I wept when they told me he was dead.
I wept all the more bitterly, because I’d never known he’d lived.
With these words – whose source has vanished from memory and is untraceable even by her exalted Holiness Google Devi – I dedicate this mercifully short ramble to the eternal spirit of one of the greatest spiritual teachers humankind has ever been cursed with: Alfred E Neuman, mascot of the long-deceased and bitterly mourned MAD Magazine, USA.
It is with the angst in these words, O Most Noble Reader, that I lament… because I’d never known how important the Uniform was, or is, to college students.
I lament as I behold the Great Non-Issue Over Uniform that started in Karnataka a couple of weeks ago and is now exciting and inflaming passions among people across India—young and old, infants and geriatrics, irrespective of our castes, classes, religions, races, sexes and all the other important and puerile characteristics that make us all human, inhuman, sub-human and uniquely Indian.
I weep in empathy with today’s youngsters, who are devoting so much of their time and creative energies in agitating for what they hold as their ‘religious freedoms’ to wear Hijabs and Scarves and Burqas and Shawls of assorted hues to their colleges and railing against the directives of their educational institutions and the Karnataka government that disallow them to do so.
But I also weep in remembered joy, at the realization that I and others of my age had experienced and practised much more genuine liberalism, enjoyed much more genuine freedom—of thought, of belief, of choice, of action— in our seemingly backward colleges in our seemingly primitive times, 50 years ago, than the agitated and agitating youngsters who inhabit today’s so-called Modern Mainstream India.
I studied in Shillong, Meghalaya from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s.
First, at a missionary-run boys’ school where we were taught, pretty early on, what the Uniform meant.
It meant just that: Uniformity.
Wearing the Uniform meant shedding all our conceits, all the egoistic notions we had about ourselves— our homes, our privileges, our outside lives and identities. We left all this baggage in a heap outside the school gate. In school, wearing the Uniform, we students were all the same and we were all treated the same.
We were learners, expected to learn what we’d come to learn. We were all expected to obey the school rules.
And no rule was stricter than the rule about wearing the proper Uniform…which meant complying with the strict norms regarding design, quality, pattern, and hue prescribed for everything from shoes to sweater, socks to shirt, trousers to tie to blazer.
Corporal punishment, progressing in intensity from a resounding slap to a severe caning, was the standard punishment for breaking the rules including the Uniform rule. The canes were chosen with care by the Executioner from an array of options, ranging from stout local bamboo to the incredibly flexible, excruciatingly painful Malacca cane that occupied a special place of honour in the Principal’s Office (and whose ministrations I am glad to say I escaped). The caning was administered, if you were lucky, on the palms of your hand…or else on the seat of your trousers as you helpfully if unwillingly bent over a chair.
But here’s the interesting thing: back in our time, in that school run by the strictest and most wonderful Irish Catholic missionaries, you could wear anything you felt like wearing that announced your religion or identity (or lack thereof) so long as it didn’t obscure the Uniform…and so long as you were prepared and capable of tackling the not-so-loving attentions and ragging of your colleagues.
So, in school you would see the occasional kufi caps, vibhuti marks, kadas, threads round wrists, crosses round necks, turbans, and so on…all these were just fine. The Authorities really didn’t give a damn about what religion or social stratum or whatever any of us belonged to. And because of that, all of us too very early on learned not to give a fig about what religion or social stratum or whatever any one belonged to. We studied, we played, we ate and drank, argued, raged, fought, got caned, mourned and celebrated together and as equals. Because we were taught so, we discovered and knew we were at our core all the same.
Well…that was school.
In the missionary-run college too, the Authorities were very strict about certain things: like punctuality, attendance records, class discipline, performance in the quarterly tests, and suchlike.
But we had NO UNIFORM CODE in college. Nothing was disallowed in attire; nothing was compulsory in attire.
For the simple reason that, all of us having crossed the age of 16, the Authorities treated us as reasonably sane adults, and therefore expected us to behave as reasonably sane adults in all matters including attire.
And I do believe we students kept our side of the bargain. We wore what we liked to college; I personally chose the habit of an advanced derelict (and behaved as one), which has since then become my lifestyle.
And to the best of my recollection none of us ever roamed around naked on the campus – at least not during class hours and/or when sober.
Coming back to today’s lunacy playing out over Uniform…
I am all in favour of a Strict Uniform Code in schools. Because the Uniform is an important part of creating a ‘level playing field’ in school, as it is in the military services. It helps kids shed egos and pre-conceived notions about themselves and about others, it helps them make friends and engenders team spirit, it gives them courage and wisdom to fight and win their individual and often lonely battles against prejudices and discrimination outside the campus, throughout life.
But I believe it is utter madness, sheer stupidity, for the Authorities in Karnataka or anywhere else to dictate what teenaged college students (young men and women!) should wear or not wear to campus.
For the simple reason that youngsters aged 16 years or more are maturing or fully matured; they will be opinionated and contrarian, they will be cussed, they will revel in their new-found freedom and test the boundaries of the law and the rules, they will routinely do precisely the opposite of what the Authorities in their misbegotten wisdom tell them to do.
It is Nature’s way for young adults to be like this.
To the Authorities and to the youngsters I respectfully offer a namaskaaram and a couple of suggestions that I believe will satisfy all.
To the youngsters I murmur: wear your hijabs and scarves and whatever else you like if you insist on exercising your freedom to wear your religious or secular identities on your sleeves —and on your heads and necks and shoulders and anywhere else you choose.
Only… make sure you retain the freedom to take these things off when you choose to.
To the Authorities, I say: Let these young adults be. Let them wear what they like.
But if you want them not to wear something to college, don’t ban it – instead make it compulsory to wear.
And if you want them to wear something to college, don’t make it compulsory – instead ban it.
Maybe, maybe then, the Authorities can get back to doing what they ought to be doing: improving curricula and faculty and infrastructure.
Maybe, maybe then, the youngsters can get back to doing what youngsters naturally love to do: running wild, breaking bounds, perhaps learning something in the interim, and driving each other and us crazy while taking charge of the future…which is their birthright.