Chapter 25: Resolution of social conflicts: An Indian model – Foundations and applications of Indian psychology, 2e, 2nd Edition


Resolution of social conflicts: An Indian model

Raghubir Singh Pirta


Human social conflicts have both an evolutionary and a cultural past. However, changes in inner (intra-psychic) and outer (inter-personal/ environmental) contextual features drastically affect the nature of conflicts as well as their resolution. A conflict arises when two activities are incompatible. It may occur within the individual, when it is termed an intra-psychic conflict. However, more important for our purpose are those conflicts originating from the incompatible belief systems of two or more groups. The resolution of these social conflicts depends on the consonance among the cognitive beliefs. Consider the following examples.

When India was facing the challenge of independence and was fraught with turmoil and social conflict, Sri Aurobindo (1998, p. 90) envisaged taking up the essence of all religions and gathering these streams into

one mighty river, one purifying and redeeming Ganges, pour it over the death-in-life of a materialistic humanity as Bhagirath led down the Ganges and flooded with it the ashes of his fathers, so that they may be a resurrection of the soul in mankind and the Satyayuga for a while return to the world.

There is yet another important dimension, which includes conflicts between individual and collective interests. These are called ‘social dilemmas’ or ‘social traps’, and generally include conflicts between individual and collective preferences embedded in the environment. The ecologist Madhav Gadgil has explored such social conflicts in the institution of local deities in the villages. He writes, ‘One often finds associated with such deities a rich body of folklore which can illuminate the history of human groups that worship these deities. Such folklore can be particularly fascinating when it appears to have its origin in conflicts of interests amongst the different human groups’ (Gadgil, 2001; p. 164). These two perspectives, the first that of a philosopher and the second of an ecologist, are important in understanding the conflicts involving people in Indian villages.

It seems strange that in India, psychologists have never been especially interested in either Indian mysticism or the material issues troubling Indian people. However, several contemporary thinkers (Sarala Devi, 1982; Chidananda, 1991; Thakar, 1999; Chaitanya, 2000) have observed that this development was perhaps not in consonance with the Indian psyche. According to the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, the process of development has various aspects that should be evaluated in the context of the well-being of people. If we see the elements constitutive of well-being rather than the utilitarian elements, ‘much of the task that Nehru had identified remains largely unaccomplished’ (Sen, 1997, p. 5). The constitutive elements signified a view of a ‘mental state’, whereas utilitarian elements signified the ‘desire-fulfilment’ aspect (Sen, 1999). In the latter, utility is achieved through the objective realization of the ‘desired state’, while in the former it is achieved through some ‘mental state’.

A very significant aspect of human social conflicts is that they are embedded in culture. Western material culture evolved in towns and cities, while Indian culture has its origins in the small village communities of the forests. Material science is therefore of little use to the villages of India, where most of its people live, unless it is assimilated into the indigenous culture. This was a point of discord between Gandhi and Nehru (see Mitrany1) at the time of Indian independence. However, even more important is the premise of the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore (1986) that the origin of culture in the forest is the basis for the uniqueness of the land known as Bhāratavarṣa. Isolation in dense forests made people turn their minds inward in search of the infinite mysteries of the world. This inward quest is the typical method through which people who make their discoveries in the tapovans acquire knowledge.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi successfully tested an ancient discovery, ‘the law of non-violence’, through his inward quest (Pyarelal, 1959). The use of non-violence as a method of resolving conflict has been validated in the naturalistic observations of Kropotkin (1914) and Lorenz (1976), who are well-known for their explorations of how the laws of the jungle maintain peace in animal societies.2 For psychologists, there is more to explore in Gandhi’s unusual experiments; consider, for example, Bandura’s (2001) study of how non-violence can be an effective method for enhancing self-efficacy.

Whether the theory of the ‘idiocy of village life’ carries any weight in India is a contentious issue, and the noted historian Kosambi (1975, p. 16) asserts that the self-contained village provided ‘the material foundation for Indian culture and civilization’. He feels that Indian society has developed more through successive religious transformations (and associated philosophical developments) than through violence.

The people of India have a profound spiritual affinity with the river Ganges, the legendary Bhāgīrathī. And their deep cultural association with the Himalayas as a numinous sacred landscape is also well-known. But over the past several decades, the Ganges and the Himalayas have faced the onslaught of rapacious and destructive policies under the guise of essential development. These activities have had an extremely detrimental effect on the living landscape and its inhabitants. Not only have native residents of the Himalayas been deeply affected, but so also have others in distant places. According to thinker Vidyanivas Misra, this is noteworthy, and the important question is not ‘who does the Ganga belong to, but who belongs to the Ganga’ (Misra, 1995a). In order to be of the Ganga, it is not material ownership that has a bearing, but the assimilation of the Ganga’s rich cultural identity and the determination of our own identity from the Ganga (Misra, 1995b). Through this framework, he has probably resolved the dilemma of some social psychologists about emic and etic approaches (see G. Misra & Gergen, 2002), while introducing the concept of cultural relativism.

One way to achieve cultural sensitivity is through grassroots resistance movements. The idea emerges from two opposite streams—the American social psychologist Kenneth Gergen3 and the Indian thinker V. Misra (1995b). This way of resolving social conflicts is no different from the affirmative action that Chipko social workers took in the 1970s in the Himalayas, which we will soon explore more fully.

The indigenous model

This section describes an indigenous approach towards resolving social conflicts. Our context will be the processes of development currently underway in the Himalayas. In this approach, there is an inherent awareness of the sustainability of life. Besides the physical and environmental aspects, our approach encompasses the social, psychological and spiritual aspects of life, all of which are deeply rooted in the Hindu world-view. The main concepts of the indigenous model will also be related to those found in mainstream psychology.

A note on methodology

This is a qualitative account of people’s cognition which follows a holistic approach; therefore, a short note on methodology should suffice. The study involves the people of the tiny kingdom of Garhwal in the western Himalayas. After independence, it was merged with Uttar Pradesh, and is now a separate state, Uttarakhand A holistic point of view guided the author’s explorations into people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. Next, an attempt was made to articulate the native understanding of the world through a model of holistic development. A significant fact is the author’s involvement in this struggle for over 25 years (Singh, 2001). Thus, this account includes the author’s reflections and experiences as a participant-observer. The author strongly identified with the people while joining them in foot marches, attending their meetings, giving interviews on their behalf, speaking for their cause at seminars and writing about their problems. Furthermore, his own experience as a native of the western Himalayas helped him to experience all of this from close range.

An overview of the Chipko movement

Since independence, a large-scale intensification of two development activities, dam-building and clear-cutting, has been taking place in the western Himalayas, with planners showing scant regard for an integrated vision of life. All this has happened with total disregard of the aspirations of the native people, making a mockery of their holistic approach to development.

To really understand the spirit of this social movement, we must visualize the situation in the Garhwal Himalayas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the folk poet Ghanshyam Sailani was struggling along with his compatriots to resolve a deep conflict. For many years, forest policies had been a matter of dispute in the Himalayan region and the healthy, symbiotic relationship between the local people and their forests was beginning to rupture. By the 1970s, the trouble was so bad that forests became almost inaccessible to the poor local folks, while a few wealthy contractors from the plains managed to lay their hands on the forest produce of their choice. The scale of denudation of the Himalayas by contractors, facilitated by government policies, was so enormous that the sacred landscape began to die.

Perceiving the helplessness of the local people and the disregard of the government, the deeply wounded folk poet seemed to almost foresee the next turn of events. His insightful solution to the impending threat on the lives of trees and the local folk was written in a poem at midnight. The message of the poem was very clear; there was a call for collective action, ‘Hug the trees, don’t let them be cut’. These words, uttered by Ghanshyam Sailani4 in 1972 during a period of social turmoil truly touched the hearts of the people.

The following years bore witness to the Chipko (hug-the-tree) movement in action, which the poet later declared as ‘the War of Dharma’. In this way, an apparently selfish struggle for survival after getting embedded in the indigenous spiritual context took a new turn. This chapter explores the features, dynamics and outcome of this movement—an unusual socio-cognitive invention—a nonviolent struggle for justice and sustainability in the Himalayas.

The people of the Garhwal Himalayas became aware quite early of the impending ecological crisis in the Himalayan region. As mentioned above, in the 1970s some local social workers picked up strands from the cultural heritage of India and neatly wove a grassroots environmental campaign known as the Chipko (hug-the-tree) movement (Bahuguna, 1974; Sarala Devi, 1980; Kunwar, 1982). Chipko had its origins in the environmental desecration of the Garhwal Himalayas, which was characterized by large-scale logging operations managed by private contractors, as previously stated. The villagers revolted against the logging policies of the forest department since it made their lives much more difficult and complicated. A hawk and dove conflict ensued. The doves, or native Garhwalis, engaged in a contest with the hawks, the government, by following a non-violent method of protest to save their forests from the axe of the contractor. In this unique, unprecedented game, the doves won the contest. The message of this non-violent struggle of the brave Garhwali people spread to distant parts of the world. The Man of the Trees, Richard St. Barbe Baker, was among the first to pay tribute to the thousands of Garhwali men and women by visiting their far-flung villages (Baker, 1982).

The people of Garhwal applied this nonviolent method of resistance to those policies of the government that flouted the basic principles of sustainable development. The first phase of the environmental movement, devoted to the protection of Himalayan forests, continued from the 1970s up to the 1990s. During this period, the social workers of Chipko not only helped to foster an environmental consciousness, but also convinced the government to make a drastic change in its forest policy. The Government of India announced a 10-year moratorium on the felling of green trees in the Himalayas in 1983. The moratorium was reviewed in 1993, but the ban has continued.

During the transition period, approximately from 1985 to 1990, it appeared that the Chipko social workers may have lost interest. However, some of them soon started a new struggle to save the entire ecosystem and culture of the mountains. This new campaign was called Himalaya Bachao Andolan, or Save Himalaya Movement. The main objectives of this movement have been to stop the construction of big dams in the Himalayas and to generate electricity from small hydroelectric projects. The Ganga-Himalaya Kuti (near the upcoming 260.5m high wall of the Tehri Dam in the Garhwal Himalayas) became the centre of the non-violent protest against the aggressive development policies being implemented in the Himalayan region. As planned, the impounded water engulfed the Ganga-Himalaya Kuti in December 2001; however, the spirit of the non-violent struggle remains alive.

Other social workers involved with Chipko have continued their efforts to save the ecosystem of the Himalayas. Some in the Henwal Ghati who had also participated in Chipko have chosen to save the traditional varieties of crops grown in the Himalayan region (Prasun, 1996). Social workers in Gopeshwar and Kumaon have continued their efforts to save the green cover of the hills in various novel ways, including eco-development camps and the publication of a journal, PAHAR. Besides these workers, people from every walk of life and from all over the world have at times been involved in Chipko. The major achievement of the Chipko leaders has been to reach the masses directly, through popular media, by publishing small booklets in Hindi narrating the success stories and providing instances of environmental catastrophes.

The Chipko movement has attracted the attention of social scientists from all over the world. One after the other, researchers have climbed the hills of the Garhwal Himalayas and returned with a different story of the Chipko (Shiva & Bandyopadhyay, 1986; Weber, 1988; Berreman, 1989; Guha, 1989; Rangan, 2001). There can be no doubt about the academic excellence of these stories; however, it is unlikely that they have helped in the real cause—the ‘upliftment’ of the local population and the sustainable development of their precious environment. Although some of the authors of these accounts became ‘renowned environmentalists’ (for a self-appraisal, see Rangan, 2001), the people are still ‘natives’ for them, unable to comprehend their Western analytic finesse. This raises a second but more relevant question. Are we really trying to understand and honour the viewpoint of the local people? These academic storytellers have analysed the role of the local people with the untested propositions of other academics in the West. Those whom they study, on the other hand, have at least tested their propositions in the field of real life during their nonviolent struggle.

The holistic model of development

The local people of the Garhwal Himalayas look at the developmental process holistically (see Figure 25.1). In their holistic thinking, the development of both the individual and the community is important. In their minds, the goal of the individual is to attain self-enlightenment through a way of life, one where there is harmony in one’s knowledge, devotion and action. Following this path, if one learns that oak trees are good for the hills, one has to plant the oak species whenever there is an occasion to do so, and finally, one has to honour and even empathize with oak trees. One example of such integrated devotion, action and knowledge was Mira Behn. She inspired the Gandhians who later spearheaded the Chipko movement in the Garhwal Himalayas. She also saw in the oak (banj) tree the all-important link between the Himalayan ecology and the well-being of hill people (Mira Behn, 1978).

At the community level, sympathetic scientists, poets and writers, social workers and others of a compassionate nature should work towards the welfare and sustainability of all systems, living and non-living. Sarala Devi,5 another disciple of Gandhi, sacrificed her life for the people of the Himalayas. She ran a school for girls and also inspired and encouraged Sarvodaya workers to take up pro-environmental action. Those Sarvodaya workers were the forerunners of the Chipko Movement. They followed a holistic, sustainable approach to development and paid special attention to the cause of the poor. For instance, ‘Bimla Behin and her husband Sunderlal Bahuguna, it will be remembered, chose to set up their ashram in the Simiyana valley because of the high concentration of harijans in that area’ (Alter, 2002, p. 122).

The Garhwali people’s understanding of development reminds modern man that his ‘material development’ is a path towards vikṛti (destruction). That this life is not intended to be a form of escapism should be clear from the call of Swami Chidananda, a sanyāsin and patron of the Chipko movement (Chidananda, 1987): ‘We have to wake ourselves up and save the Himalayas and the Ganges’. There are deep spiritual (Vedāntic) roots to the Chipko understanding of nature, development and social action, and Chidananda (1991) explains that prakṛti has a dualistic nature. As a principle, it affects, or afflicts, puruṣa, and yoga has been especially developed to separate puruṣa from prakṛti. However, the phenomenal world in which we experience happiness and sorrow is also prakṛti, the Mother who sustains us all. Indeed, in this world, each person is instructed to follow a path that sustains life (dharma), pursue some economic means for day-to-day living (artha), participate in procreational activities (kāma) and work for the attainment of salvation (mokṣa).

Everyone has to engage in the yajña, the noble cause, of reviving our dying planet (Sarala Devi, 1982). We have to say ‘Yes’ to life and ‘No’ to death while following the path towards saṁskṛti, culture, characterized by qualities such as peace, happiness and fulfilment (Bahuguna, 1997). The hill people of the Himalayas are against those values that regard nature as a commodity to be exploited in the service of human greed and profit. In their world-view, the all-pervasive modern way of life in which we have acquired enormous information (a big head) devoid of compassion (no heart), and where there is little scope for manual work (feeble hands), is the path towards vikṛti or destruction.

The wisdom of the Himalayan people states that the very air, water and soil are the life-blood and main products of the forest, whereas for a silviculturist, the forest and timber exist only as a commodity to be sold for profit. And for the hill people, believing translates into doing. This phrase aptly describes the method of the Chipko social worker in fostering environmental awareness. For example, the Chipko activist would show the rural masses slides of the denuded countryside in the hills, of depleted water sources, fodder scarcity, soil erosion, flooded rivers and more to explain the negative consequences accompanying the destruction of the forest. The images are accompanied by a commentary that blends information from scientific studies with the wisdom of ancient Indian traditions (Tikekar, 1988; Bandyopadhayay, 1992; Pirta, 1994, 2000; Bahuguna, 1996).

In this model of sustainable development, some concepts are used that need further explanation for them to be related to mainstream psychology. The following section deals with this issue. The author’s intent is to suggest some broad relationships between native understanding and the apparently similar issues of behavioural scientists.

Implications for psychology

Earlier studies conducted by the author indicate some similarities between certain concepts in the holistic cognitive model and corresponding concepts in mainstream psychology (Pirta, 2003, 2004, 2005a). There appears to be a considerable parallel in the meaning of the concepts and the underlying processes. Some of those concepts and processes are harmony, holism, development, and the relationships between thinking, feeling and behaving.

In recent years, several points of convergence have been visible between the Eastern and Western views of the environment. One is the realization that there is a need for a radical change in the human relationship with nature. To build a new relationship with nature, a holistic approach is imperative—one that is partly spiritual in temperament (Chaitanya, 2000) and is open to the native wisdom of primal societies (Goldsmith, 1998). Deep ecology (Naess, 1989) is also a meeting point for Eastern and Western streams of thought. Another area of convergence is emerging from the acceptance of holistic relationships by biologists and physical scientists, evidenced in the widespread citings of Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (Bunyard, 1996). Gaia is the living and all-encompassing whole of the planet earth and its atmosphere. In India, people relate to dharatī mātā, the Mother Earth, in multitudinous ways (Tripathi, 2002). We may have to develop a new vocabulary to describe these holistic relationships, because science customarily uses fragmentary language to narrate these phenomena of nature. It holds importance for us because ‘The Hindu mind is essentially synthetic. It always analyses a problem into its various aspects, and considers them in their synthetic relation to one another’ (Sinha, 1986, p. xvii).

There is some evidence to support a similarity between the concept of harmony as proposed in the indigenous model and as it is used in some theories of psychology. Gestalt psychologists assert that interest in environmental psychology was stimulated by the suffocating experience of the urban environment, leading to the study of living more in harmony with nature (Ittelson, Proshansky, Rivlin & Winkel, 1974). At the micro level, we may find a similarity with the models of Gestalt social psychologists such as Heider and Festinger (Rock & Palmer, 1990). Heider, in his principle of balance, proposes that individuals prefer harmonious cognitive relations. Along similar lines, Festinger’s cognitive dissonance model hypothesizes that people seek to reduce inconsistencies in their beliefs, feelings and behaviours. We may also consider two examples where the need for exploring harmonious social relationships has led to the development of indigenous models of organizational behaviour in the Indian context (Gupta, Surie, Javidan & Chhokar, 2002; Batola, 2003). The primary reason suggested for these alternative models is the ineffectiveness of the materialist model of development in certain Eastern cultures. These investigators have independently found that a harmony of thoughts, feelings and actions is important in a variety of interdependent relationships within organizations. The importance of this has already been pointed out in relation to the indigenous model of development.

Our research on four issues related to environmental psychology and mental health provides evidence in support of the assertions derived from the local people’s cognitive model. First, it may help us to understand pro-environment action in terms of thinking, feeling and behaving. It appears that the holistic approach of Chipko is likely to be more influential in creating environmental consciousness among people than other behavioural approaches (Goswami & Pirta, 2002). Second, it may be fruitful to examine the displacement of people due to the construction of big dams and their psychological rupture with the indigenous cognitive experience in conjunction with attachment theory (Pirta & Agrawal, 2003). Third, people tend to favour the humanistic approach characteristic of the holistic model rather than authoritarian policies in solving environmental problems (Pirta, 2005a). Fourth, holistic mental health programmes need to honour traditional healing systems, a trend indicated in our preliminary survey of mental health and its association with the institution of local deities (Pirta, 2005b).


In brief, the local people of the Garhwal Himalaya region, while resolving social conflicts, are engaged in a non-violent struggle, a War of Dharma, to save their forests and rivers, for ultimately these define their culture. The movement became known as Chipko (hug-the-tree), which later transformed into a broad-based Himalaya Bachao Andolan. There are excellent alternate sources (previously cited) that provide general information and extensive analyses of this pioneering social movement of India. One must, however, be careful about the biases of those analysts regarding the social issues taken up by the movement and the actors involved in it, because their involvement was confined to the early phases of the movement. Also, the movement has so far escaped the scrutiny of psychologists and thus the author has articulated a psychologist’s viewpoint—an indigenous cognitive model that has deeper psychological ramifications.

Figure 25.1. The indigenous model of sustainable development (Adapted from Pirta, 2003, 2005a)

The Gandhians working in the Himalayas believe that the resilience of the local people is a cultural peculiarity resulting from their biological and cultural adaptation to the mountains of the Uttarakhand region. However, they also recognize that various large-scale environmental interventions increase the vulnerability of people in the mountain ecosystem. This vulnerability varies in different sections of society and along the dimension of gender (Bahuguna, 1968, 1973; Sarala Devi, 1978, 1980; Kunwar, 1982; Bhatt, 1992; Mira Behn, 1993).

One consequence of these environmental and developmental changes in the Himalayas is probably associated with the psychological dimension of the allostatic systems of people migrating due to the pressure of external forces. A future study could integrate the vulnerability and resiliency approach of psychology (Charney, 2004; Ray, 2004) with the holistic approach described in this chapter, so as to understand the mental health of displaced populations. Migration is a global problem. The World Health Report 2001 on mental health mentions a huge accumulation of displaced persons away from their native areas. Moreover, the problem of displacement has several theoretically important issues for psychology. Two such issues pertain to the areas of affect and memory. For example, we use Bowlby’s theory of attachment (Stroebe, Gergen, Gergen, & Stroebe, 1992; Ciechanowski, Walker, Katon & Russo, 2002) to understand the psychological vulnerability of displaced people. Second, we are also interested in episodic memory (Tulving, 2002), especially the traumatic memories (Yehuda, et al., 1998) of people about their lost homes.

Furthermore, we are exploring the role played by the institution of local deities and their relation to the mental health of people. Many years ago, in a series of Gifford Lectures, Frazer (1926) explored the worship of nature in many parts of the world, including India. Nature worship remains a powerful force for the people in the Himalayas and has crucial significance for studies in man-nature relationships. For example, in recent times Kosambi (1975), a historian, Gadgil (2001), an ecologist, and Kakar (2001), a psychoanalyst, have explored deity worship in different parts of India in order to understand social, material and mental conflicts respectively. An open-minded psychologist (see Crook, 1997) would certainly find these culture-specific mental phenomena, for example possession by deities, quite interesting. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand the elitist attitude taken by some psychologists towards these ‘little traditions’ (worship of local deities), despite their being interested in consciousness studies, including parapsychology (Rao, 2001). At the same time, a lay person finds the relationships between people and their forest gods, water spirits, ghosts and demons full of psychological content (Singh, 2003). The indifference of mainstream psychology to such phenomena should not come in our way—we can join the social psychologist Kenneth Gergen in his resistance to the Western colonization of mental health. For all our politically correct agnosticism, it is undeniable that the local deities enrich the mundane lives of people and fill their understanding of the world with the awe of transcendent reality.


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