When noise is made about dress, with specific focus on its religious nature, it is important to analyse it totally.
Frenzied discussions, debates and also writings questioning religious identity of common Indians give impression of being manipulated to spread false notions. Think again, what percentage of Indian population do individuals debating on these constitute? Not even 0.1 per cent. It is difficult to accept that religion has played no role in each and every Indian’s life, from birth to death. It is not simply the issue of their having no role in questioning religious rituals as minors and after they lose command over their lives, once reduced to lifeless bodies. Religious as well as caste identity stands out markedly in names used by practically all Indians. Yet, let us accept it, when name marks high/dominant caste and religious status of an individual, prospects of his/her changing it are not considered. Religious, caste and also to a degree regional identity of practically all is displayed through their names.
Compared to political role played by regional and caste identities, that played by religion is minimal. It is interesting, isn’t it, that frenzy exercised over regional and caste identities is hardly as aggressive as that over religious. Indian political spectrum is dotted by more regional and caste-based parties than with solely religion-oriented. So from this angle, why should religious pursuits of common Hindus and Muslims be viewed as a problem? Why should they be asked to abandon their normal religious identity? Communal extremism is a problem but in essence no true religion propagates this. There is a major difference between what each religion states and what alleged propagators state or criticise in their own interest.
Paradoxically, when “religious” perceptions as well as identity are considered “irrelevant”, according substantial importance to the same is equivalent to making mountain out of a molehill as most communal extremists do. It may be noted, practically all political parties, desperate to display their “secular” image ensure that individuals with symbols of their religious identity are present at their gatherings. And this includes burqa-clad ladies and bearded men with caps. From this angle, shouldn’t greater importance be given to political use, exploitation and also abuse of religious identity of common Indians, for no fault of their?
Democratically speaking, each Indian has the right and freedom to dress as s/he wants in keeping with prevalent social and professional ethics. The latter point applies to dress code binding on lawyers, doctors, policemen and numerous other professions across the world. Globally, social ethics are expected to be followed in keeping with the place and occasion the persons are gathered at. Women and men, fully dressed would not be objected to at any place of worship, whether church, gurdwara, mosque or temple. But reservations can be expected to be exercised if they turn up unclad or hardly dressed at same places. The same can be said about demonstrations, seminars and similar programmes. Unless, of course, demonstration of a few odd ones in some place is devoted exclusively to drawing attention to liberal aspect of their not being dressed. This should not be linked with those choosing this dress code for religious reasons or to display their economic plight.
When noise is made about dress, with specific focus on its religious nature, it is important to analyse it totally. Skull caps are linked with religion by Muslims, Parsis as well as Jews across the world, beard by Muslims, Sikhs and Parsis, burqa is used by Muslim women primarily in the subcontinent. Hijab or abaya is the term used for Muslim women covering their heads in other parts of the world. Nowadays, use of scarf has become fairly popular among young women, cutting across religious barriers, primarily for health reasons against pollution and cosmetic. Saris or chunnis (dupattas) are used to cover head and face by majority of women for religious reasons, when in company of elderly — as a mark of respect, and/or while working in the fields to fight the sun.
With specific reference to burqa, it is a tragedy that not much attention is paid to considerable number using it primarily to hide their old/torn clothes. So prior to questioning such symbols of religiosity, greater importance needs to be accorded to the importance they hold for people at the grassroots using them. Democratically, socially and, of course, constitutionally, this is imperative. But if certain sections are bent on making their stand heard — as is assumed — in the national interest, they should move a little further. That is, design a national address with Indian touch for men and women across the country: white dhoti/pyjama with kurtas for men and saris/salwar-kameez for women. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to ban colours, with religious tone, including saffron and green. Maybe, politicians must be cautioned about not displaying their religious moves, be it by extending greetings on religious occasions, sending chadars to Ajmer, visiting temples and so forth.
Naturally, the young and old cannot be expected to abandon their modern (Western) dress in preference for any national uniform. Culturally and geographically, burqa may be considered as more Indian than Western attire such as shirt-pants. Questioning its usage and that of other religious symbols is nothing else but manipulating false notions to target particular communities.
The writer is a senior journalist. She has come out with two books Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp and Image and Substance: Modi’s First Year in Office