat people. Even very serious issues, such as the rare crimes of violence, are handled within the village if at all possible, to avoid police involvement.

When the people deal with disputes, they think of them as taking place “inside” or “within” the village. This thinking extends to the capital, the small city of Leh, where people believe that disputes should be settled within the bounds of the neighborhood. Complex problems in Leh, such as disputes involving water rights, are handled by government officials in the same spirit—within the immediate community. Maintaining the local order is a paramount concept in Ladakh.

The villagers view fights between individuals as affronts to the social order of the whole community that should be reconciled immediately. If an individual resists the increasingly intrusive attempts by the village to mediate and resolve a dispute, the community will threaten ostracism, the ultimate social discipline. No one could continue to live in a closely knit village if the community had instituted a complete boycott, so the individual must surrender to group discipline. Order and peacefulness in the community is supremely important. Threats to that order cannot be tolerated, so disputes must be settled.

The purpose of judicial proceedings in the village, however, is not to determine guilt or innocence, right or wrong. The primary goal is to maintain the peaceful social order. The yulpa and the headman have the authority and power they do—to mediate, to dictate settlements, or to impose fines—simply because everyone accepts the need for them to maintain stability. In other words, the villagers accept the need for controls because they cherish their freedom from disputes, which could possibly lead to violence.

The moral values of the people focus, unequivocally, on an abhorrence for abusive behavior, insulting language, arguing, and fighting. According to Pirie, “people shake their heads over quarrels and shudder at the mention of fighting” (p.92). People who get involved in disputes are called tsokpo, a word meaning “dirty” or “bad” that carries a strong overtone of moral censure. Behavior that merely violates local customs is commented on, perhaps with embarrassment or amusement, but anger, quarreling, or fighting is completely immoral, intolerable, and unacceptable.

In sum, the Ladakhis believe that the natural state of human society is a peaceful order made up of individuals who live within webs of harmonious interrelationships—people cooperating and sharing readily with one another. As Pirie points out, however, a social web is as fragile as one made by a spider. Harsh words between two people could easily lead to a fight that might tear and seriously damage the fabric of their society. Maintaining harmony between individuals, the author concludes, is essential to the lives of the Ladakhis, so quickly resolving disputes is a fundamental part of their village society.

Pirie, Fernanda. 2006. “Legal Autonomy as Political Engagement: The Ladakhi Village in the Wider World.” Law & Society Review 40(1):77-103