Nice post by Dota. Enjoy.
A Question of Honor
Of all the misunderstood aspects of South Asian culture,the least understood, I would argue, is the concept of honor. Westerners often betray their lack of awareness when addressing the controversial (and complex) issue of honor killings while making rhetorical statements such as, “There is nothing honorable about honor killings.” Statements like these indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of the value systems of South Asia. The purpose of this article is to shed light on the South Asian value system that has given rise to this complex social phenomenon.
Before we plunge headlong into the subject matter of this article, let us begin by sketching a brief overview of honor as understood by Westerners. In the Western system, honor generally refers to a personal code of ethics that encompasses a deontological set of rules that enables an agent to act consistently in a moral context. As such, honor codes vary from individual to individual, which is not surprising in a culture that prizes individualism.
There is a considerable overlap in meaning between the terms of honor and ethics in the West. It is not possible for an agent to concurrently be unethical and yet honorable, notwithstanding an individual’s use of deceit to project the illusion of honor. Thus while an overwhelming emphasis is placed on the personal moral code, there is also a (comparatively) smaller emphasis placed on reputation.
Let us now examine the concept of honor in the South Asian context. In this system, honor is perceived as a resource that can increase and decrease with time, depending on the agent’s actions. Thus honor is not a code of ethics in South Asia, but a code of conduct. As an ethical code, this code of conduct leans towards consequentialism, as honor is perceived as being an intrinsic good (being wholly good in and of itself) that the agent tries to maximize with correct action.
However despite its affinity to consequentialist ethics, honor is not concerned with ethics per se but rather with reputation. It is here that we can see the emerging dichotomy between honor in both systems as honor in the South Asian context reverses the priorities of the western system: an overwhelming emphasis on reputation with a minor emphasis on ethics.
So just exactly how does honor guide action in South Asia? The formula is rather elementary: The agent (through his actions) must project honor into his environment that in turn projects it back to the agent. As Aakar Patel explains: “Honor is bestowed on us by others. We cannot honor ourselves.” On a day-to-day level, honor consists of a series of face saving gestures. Offering assistance increases honor while accepting assistance decreases honor. Declining to offer assistance also decreases honor. Maintaining dominance over an adversary is honorable whereas seeking compromise is perceived as a sign of weakness.
A Closer Look At Saving Face
Face saving is best understood as the day-to-day modus operandi of the honor system. Craig Storti correctly points out in his book (Speaking of India) that the ultimate goal is to maintain group harmony by helping sustain the honor of other members (as well as oneself) within the group. This is primarily accomplished by carefully calibrating ones actions and words so as to not cause deliberate offense. Indian culture is at its core collectivist where groups are defined around family/kin and caste. Since Hinduism does not encourage empathy for others outside one’s caste, maintaining group harmony is paramount and face saving is the way to go about it.
Since Westerners are not dependent upon any group affiliation for their survival, they are generally free to speak their minds. In India, this is generally not an option. It is considered supremely offensive for one to criticize a superior in front of his subordinates. This would cause the superior to lose face. Likewise employees are expected to know their place, and their inputs are also discouraged.
If one requires something from a superior, one is traditionally expected to eulogize the superior before formally broaching a request or grievance. If one is unable to meet a commitment, one must communicate it indirectly in order to save face. Admitting a mistake can also lead to losing one’s face, and oftentimes Indians and Pakistanis will proceed with a job without fully understanding it rather than admitting their ignorance. As Craig Storti again points out, the purpose of conversation in the West is exchanging information whereas in India it is building relationships by preserving honor.
While face saving etiquette is common (to varying degrees) across all strata of Indian society, honor is most prized by the peasant and warrior castes of India and Pakistan. As Aakar Patel astutely observes, an overwhelming majority of honor killings are committed by members of these castes. The Brahmins and Vaishya (traders/merchants) castes do not place a premium on honor. I would assume that the Brahmins’ indifference to honor stems from their advantageous social position whereas the Traders do not care for honor since they deal in exchanges and hence their mercantile values favour flexibility over the rigidity of honor constraints.
Saving Face: The Case of Nawaz Sharif and the Kargil Conflict
After Pakistan’s supremely incompetent General Parvez Musharraf launched his disastrous invasion of Indian Kashmir in 1999, it was tasked to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s civilian government to clean up the military’s mess (and subsequently be blamed for it as well). It is widely understood that the Pakistani military unilaterally decided to invade Indian soil without the civilian government’s consent or knowledge.
When the Kargil War took a turn for the worse, Nawaz Sharif began getting desperate. His attempt at recruiting Chinese support for the ill planned invasion was rebuffed by the Asian giant. On July 2,1999 Sharif phoned Clinton and begged the US president to intervene. Clinton stated that the terms included a complete Pakistani withdrawal from Indian Kashmir. After the Indian army recaptured Tiger Hill in a decisive 11 hour battle on July 4th, Sharif phoned Clinton again and demanded an audience, to which Clinton acquiesced. After scolding Sharif, the Pakistani army withdrew and the conflict was over. How did the Pakistani army infiltrate Kargil to begin with? According to Ajay Bisaria:
By a gentlemanly agreement, every year Indian and Pakistani forces withdrew from the heights in the winter harshness and returned to man the posts in spring. The two sides had refrained from major attempts to alter the status quo during this ebb and flow of seasonal deployments. This was true of Siachen as also the Kargil sector. Pakistan had now violated this agreement.
Pakistan had violated a gentleman’s agreement by taking advantage of the Indian military’s absence during the harsher winter months.
There are several interesting points to note here. When the Pakistanis began losing the war, Sharif appealed to Clinton for help instead of directly approaching the Indians for a diplomatic solution. This motive is obvious – Sharif wanted to save face (for the entire country) by approaching Clinton instead of the ‘inferior vegetarian cowards’ who had just humiliated Pakistan’s military. Sharif later admitted that had India formally declared war and closed its borders, the Pakistani troops stranded inside India had only 3 days worth of supplies.
How do the Pakistanis narrate this story to each other? I have spoken to numerous Pakistanis about this, and they have told me that Pakistan inflicted massive casualties against India (this part is true) and was clearly winning the war. Unfortunately the traitorous Americans sided with India and summoned Sharif to the White House in order to force his hand to withdraw. Sharif is seen as being weak willed and indecisive by most Pakistanis and the main reason for Pakistan’s failure in the war. The Pakistani version clearly contradicts established facts as it was Sharif who begged Clinton for an audience; but why retell this story?
For one, the military had to save face by blaming their failure on the superior American foe instead of the Indian foe that had directly vanquished them. The military’s honor was saved, and Sharif took the fall. Clearly Pakistanis are oblivious to the fact that Sharif’s groveling saved the lives of all those Pakistani troops stranded behind enemy lines in Kargil. This is not even given fleeting consideration.
What is paramount is that honor should be preserved. Another striking point is that Pakistanis are also oblivious to their military’s blatantly unethical conduct when violating their gentleman’s agreement with India. This case study illustrates that ethics and honor can be mutually exclusive in the South Asian context whereas this would be unthinkable in the West.
Saving Face: The Case of the Shiv Sena’s ‘Defiance.’
The Shiv Sena is a Mumbai-based political party that has been unfairly classified as a Hindutva party by secular minded non-Mumbaikars. In reality however, while the SS might sympathize somewhat with Hindutva, they remain a primarily Marathi Chauvinist party. They claim to speak on behalf of the Marathi people of Maharashtra. The SS are not averse to patrolling their neighborhoods with local toughs and generally making a nuisance of themselves by using violence when necessary. It was they who unleashed a wave of violence against south Indian immigrants in Mumbai shortly after the party was formed in the 60s . Bullying is their game.
What drives the SS? In a remarkably insightful article, Aakar Patel points out that the SS renders visible the anger of the Marathi people. Why are the Marathis angry? Patel believes it is because they are a disenfranchised majority within their own regional state. Mumbai owes its commercial success to the competence of the Gujarati Trader castes that have built up the island’s fortunes over the last 300 years. The Gujarati Trader castes (Vanias, Bohras, Memons etc) still maintain their Gujarati culture and language and do not identify with the local Marathi culture. To makes matters worse, Bollywood (based in Mumbai) is not dominated by Marathis but by Punjabis and Urdu speaking Muslims.
Since the Marathis are primarily from the peasant caste, their economic disenfranchisement makes complete sense from a historical perspective. The roots of poverty and anger are usually historical.
In the US certain segments of the African American population engage in a disproportionate amount of violence as they no doubt feel a sense of collective anger and resentment at their socioeconomic station; a result of the African American experiences shaped by the historical reality of slavery. The Marathis too feel a sense of anger, but there is a difference in the motivating factors of Marathi violence compared to African American violence that can only be explained by culture.
As stated above, Black aggression is a product of anger that is rooted in historical injustice. The Black man acts out of a sense of desperation and frustration whereas Marathi violence is driven by the need to project power. The underclass of African Americans do not seek to dominate society whereas the Marathi is genuinely trying to claim what he believes is his birthright. The Marathi resents that he has no control or say over the development of his regional state. He feels marginalized. As the ultimate face saving act, the Marathi resorts to violence with the aim of maintaining the illusion of control.
The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party (in some ways an offshoot of the Shiv Sena) attacked cinemas that screened Amithabh Bachan’s films in response to a remark made by his wife expressing pride in her Hindi mother tongue. How dare she express Hindi pride in a Marathi state! The MNS had also previously threatened Mumbai shopkeepers with vandalism if they refused to put up Marathi language signboards alongside their English ones. These acts of defiance belie the wounded pride felt deeply by a people whose caste so highly prizes honor and saving face.
The notion of honor in South Asia is demonstrably different from that of the West. Understanding honor would greatly enable any Westerner to not only decode South Asian behavior but also their speech patterns by detecting insinuations which would normally fly under their radar. I have also tried to sufficiently address the Western query of how South Asians can behave in a manner deemed unethical by Western standards but yet command high status amongst their fellow South Asian peers.
- Bisaria, Ajay. 2009. Bill Clinton and the Kargil Conflict: From Crisis Management to Coercive Diplomacy. WWS 547: The Conduct of International DiplomacyPatel, Aakar. 2011. Why the Honor Killing Bill Won’t Work. Livemint.
Patel, Aakar. 2010. The Thackereys’ Primitive Charisma. Livemint.
Storti, Craig. 2007. Speaking of India. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.