On uniforms and the dangers of forced conformism.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. I first came across that name through the Amar Chitra Katha. The ‘ACK’ pictorial book was then an integral part of a young mind’s reading material. From his animated story, one incident has stayed with me. Invited for a formal dinner at a friend’s residence, Vidyasagar is denied entry by the security guard who thinks he is an uninvited guest since he is not appropriately dressed. A little while later Vidyasagar returns attired in a suit and is promptly welcomed. When dinner is served, he directs the food not to his mouth but to the clothes he is wearing. The bewildered host asks him if there is a problem, to which he replies that he is feeding his clothes, as it was his clothes that were invited and not he.
Thanks to an advertisement for a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra, all of a sudden from the deep crevasses of my cerebellum this story popped up. The advertisement read ‘Mandatory dress code — black tie or Indian formals’. A dress code infers order, conformism, sophistication, class, recognition and exclusion. The word ‘exclude’ is derived from the Latin claudere, which means ‘to shut’. Anyone not dressed as directed can be shut out is what the ad says. Do people dress indecently when there is no dress code? Does attire define the quality of the audience? No! Yet no one thinks there is a problem. After all this was a private event and the organisers can be said to have the right to frame rules of entry. It was not enough that I bought a ticket; I had to conform to a code, a code that branded me as eligible, a code that made me worthy of entry and a code that defined my social strata. And in all this we forgot that music was the love of the evening. But this is not the only place of exclusion. Private Clubs all over the country demand a dress code. These are private conglomerates of money, influence, supremacy and privilege and all these adjectives are sewn into the dress code. The membership list will include social commentators, intellectuals, socialists, media barons, politicians; all of who demand equality and access for everyone outside the club gates. The dress code is not just about what members perceive as decent as often explained; it is about exclusion of a certain kind of people who are not seen as good enough, not ‘our kind’.
If we were to extend this question further to the idea of conformism in attire the discussion becomes complex. What about uniform in the army, police, medical services or schools? Does it instill pride, selflessness and commitment? But the uniform does something else; it makes the soldier or policeman act, reflexively, on command. It creates the illusion that the uniform is infallible and unquestionable. How much of the policeman’s authority is worn in his clothes? His tone, his body language is all about power and control and not about the people he serves. The uniform creates a thoughtless state of mind derived from the command structure, held up by attire and badges. Before I get accused of being anti-army, let me say that I am only questioning the conformist condition hidden within the uniform. It is the same psychology that is applied to the uniform in schools. A uniform on the battlefield is one thing but officers are seen so often travelling on trains, on buses, off-duty yet uniformed. It is one thing to stand out; another to stand apart. ‘But’, I hear the counter, ‘a uniform gives us a sense of belonging, unity, camaraderie; it is a symbol of who we are and what we do’. Does it really? Who we are and what we do are closely related to how we think. Does a uniform allow us to think? Or does it cap thought? Unfortunately it is that very same intellectual abdication that Mr. Rajmohan Gandhi revealed when he wore the AAP cap with the picture of Arvind Kejriwal on it. The doctor’s white coat with the serpentine stethoscope coiled around her neck, at once generates respect. True respect is for the healing the doctor represents and healing is not just a medical act. There is only one functional need for a uniform and that is recognition; yet the dangers of the code far exceed this one redeemable aspect. Forced conformism in any form is a trap; insiders celebrate it and outsiders are supposed to look up to it in some kind of stupefaction. This is true of the black-tie event, the collared shirts in the clubs, the police and school uniforms. All of them breed differentiation, exclusivity, superiority, fear and control. Is this how we want to live? Let us not make the mistake of equating uniformity with equality. Uniformity is a condition that lacks equality. It kills the individual, and disrespects the smaller collectives. It is established and enforced by the majority and hence there is nothing equal about it. This is exactly why the demand for a uniform civil code in our country is not about ‘equals’, it is about unequals.