Does uniformity bring about equality? Think again

For the first time, we have witnessed the direct weaponisation of the young in schools
Last Updated 13 February 2022, 08:44 IST

Now, more than ever, we are witnessing an onslaught on a democratic, non-exclusive, and syncretic India. The ideological extremists falsely construct a pretext to target the vulnerable. Pushed to a corner, the victims resist but, at times, also fall for the evil designs of bigots on their side of the social divide. The resultant loss of sanity is victory for hate-mongers. Caught in between are ordinary individuals who, so far, celebrated and battled challenges that life threw at them along with those who were their neighbours, colleagues and classmates. Suddenly, they are forced to choose sides, suppress identities, and succumb to imposed behavioural norms. Everyone is trapped in this net of treachery.

For the first time, we have witnessed the direct weaponisation of the young in schools. This has happened in Karnataka. Institutions and the state administration instigated an unnecessary confrontation by insensitively barring a few Muslim girls from entering their classrooms because of their attire. This was enough for socio-religious Hindu outfits to use young Hindu students to parade saffron shawls, headgears and again transform ‘Jai Shri Ram’ from a call for peace to a declaration of hate.

But behind this specific incident lie some philosophical flaws. One is the socially instilled belief that uniformity is equality and uniformity is order. The corollary is, diversity is chaos. This is the basis for the ridiculous statement that if we let students wear whatever they want, girls may come to school in bikinis. Keeping aside the repulsive objectification of girls and the implied suggestion that they need to be controlled, such comments come from the primary conjecture that uniformity stops chaos from breaking loose.

Any form of set-down uniformity is homogenising. It is intended to cut down diverse ways of living. There is an erasure, and a constraint placed on the minds and bodies of people. Nationalism is a form of homogenisation that convinces us of its necessity using the unity argument. Which is exactly why it often disintegrates after the goal is achieved. We rarely ask, who designed our unity?

The answer will reveal that there is nothing universal about the culture of unity; it is determined by a privileged few. There can be only one non-negotiable universal value: humanity.

Despite its jagged edges, our Constitution recognises the inherent contradictions in any attempt to bring people together under an umbrella idea. Which is why it allows for multiple interpretations and open spaces that give us room to find our own selves. The happiness and dignity of every individual is as precious as that of the pooled citizenry. It is within this sensibility that we have built our social justice architecture. Social justice is the recognition that non-uniformity is the natural state. A mechanism that does not seek sameness but equality to all, irrespective of socio-cultural-economic differences. A correction of dominant attitudes, parity in social access, and fairness in economic distribution. Therefore, let us not misinterpret our Fundamental Rights as uniformity.

But what about the argument that uniformity can achieve social justice? The question here is that of agency. The right and the need to change something has to emerge from those who belong to the practicing community. Whether some habit is a choice or an imbibed norm is very difficult to ascertain from the outside. The dialogue has to begin from the inside, and develop into a groundswell. This is a much slower process, but only then does it become sustainable. Our job is to listen, learn, and be allies. Most importantly we must not point fingers or deride the community. This results in the isolation of those who want a constructive debate on the issue.

Anyone can have a strong opinion on the matter, but unless you have experienced the different shades of the practice, you have no right to enforce a solution. Doing so is no different from the White Man dictating how we should live our lives based on his sense of modernity. People find that offensive, but are first off the block to dictate change to Muslim women.

The irony in this uniform conversation is the coloniality of the school uniform. Despite the objections that ultra-nationalists raise about our colonial past, they are torchbearers for the British idea of uniform. Many argue that the school uniform enables equality. How? Irrespective of the common colour in pants, shirts, skirts or salwars, schools are cesspools of casteism and patriarchy. Clothes do not hide differences or equalise students; our social markers are far more insidious. Instead of dealing with the underlying discrimination, we pat ourselves on our backs with superficial plugs like uniforms.

There are schools that do not insist on uniforms. They offer simple guidelines to ensure that the clothes worn by children are comfortable for all school activities, unbranded and simple. If we put our mind to it, it is not difficult to come up with an alternative that is also economically viable for all. Uniforms also cause inter-school hierarchies. They provide information on the status of the school, the social class of the students and their locality. So, even if we believe uniforms hide certain things within a school, they are still labels used to typecast and discriminate against schools and, by default, the children who study there. Since our society is segregated by caste and religion, everyone one knows what ‘kind’ of children go where.

This affiliation between uniformity, order and equality plays out everywhere. Localities that have multi-coloured homes in different shapes and sizes are considered disorderly and the people who inhabit those homes are assumed to be unruly, dangerous troublemakers. Uniformity begins with the aesthetic, but ends up encompassing every aspect of our lives. Diversity cannot remain a convenient semantic crutch, it has to begin with the rejection of uniformity as a pathway to justice.

(Published 12 February 2022, 18:43 IST)

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