A Ladakhi woman suggests that attempts to prevent relationships between Buddhist and Muslim men and women are a poor idea, because when people from different communities get married, it creates harmony. A Ladakhi man adds that intermarriages between people of different communities and faiths are normal all over the world.

Ladakhi womenSara H. Smith, from the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina, explains in a journal article how the deterioration of inter-community relations in Ladakh over the past two decades have played out in personal and family decisions, such as whom to marry or how many children to have. She analyzes the situation from a feminist perspective, as the geography of the body.

The author explains that Ladakhi Buddhists no longer entertain their Muslim relatives, friends, and neighbors as much as they used to, and that Muslim hospitality toward the Buddhists has waned as well. Before 1989, Buddhists would visit their Muslim neighbors during major festivals, such as Eid, and would enjoy themselves.

Likewise, during Buddhist holidays, Muslims would visit and be entertained warmly. As one Muslim man told the author about the celebration of the Buddhist New Year, “the Muslims would go to the Buddhist families, and they would feed them food, and they would sing and dance together all through the night (p.205).”

In 1989, the worsening geopolitical situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir prompted the Ladakh Buddhist Association, based in Leh, to start defining the position of the district in terms of religious identities. The LBA initiated a boycott of Muslims, ignoring the fact that Muslims in Ladakh differed from one another and from Muslims in Kashmir. Buddhists were forbidden from having any contacts with Muslims, social or economic, subject to threats of violence or fines.

While the intent of the boycott may have been, as the LBA claimed, to redress the grievances of the Buddhists against the Muslim government of the state, the effect was to quickly undercut the historic peacefulness of the inter-community relations in Ladakh. But not everyone paid attention to the dictates of the LBA. People continued to visit their relatives and friends on the other side of the divide, though often at night when they wouldn’t be spotted.

Muslims and Buddhists in the Leh area are so closely intermarried that most families have members from the other side. The boycott was unenforceable—it just caused trouble. A Muslim lawyer told the author, “Muslims and Buddhists have blood relations. We cannot be separated on the basis of faith (p.206).”

The author did field work in Leh in 2004, 2007, and 2008 to study the impact of the boycott on community relations, within the context of the larger Indian social and political situation. She quickly discovered that one of the major problems caused by the boycott and the worsening relations was the perception that Muslims were out-breeding Buddhists. In time, Buddhist leaders feared, they would greatly out number us, and all would be lost. Everyone perceived that Muslim women in Ladakh tended to not worry about how many children they have—more are better. Buddhist women worry about having more children than they can afford, so they tend to limit the size of their families.

One of the major social problems, as seen by both sides, is intercommunity marriages. Buddhist-Muslim marriages, which used to be quite common, are widely frowned upon now. Smith refers to this as “the surveillance of bodies (p.205),” which plays out in attempts to prevent Buddhists from marrying Muslims.

In 2004, the author interviewed a mixed couple—Paljor, a Buddhist man, and Fatima, his Shia wife. Smith asked why, with all the community pressures against them, they had decided to marry anyway. Palyor turned the question around to his wife, who replied, laughing, with her own question: “It’s because I liked you, isn’t it (p.207)?”

Even getting married was difficult for Palyor and Fatima. Despite an Indian law that prohibits interference with marriages between members of different communities or faiths, the reality is that Muslims or Buddhists in Leh have to issue marriage licenses or marry the couples. When minor, local bureaucrats and police are opposed, getting successfully married can be difficult.

So the couple decided to fly to New Delhi and get married in the anonymity of the big city. Palyor was able to leave, separately of course, but when Fatima got to the airport, the police stopped her. They had heard rumors of her affair with Palyor. So they called Fatima’s family and asked if she should be permitted to board the airplane. However, she had carefully prepared an excuse for her trip, so she was allowed to leave—and get secretly married in New Delhi. The couple told the author that this was a normal situation, one that they had expected.

Political pressures on Buddhist women to have more babies also has invaded their bodies, according to Smith. In 2006, the LBA sent a letter to doctors at the Leh hospital asking them to stop performing abortions and tubal ligations on women.

One Buddhist woman told the author how doctors had to deliver her third child, a son, with a caesarean operation during a difficult birth. The doctors convinced her afterwards that since she now had three children, she should have a tubal ligation, to prevent any further pregnancies. She agreed to the procedure because the birth of the son had been so traumatic, but she later came to regret it. She decided that she had done something wrong, committed a sin. Preventing the birth of another child might prevent the rebirth of someone who had died, perhaps an elderly relative. “In Buddhism, it’s a sin. It’s the worst sin,” she told the author (p.212).

Smith concludes that the visions of politicians who are concerned about the future of Ladakh, and who cherish their views of what it really should be, collide with the realities of families who are concerned about their own, very personal, issues. Will we have children to take care of us in our old age? Will our children be able to get educations and get good jobs?

The author views the matter as one that contrasts perceptions of collective security versus personal, bodily security. She takes the question one step further: “How can we better understand the interplay between intangible embodied individual experiences—religion, desire, fear—and the political uses to which they are put (p.213)?” She leaves the answers up to the reader.

Smith, Sara H. 2009. “The Domestication of Geopolitics: Buddhist-Muslim Conflict and the Policing of Marriage and the Body in Ladakh, India.” Geopolitics 14: 197-218.