Uniform Unfolded: Contested Communalism
The raging controversy over using uniform in the colleges of Karnataka and its ripples over parts of Indian has now taken a serious turn with multiple narratives and often coloured with religious fervor. A simple executive directive of educational department of the state has suddenly rubbed some people and community the other way. All sorts of arguments have come from varied and different sources, arguments and counter arguments have flown thick and fast from all corners. In fact, many of the arguments are based on political ideology, religious obscurantism and neoconservative beliefs. Of late, we have used Courts to settle cultural debates though not a sign of mature democracy but it certainly brings an immediate relief from confrontation and violence. This matter too is now referred to the Court and can be called technically as subjudice. However, an academic analysis and enlightened debate will only help in critical engagement with the issue and develop an acute sense of awareness. In fact, the rulings from the Courts on these issues have never been uniform and have never settled the debate forever rather they have only stoked further debates and disharmony a la, Shahbanu vs Mohammad Aslam Khan (1986). That’s why I feel these issues should not have to gone to the court in the first place and it only compromises the role of the superior courts which are supposed to deal with interpretation of Constitution and find legality. In the larger interest of the nation and from the perspective of the identity of the nationhood and integrity of educational institutions I would like to surmise the following points to buttress my argument in favour of the government.
First of all, we need to look at the autonomy of the institutions in general and more so educational institutions which are centers of equality both in theory and practice. Institutional integrity and autonomy forms basis of strengthening of democracy especially in contemporary scenario where there is increased vacuum as states have withdrawn themselves from much of the governance function and market is yet to come forward. In such a paradigm of state-market dichotomy the dynamism of civil society will be paramount in defining the quantum and quality of human interaction with agencies of governance. In this context, the autonomy and independence of educational institutions are significant. It needs to be understood that an admission into an educational institution whether managed by government or private agencies requires a student to abide by its rules and regulations. Most educational institutions prefer to have a uniform for students partly to distinguish themfrom students of other institutions and more to spread a sense of equality among its students. It is equally true that uniformity is no guarantee for unity but we must remember something is impossible does not mean we should not try. Further this symbolic attempt to bring a sense of unity and togetherness does create a sense of ‘we feeling’ among students.
That’s the educational arena and bringing its decision to public debate based on supposed religious practices is an injustice to education as an institution and an insult to religion which is more about realization than symbols. It also begs a question that is these symbols are inherent to religion? And their discard will destroy religion? Is the religion so frail that it will shred into parts because of this supposed disregard to a non-essential practice? I think the answer to all these questions is a resounding No. The communalization of education began not with the type and colour of clothing the students wear but its institutionalization in religious places and places of worship. If clothing was an issue, then there would be girl students in Madrasas and girls would be thronging the university campuses of Afghanistan not receiving bullets and brickbats for aspiring to study. If we, make it a choice then what will happen if a Naga Sadhu or someone from Digamabar Jain sect would want to exercise his choice? Will the civil society and school administration succumb to his choice? Won’t it then create chaos and anarchy in education in particular and society in general. As far as religious educational institutions are concerned are not Hindu and Sikh students go the seminary and Church run missionary schools where they encourage them to sing Christmas Carols and bow before Jesus and Mother Merry. And to blame government or schools for that matter Hindus would be patently wrong for following a well-accepted practice in schools across the world. The oblique reference to fundamentalism and such insinuation to Hindus does not hold water as more number of Hindus visit the temple of Sai Baba who waw a Muslim and more Hindus visit Mazars and don’t hesitate to offer green shawls without questioning the choice of colors.
Secondly, education is a profession as well as a training ground for professionals and therefore, the type of cloth as a matter of personal liberty and freedom of choice does not arise. Can a doctor decide not to wear a white apron or lawyer a black robe? Don’t Hindus wear white cloths and Christians wear black cloths in funerals and have they ever contested their professional dress on the name of these practices. Further, though the Holy Koran talks of decency in cloths nowhere it prescribes hijab. And if it becomes a matter of choice decided by religion then what will happen if a person from Naga Sect or Digambar sect wants to come an education and want to exercise his choice? Therefore, it is pertinent that instead of concerning themselves with uniform and Hijab they should concern with universalization of secondary education and make sincere efforts to improve the quality of education. Needless to add, education is both an instrument of social change and has immense capability to transform a multitude of young girls from the bondage of poverty and drudgery. The enormous ability of education to emancipate women must be used as an antidote against religious fanaticism of all kinds and must be used as a weapon against patriarchy. Unfortunately, the young girls who should be the change agents and equip themselves with life skills through educational attainment are being torch bearers of a deplorable practice and succumbing themselves to the shenanigans of religion. I can only pity them and pray to God they should not become pawns in political chessboards. Viewed from a more open and gender perspective it can be said why the poor, marginalized and already excluded Muslim girls and women should have the onerous responsibility to uphold religious values while their rich, upper class and urbane counterparts’ frown upon such practices and discard such clothing at first instance. Why men do not come out protesting to wear skull caps and ankle length trousers to school.
Further, the courts in general and Supreme Court in particular has always made a distinction between the Article -19 and Article 25 as far as freedom in general and religious freedom in multicultural and secular State. The Court has also deliberated over the concept of absolute and relative freedom while dealing with reasonable restrictions. In this context, it has invoked essential religious practices. The case of Swami Abdhutanand Saraswati vs. Commissioner of Police, Calcutta, the Supreme Court held that ritual dance performed by the group holding human skull is not an essential practice of Hinduism. Similarly, giving freedom to educational institutions in terms of management the court has upheld their independence and autonomy as propounded in case of TMA Pai and Inamdar case. The recent single bench judgement of the High Court in Kerala in reference to hijab as well as the High Court of Assam on funding of Madrasa have heavily depended on these sound reasoning while dismissing these petitions.
Thirdly, we should remember that shooter Hina Siddhu and chess player Soumya Swaminathan decided not to participate in competitions in Iran which required them to wear burqua and were slammed across for their decision. Where were these secular and left liberals including Ms. Priyanka Gandhi to support their freedom? Certainly, Hijab is not an essential practice of Islam and look the family of King Abudullah of Jordan who is a direct 14th descendant of prophet Mohammad and his family does not wear Hijab. Women in Dubai, UAE, Saudi Arab, Iran, Iraq and other Islamic countries are protesting against burqua and here we are 3rd generation converts are supporting its use. What a shame and ignorance. Therefore, it won’t be wrong to conclude that this entire controversy is purely political and based on vote bank politics. It intends to create religious division and ferment social tension in order to maintain their grip over a section of people belonging to particular community. It is a shame that such leaders and their shenanigans go unpunished while the nation bleeds. It is high time we support autonomy of educational institutions and ensure a secular standards and jettison religious obscurantism.
By Prof. Tapan R. Mohanty
(The author is the Dean, Department of Distance Education and Professor of Sociology of Law at National Law Institute University, Bhopal. The views are personal.)