Collective honour and individual dignity
Professor Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice
This article was orginaly published in The Hindu
As we can neither live without communities nor live entrapped within them, notions of collective honour that are consistent with individual dignity are likely to flourish
In several parts of our country, inter-caste marriages are frowned upon and inter-religious marriages are virtually taboo. Young couples in our villages sometimes pay a heavy price for such transgressions, with some even being killed because their act is seen to dishonour their community. The furore around the film Padmavati based on Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s legendary allegorical tale Padmavat betrays this same anxiety about a community’s honour — the film is believed to have insulted a martial caste and violated the honour of the Hindu nation.
What sense are we to make of such community-related honour? Honour is a form of respect. To have honour is to be entitled to high respect, to be judged positively by a standard which many others fail to meet. To have collective honour is to be entitled to positive regard by others by virtue of belonging to a particular community. Indeed, the real recipient of such honour is the entire community. Honouring a community means judging it to be better than others. This concept of honour can be interpreted to yield an achievement-oriented conception of individual and collective honour, as when a person is awarded the Gyanpeeth Award or a Nobel Prize, or the Indian team is elevated to the first rank in test cricket. But it can also lead to another conception of honour which is tied to rigid, inegalitarian practices and is at play in resentment against inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.
Honour and hierarchy
In this conception, individuals are defined almost wholly by their membership in hierarchically related communities, groups viewed as naturally superior and intrinsically inferior (e.g. men and women; upper and lower castes; high-ranked and low-ranked religious communities). Honour here is not earned but grounded, at best, in real or imagined past achievements. All performative acts (practices) are then meant only to reiterate this hierarchy, to continually demonstrate that one group is better, higher than the other and deserving of more respect. Honour is encoded in social norms and becomes the direct expression of status within a hierachical set-up. Each group is expected to behave by the honour code between superiors and inferiors. One honours a superior community by not marrying any of its members. If the superiority of a community is inscribed in the bodies of its women, how can inferiors touch them? If a member from an inferior caste marries someone from a higher caste, he treats his superiors as equals, thereby violating the social code, and dishonouring the entire community. And because the identity of one person in a community is deeply intertwined with that of the other, any member can claim to be offended by the marriage and act on behalf of the entire community to avenge ‘wrongdoing’, and thereby repair the damaged code of honour.
This troubling notion of collective honour appears to dominate all the headlines these days. But mercifully it coexists with, and is challenged by, another form of respect which also has little to do with achievement, appears to exist independent of community, and challenges hierarchy by pointing to certain qualities shared by all humans.
The dignity of individuals
Whatever the current mood in the country, one outstanding feature of our age is that each and every one of us can legitimately aspire to radical improvement in the material conditions of life. Underlying this yearning and its necessary public expression is a silent transformation in our self-understanding — to some degree, we have all begun to see ourselves also as individuals. This is not to say that we have ceased to define ourselves in terms of some or the other community, or that seeing ourselves as institutional role players, as fathers or mothers, or as Hindus or Sikhs, is no longer important. But the social and communitarian dimension of our lives is now lived alongside, and sometimes in tension with, our lives as individuals. We believe that the life of each person matters because of our common capacity to create and lead a life of significance. We each have a point of view of ourselves, our life and the world. In a very important sense, our life is first and foremost our own and has also to be lived individually. This fact alone entitles us to a basic respect which has little to do with community. In the English language, there is word for this: dignity. Each one of us has dignity merely by virtue of our humanity. This is a kind of deep personal honour we are born with, and one that must be recognised as such. This notion has deep roots in the great renunciatory traditions of this land but was given fresh impetus in the last two centuries by equality — centred social reform movements, the anti-colonial struggle, struggles for gender equality, but above all, by a movement against caste hierarchies led by the greatest Dalit leader of our times, Babasaheb Ambedkar.
India is living through a deeply interesting but troublesome transition where older ideas of collective honour are vying with new articulations of individual dignity. In this clash between two forms of respect, inegalitarian forms of collective honour are more likely to be pushed out of our society as social and political democracy deepens. But since humans can neither live without communities nor live entrapped within them, both collective honour and individual dignity will be needed in future. And would it not be good to see flourish in our society a form of collective honour consistent with individual dignity?