Not far off the highway, less than 100 kilometers from the nation’s capital, the districts of Western Uttar Pradesh seem to have become synonymous with violence based on caste, religion or gender. The constitutional guarantee of a fundamental right to life is challenged every day by notions of honor.
But what is this notion of honour? An idea that no one can seemingly define, yet one that seems to justify mindless violence; an idea that demands valour and sacrifice; an idea around which legends, even uncomfortable ones, are spun. For example, the death of a jawan on the battlefield – violent without a doubt- is accepted, even celebrated in the name of honour. In life he may have been just another man who decided to leave his village for greener pastures and a secure job in order to look after his family. With his death however, an ordinary family finds its status elevated- they become parents, the wife, or children of a martyr who gave his life for the “nation.” Their grief and helplessness is confused with a pride thrust upon them by those seeking to justify a death. I may see the death of a jawan as senseless. I may wonder why its inevitably the poor soldier from the village and not the officer from the city who falls to enemy bullets. But by doing so, I am questioning something that defies question.
Both patriotism, and patriarchy demand violent sacrifice at the altar of honour. Any attempt to define or contain an ideal necessarily has opposition from those who defend it blindly. And the idea of Honour is no different. Some see it as a fight between purity and pollution, a fight between tradition and modernity. In fact, is the violence around upholding imposed notions of honour an outcome of modernity? A modernity that idealizes tradition- fictional or otherwise- of a world that apparently existed before us, a world which those upholding honour seek to recreate? In doing so, they try not only to stifle opposition by those attempting to change a bloody status quo, but they also justify both discrimination and murder.
The status quo in these parts of Western Uttar Pradesh- indeed in many parts of the country- thrives on orthodoxy and patriarchy. Last year, the National Crime Records Bureau documented a 7-fold rise in the incidence of “honour killings” – 70 percent them took place in Uttar Pradesh. In the name of honour, women or the men they chose to fall in love were killed brutally for having defied caste, religion or community diktats. Because by doing so she polluted the purity she was expected to uphold. An expectation bestowed upon her without her asking. An expectation defined by the men she had the misfortune of being born among. In the name of honour her independence, her identity, her freedom is stifled. They uphold honour by stripping the woman away of hers. You tell me, is that an “honourable” thing to do? And when you hear the mother of one such son say “If they had a problem they should have just killed their daughter, why did they have to harm my son?” it is impossible not to realize just how ingrained patriarchy is- not just in the men, but also among women.
Violence begets violence. And both patriotism and patriarchy demand violent sacrifice at the altar of honour. On the battlefield the idea of honour is used and abused to justify a soldier’s senseless death. Off it, the idea of honour is used and abused to perpetuate discrimination and violence in the worst possible ways. The notion that women carry the burden of honour cuts across caste, religion, economic status. Across families and entire communities. But I ask, shouldn’t the idea of honour be tied to these fundamental freedoms? Upholding the law of the land is honourable. Upholding fundamental freedoms is honourable.
Article 21 of the Indian constitution says no person can be deprived of his life or personal liberty. Article 15 protects women from discrimination based on gender. But neither seem to be a deterrent to those who kill or justify killing in honour’s name. In fact, police and law enforcement who deal with these crimes on a regular basis say the guilty are aware of the law. But as a village elder in Khandoi (Bulandshahr District) told us- the nation may have a penal code, but society has its own set of rules. They cannot be broken so easily.