A toxic controversy is brewing in Mangalore, Karnataka, that can further fracture the fault lines of our society. In a government junior college in Udupi town, many students started attending the college wearing saffron shawls. They were 'protesting' against their classmates for the crime of wearing hijabs. Soon, the parents, college authorities and the local politicians joined in, and the controversy took a nasty communal turn. Maybe, that was what the powers who had encouraged the junior college students to protest against their classmates had wanted. To communalise every incident, create schism and fish for votes in the troubled waters; it has become an easy ticket to power. It is baffling why the dress choice of another person should offend us? Six students are still holding on to their position, adamant about upholding their beliefs. The fanatics of either community have jumped into the fray, and the positions are getting hardened by the day.
India is a country with diverse cultures and beliefs. We have been indifferent to what others wear, eat, or pray since time immemorial. Our diverse attires evolved over centuries, and the rich tapestry of our culture owes to the vast climatic variations, diverse religious beliefs, countless subcultures and even caste norms. Our cuisine, languages, literature, art forms, and traditions are similarly diverse, making India the country it is. Unlike many western cities, Indian streets are still colourful, with people wearing all kinds of clothes. India always had space for everyone. It didn’t matter whether one chose to be a naked Sadhu, a turbaned Sikh, a white-clad Jain monk, a Catholic nun and a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, a pundit in his dhoti or an executive in his suit or a tourist in his shorts or a labourer in his lungi. Many of us who left colleges two decades ago or earlier would remember how diverse our campuses were. Students wore headscarves, burqa, miniskirts, churidars, jeans, dhotis, turbans, and no one cared either way.
The kind of support the miscreants have got in Udupi, Mangalore, is scary to anyone concerned about the future of our country. The wearing of hijab by a few students is a part of their beliefs, and as long as no one forces others to wear what they wear, it should not create trouble for anyone else. There is no doubt that the hijab is a regressive religious practice. Still, the fight against it should happen from the community that imposes it on its women and should never be forced upon by others. Our Constitution guarantees the right to follow any faith. While we hope that such controversies are a rare exception and not the harbinger of things to come, one must debate the need for uniforms in colleges.
How we dress identifies who we are. Forcing a particular dress code on people at the threshold of youth curbs their expression of individuality. Uniforms may be beneficial in armed forces and the law enforcement agencies like the police, where the stress is on discipline and the ability to follow orders without question. However, imposing a uniform on students at the cusp of adulthood is the biggest crime we can do to them. Are we aiming to produce a bunch of robots who will conform to anything told by an elder or a person in authority? Or should we be aiming to get our students to be more creative, expressive and individualistic?
When uniforms were thought of, it was supposed to create a sense of egalitarianism and solidarity among students. Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon to find students dressed poorly in tardy clothes sitting on the same bench as the lucky few wearing shiny new outfits in the last century. Arguably, in the initial days, uniforms would have helped prevent such a brazen display of inequality. But now, uniforms serve as a tool to display wealth and privilege. The wearing of an elite college uniform may or may not be beneficial to the student, but it is helpful to all others concerned. The institution makes a lot of money by this branding exercise, with the students being their billboard and the parents deriving their snob value from it.
The rich and the powerful have more or less carved out their kingdoms, with private townships, private colleges, elite hospitals and even private security, and hence a generation is growing insulated from the harsh realities of life. We are now a country of powerful elites who thrive in their affluent cruise ships, indifferent to the vast ocean of poverty and misery they are cruising in.
Unlike the cynicism that infects the middle-aged and resignation that old age brings, to dream about an ideal world is the privilege of the youth. This widening gap in wealth and privilege would have triggered intense student movements in another era. Then, students were the backbone of our freedom movement. The students were at the forefront in the fight against the tyranny of emergency in our country. We have put our youth in straitjackets for the last few decades and curbed their individuality. They have become trained to follow blindly, and they rage against one another instead of against injustices. All we get now are impotent rebellions against what your friend wears or your neighbour eats. A country whose youth is not moved by idealism is a country doomed.
Anand Neelakantan is the author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy. He can be reached at email@example.com