On October 20, 2022, traditional heads (gobas) from across Leh district of Ladakh came together to form an association. It was for the first time in the history of this governance system, which is possibly several hundred years old, that the gobas formed a collective. “Gobas have never met like this before. It is crucial for our institution,” said Tsewang Stobdan of Alchi village, addressing a gathering of gobas in Leh city in October 2022.
A traditional governance system such as the goba may seem anachronistic in modern times, when we have constitutionally mandated institutions of governance like the panchayat. But the story of Ladakh’s goba institution suggests that it may be as relevant today as it was in the past.
The goba is a village headman (go=head, pa=people of an area) selected periodically by the entire village (called yulpa, equivalent to a village assembly). The origins of the goba institution are unclear. Some say it came in with the Dogra rulers, who took over Ladakh in the first half of the 19th century, while some elders assert that it is much older.
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G.M. Sheikh, a veteran social activist with considerable knowledge of Ladakhi history, says the goba existed in the times of Ladakhi kingdoms and was given considerable freedom at the local level. The Dogras tried bringing in a new administrative set-up but were unsuccessful, so they stuck to the old governance system with new names. Officially, the goba became the lambardar (or nambardar in other parts of north India).
According to the anthropologist Fernanda Pirie, whose in-depth study of a Ladakhi village is one of the few to contain detailed information on the institution, the goba was selected annually until about 1901. The goba’s position was given legal backing under the Jammu and Kashmir Lambardari Act, 1972 (with rules promulgated in 1980), which mandated that they be elected, have a five-year tenure, and get a monthly remuneration of Rs.81 (currently, Rs.1,500). The goba came under the Revenue Department, and he and the patwari (revenue officer) worked together to authenticate village-level information on land, water, and so on.
But revenue and land functions are only a subset of what the goba does. “Just like salt goes with everything, the goba is present in every collective activity of the village,” said Tsering Dorjey, who served for 35 years in Jammu and Kashmir’s State Revenue Department (until 2019, Ladakh was a district within Jammu and Kashmir, becoming a Union Territory when the Centre changed Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status). Traditionally, the goba played the most important role in the village, spanning political, social, cultural, economic, and ecological aspects of living.
“The system has its limitations. The goba has traditionally been an elderly man; there have never been women gobas and rarely young men.”
“Around 50-60 years ago, the gobas were well respected and their selection was based on experience, knowledge, and livestock holdings,” said Nawang Tharchin, an elder from Thukjey village in Changthang. “He was offered around 30 animals (goat, sheep, etc.) by the rest of the village as a mark of respect. Additionally, the community would help him with his tasks whenever he travelled on village work. The goba was almost like a father, and people would be scared to raise their voice against his decision. The gobas were also very committed and did a lot of work voluntarily for the village.”
Importantly, though, the goba’s role was not autocratic or top-down. His decisions were taken in consultation with the yulpa, consisting of the individual and the community in all their sacred, material, and cultural sense. Most decisions are taken at the yulpa, including on taxes, water distribution, and festivals; in effect, the goba is a delegate of the yulpa. The goba is supposed to work within the bounds of traditional customs (thims), decided by the yulpa, which is an added check in case the position became hereditary, and an element of top-down power crept in.
Traditionally, the goba had substantial knowledge of issues relating to land, water use, agricultural and pastoral cycles, sociocultural aspects, including customs, rituals and festivals, and other relevant details of the village. However, this has changed over time. In all settlements, the goba now maintains general demographic records: number of houses, females, males, animals, deaths, births, and so on. He keeps records of government schemes and liaises with the administration where residents are not covered by the panchayat and/or the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC, an institution unique to the region, created in 1997). He also issues death, birth, character certificates, and no-objection certificates for land transfer.
In many parts of Ladakh, some of the goba’s crucial functions are intact, such as presiding over the village harvesting and sowing timings, the cycles and distribution of irrigation water, and the coordination of key sociocultural events. In Changthang, Ladakh’s high-altitude plateau adjoining Tibet, with largely nomadic pastoral communities, the goba continues to play a significant role in pasture management and territorial governance. Another crucial role is conflict resolution and ensuring the internal flow of information and communication (with the help of the membar and kutwal, assistant and messenger, respectively). In disputes between villages, too, such as those relating to pasture lands, the gobas get together to attempt a resolution. Because of this, disputes do not commonly go to state institutions like the police.
However, the system has its limitations. The goba has traditionally been an elderly man; there have never been women gobas and rarely young men. “In our village a woman was appointed once, but only because there was no male member of age in that family,” recalled Sherab Dolma of Saspotsey village. “We are still a very patriarchal society. Korzok has a small Ama Tsogspa [women’s committee], which discusses women’s issues but the goba doesn’t necessarily heed these. The men still take most decisions,” said Sonam Dolma, a woman herder of Korzok, Changthang.
Palzes Angmo of Chumathang village, who was goba for one term when her husband was away, said it was a double burden since women also have to continue with domestic work.
- Traditionally, the goba played the most important role in the village, spanning political, social, cultural, economic, and ecological aspects of living.
- Although the goba has no legal mandate at present, in most parts of Ladakh, despite the panchayat system being in place since 1989, the goba continues to be the interface between councillors, government officials, and sarpanches, on the one hand, and villagers, on the other.
- But the system has its limitations, which should be addressed to make the system suitable for modern times
Other inequalities include limited participation of marginalised castes. This may be changing because of the new ways in which gobas are now selected. Over time, the goba’s position of prestige has been seen as a burden because apart from their duties, gobas also have to take care of their own livelihood. So, many villages now select the goba using rotational, lottery, or dice systems. That way, at least theoretically, those traditionally excluded can also become goba. Tsetan Rabgyas, from the marginalised garba (ironsmith) caste of Hemis Shukpachan village, said: “I am ready to be a goba whenever my family’s turn comes.”
“There is still a lot of faith in the goba as our system. It is a matter of identity. Panchayats are seen as a system from outside. People still go to the goba for grievances and disputes”Stanzin Dorjai GyaFilmmaker from Gya village
In most parts of Ladakh, despite the panchayat system being in place since 1989, the goba continues to be the interface between councillors, government officials, and sarpanches, on the one hand, and villagers, on the other. “With the advent of modern dispute resolution institutions, the goba’s role has reduced but if there is a conflict, people still go to the goba and not to the panchayat or Lok Adalat. These are seen as the last resort,” said Tashi Phunsok, the goba of Khaldo (Hanle). The goba is supposed to be relatively apolitical and expected to represent the entire village, but, informally, party affiliations do create biases.
“Every village has three heads, namely goba, sarpanch, and councillor, and we need clarity on each role,” said Tsewang Stobdan, the goba of Alchi. The Lambardari Act gives a very limited role to the goba, missing most sociocultural and economic-ecological functions traditionally associated with the post. And the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, does not mention the goba system at all, other than to say that a goba cannot stand for panchayat elections. This causes confusion because on the ground there is overlap in some key functions. For example, the sarpanch is responsible for development plans, but traditionally this has been carried out by people appointed by the village, with the goba as the head.
Similarly, although the LAHDC has no legal mandate to consult gobas, informally, many councillors do consult them. For the Ladakh UT administration, the goba seems to be the village-level contact for the Revenue Department, including during allocations of common land or nautor (newly allocated) land. Though officials acknowledge the goba’s function (“He plays a pivotal role,” said one official), they are not formally recognised. Some moves even actively discourage the goba. A recent guideline, for example, said they cannot be over 60 years old. As a gathering of gobas in Khalse pointed out: “If the Prime Minister can be over 75, why can’t a goba be over 60?” In Leh city, gobas interact with ward members and the Leh Municipal Corporation for planning and allocations, but without a legal mandate. Until recently, Leh town had only one goba, but in January 2022 four gobas were appointed for separate parts of the town by the UT administration. Ever since, these gobas have been coordinating with the six ward representatives and the councillor. However, Sonam Paldan, the goba of Skara in Leh town, said that there was no clarity on their roles and jurisdictions. “Sometimes ward members consult us, sometimes they don’t. The law doesn’t mandate them to do so.”
“There is still a lot of faith in the goba as our system. It is a matter of identity. Panchayats are seen as a system from outside. People still go to the goba for grievances and disputes,” said Stanzin Dorjai Gya, a filmmaker from Gya village. The sarpanch deals with chhi, the “outside”, but the goba deals with nang, the “inside”.
Need for dialogue
There is an overwhelming feeling in Ladakh that gobas should continue. But some clear policy measures are needed so that there are no grey areas regarding their roles and duties.
Much of the above information emerged as part of a detailed study carried out by Kalpavriksh from 2021 onwards, in collaboration with Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, Nature Conservation Foundation, Local Futures, and Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation. The study, which covered four regions of Leh district, including the unique Changthang plateau, has recommended better recognition of and incentives and facilities to the goba from both government and communities. It asks communities to sustain or revive the practice of supporting or serving gobas to reduce the burden on the position.
The study asked the system to question internal inequalities, and open up the position to women, the youth, and all castes. All relevant laws need amendments or subsidiary rules and guidelines to ensure that the goba is consulted in community matters.
While the goba has moral and some legal authority in the village, it is important to strengthen the role of the yulpa in holding the goba accountable and in supporting him in his work. The spirit of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, in particular the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, is to enable the gram sabha to be the most empowered and basic unit of democratic decision-making. While PESA is not yet applicable to Ladakh, it could be so extended, given that the population of the UT is mostly tribal. Ladakh has been increasingly vocal about being recognised under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, or under an equally strong constitutional provision (similar to what Nagaland enjoys), to help safeguard its unique sociocultural and ecological character. This, in addition to the extension of PESA wherever applicable, would go a long way to strengthen systems like the yulpa and the goba.
India’s democratic structure has largely ignored traditional governance systems. Exceptions include States such as Nagaland or the Lachung area of north Sikkim, where the traditional dzumsa system is legally recognised as the panchayat. In most of India, the panchayat system was imposed from above. While there are clear advantages to it (such as the inclusion, theoretically, of the traditionally excluded), it is also important to preserve the strengths of traditional systems such as the goba. There is a need for widespread dialogue on this to consider whether India’s conventional three-tier governance would fare better with the diversity and sociocultural-ecological dynamism that systems like the goba can provide.
Shrishtee Bajpai and Ashish Kothari are members of Kalpavriksh, Pune, and Vikalp Sangam.