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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 30, July 17, 2010

Honour and Disgrace: Meditation for the Politics of Protest

Thursday 22 July 2010, by Dev N Pathak


We protest, for we feel there is an amiss affecting us. But to sustain a protest, so that it does not end up as a Rang De Basanti-style cosmetic candle-light protest at the India Gate or SMS protest by the slaves of convenience in the metro-cities, we need to engage with the notion of social honour and disgrace. The politics of protest presupposes an alternative notion of social honour, to combat those who believe that protest in itself is anti-honour and hence disgracing. Also, an alternative notion of social honour has to be an anchorage for all those who might walk off the roads in the name of protest, end up in slogan-shouting and chest-thumping, even killing. As protesters, we need to ask ourselves time and again whether our notion of honour is as violent as that of those who are waiting with unabated breath to snuff the protest pointing to our equally violent idea of honour. Be it a massive protest against the actions of an anti-people state or, at a very benign level, be it an ideology for or against the state, the key is the notion of honour competing with other similar notions.

Recently the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Delhi told mediapersons, reacting to the agitating members of the DUTA, that the ongoing protests will send out bad impressions of the premier university to the students. By implication, the said ‘bad impression’ has a flip side, a ‘good impression’. The University of Delhi has an associated honour, hinging upon the so-called good impression about it among the people of India. The Vice-Chancellor would like the teacher fraternity to end any such protest, for it is anti-honour and hence non-democratic. All it requires is a clearly defined alternative notion of honour to conquer the absolute notion of institutional honour stemming from the official logic of the University. On ample occasions, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University has been noted for expressing similar concerns. Students’ politics on campus seemed to him anti-honour, a threat to the ‘good impressions’ of the University the people of the whole world have. Summarily, whenever the notion of honour is invoked, the assumed reference group is made to appear as grand as possible. Thus, the self-proclaimed custodians of honour would like to say—ah! What would the whole world think of us—as though the whole world were the spectral entity evaluating us on the basis of our very democratic oppositions. The idea of honour tactically survives on the basis of the grandeurs—the whole world watching us, ‘the dignified entity’. Those who have the buck with them would resort to the idea of honour to cope up with the disquiet.

To smother the vigilant minds and any potential protest, our ‘persons of consequence’ (borrowing a term form Nikolay Gogol’s The Overcoat), would indulge in the politics of honour. It is almost like the elders of a Khap Panchayat mouthing platitudes about their conventional taboo on the possible wedlocks free from the restrictions of the gotra. They also mention various scientific findings to justify an apparently traditional norm of gotra-exogamy. The invocation of human science against any kind of miscegeny or affinal deviation is merely a pretext to bolster the idea of social honour the community is conventionally attached to. It is not science that drives politicians of all hues, from conservative Right-wings as well as the liberal-Centre, to side with the leaders of the Khap Panchayat. In electoral politics, they all compete to be known as the champions of the social honour. Thus, the need to engage with the eternally present notion of honour in the discursive spaces is instrumental for those who believe in the idea of never-dying protests. It summons to formulate and politicise an alternative version. It is inevitable to reconstruct the socially constructed notion of such kinds to sustain the alternative politics. And this enterprise warrants the necessity to think of the personal and political at one plane.

Politicise Personal: Pluralise Honour

THE inevitable association between the notion of honour and violence has been detected in volumes of feminist literature more starkly than anywhere else. Be it social biting of nails at the instance of, the becoming Jane (Austin) or a Bhanwari Devi in twentieth century India, a social restlessness on the issue of a gay Milk or a Professor Siras from the Aligarh Muslim University, the underlying notion is of honour. Attack on one set of people by the other is inadvertently based on the idea of honour. The victim is often treated as one who lacks in honour or is a threat to the same. The question is whether the victimised really have no honour, or as to why their honour has not been pronounced within the social sphere. Is it not precarious for the social existence of the vulnerable to have their honour muted or pronounced as inferior?

The divide between the personal and public decides whose honour is more validated. The validated notion of social honour may exude violence toward the one which is not validated, as the latter is not given to plunge into the public. In a detailed account of growing up as a girl in the traditional Indian social structure, the noted feminist sociologist, Leela Dubey, brought forth the intricate connection between honour and violence, and between the personal and political. Unless women become public with their notion of honour, they will be subject to the patriarchal notion of the same. Prem Chowdhury’s description of the same, with the primary focus on the traditional restrictions in Haryana, is a case in point. The contest of honours, that can bring about the symmetry between the personal and public for the vulnerable, is necessary for the recognition of the alternative notions and politics of protest. Be it at a micro- or a macro-level, the above mentioned instances present cases of politics of honour that dissolves the dichotomy between the personal and political.

It is grossly misleading to assume at any point that the personal is not to do with the public and thus political. The death of Nirupama Pathak, a pass-out from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, under mysterious circums-tances, is not at all a mere incident at the level of the personal. The political implications of such individuated incidents are as historical as the gradual ascendance of Rahul Gandhi in the horizon of Indian politics. A case of Rizwanur’s death or that of Ruchika Girhotra, is as much an issue of public as is Sonia Gandhi’s personal life allegedly being laid bare in a controversial biography. Everything personal may be subject to the notion of social honour and hence to social violence. Every such victim would have to go public to begin with, in a bid to outstrip the onslaught. But then, prior to that, every such individual has to have an alternative notion of honour.

Redefining Honour for a culture of freedom

THE zoon politikon have often distinguished themselves by the virtue of their value-orientation, and that their values have been eternally in the flux of formation undergoing the dialectics of both kinds material and spiritual (to reconcile Marx and Weber in the manner of Bourdieu’s logic of practice). Never will it be possible to imagine a society without values, even the state of anomie has conflicting values as Emile Durkheim taught us. Then, it is fool-hardy to believe the modernisation theorists, or some of the bland rationalists, that the conventional value structures have to be reined in by the strictures of the legal machinations. It is imperative to bolster the practice of redefining values instead. In other words, the need is to indulge in the perpetual rethinking and redefinition of the notion of social honour. Not only to combat the persons of consequence, like a Vice-Chancellor of a university or an atrociously unrelenting Khap Punchayat, or an anti-people state, or an irrationally militant group of Naxalites, it is also the need of the hour for those who intend to protect the possibility of protesting. For, the absolute notion of honour blocks the possibility of dissent, and presents everything in black and white: either for us or against us.

This juncture in any political enterprise is lethal to the motives of politicking whereby thinking off-beat is almost sacrilegious: speaking critically of the state’s war on people is immediately dubbed as pro-Naxalite and speaking of the need of the state to curb the mindless terror is termed a stooge’s perspective. It happens when the notion of honour is absolute and without any possibility of plurality. When a Nitish Kumar invokes a syrupy idea of Bihari pride to attract the Bihari immigrants for investment in Bihar, it may not be immediately clouded by the feeling of any fear of violence. But then, it may also be very difficult for anybody to sniff for the fish in the rosy garden of ‘honour’. Not to forget, that similar notion appeared very innocuous at the nascent stage in Bomaby, which brutally transformed the place into Mumbai.

The notion of honour warrants constant watchdogs; in other words, the critical intelligentsia with an audience of the persons of consequence (the machinery of the state). Acknowledging the notion of honour, or for that matter any specific value, as an idea in flux of becoming, keys the locks of mind open. It also enables to reformulate the very notion of honour time and again, in the face of jostling tides of uncertainty and untowards.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Kamla Nehru College, University of Delhi. He is in the process of submitting a doctoral thesis on the oral tradition of India at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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