Why are people interpreting Kiruba Shankar’s indignation against dress codes as some sort of heroism?

A prominent blogger and media consultant in Chennai Kiruba Shankar was earlier this week taken aback on being told that he would not be allowed to deliver a scheduled guest lecture at a college he had just arrived at. Why? Because he was wearing jeans, which like in many colleges in Chennai, are against dress code.

Being something of a celebrity in the social media circles, Mr Shankar made sure this strange incident did not go unnoticed. His Facebook post describing the experience had close to 550 shares and over 270 comments at the time of writing this article.

How dare they!

Almost all of the comments below the post and below the news report of the incident were very supportive. After all, how could one not be supportive of a man who tried to remind the college authorities that he was there “because of my experience and the value I can add to the lives of their students”, but was turned away by the college which maintained that “their rules were more important than anything else.”

People were aghast at the college’s outdated attitude and their lack of respect for guests. Most of Mr. Shankar’s followers seem to have interpreted his walking out as some sort of heroic act against mindless rules. “Did someone say Happy Independence Day!” some scoffed, “What happened to Athithi Devo Bhava (Sanskrit for ‘Guest is god’)?” questioned others.

Only a handful noticed something fundamentally wrong with this outrage.

What is his problem, really?

I wonder what would have happened if the college had allowed Mr. Shankar to proceed with the lecture in jeans despite the dress code? Would he still have protested and spoken out against the imposed freedom curbs on the students. I suppose I must give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m pretty skeptical.

I’m skeptical because Mr. Shankar’s reaction to the incident indicates to me a bruised ego rather than any genuine caring for the freedom of the students.

According to the report, he was offered formal clothes to change into but he had refused to do so. Now this could have pissed anyone off, but it was the way Mr. Shankar tried to make himself look like a wounded hero that I found rather absurd.

In his Facebook post, he says:

“As I walked back to the cab, I felt offended. But more than that, I felt very sorry for the students who were made to sit waiting in the hall. They were the losers for no fault of theirs… My intention is to convince the top management to be more accommodating and put the students' interest first instead of lame rules.”

I’m sorry but I’m not buying that, Mr. Shankar. If you actually felt sorry for the students and were interested in changing the system that you speak out so vehemently against, then you should have complied with the rules and then talked about the unsavoury experience in your talk.

Surely that would have caused some well-deserved blushes among the college management and provoked them to re-think their policies. You should have had the humility to follow the rules that everyone in the campus was following and expressed your distaste for it to the audience. You should not have walked out because of the unwillingness of the authorities to give you special treatment.

“It (dress codes) defeats the purpose of entrepreneurship. You cannot impose your dress code rules on a visiting entrepreneur.”

This statement he makes in a news report confuses me further. What exactly does he have a problem with? If it is the fact that his personal freedom was imposed upon, then why can’t you be honest about it? Why act like your issue is the larger fact that such regressive rules exist in the first place.

If dictate you must, then dictate them all

I have no respect for colleges that have inexplicable dress codes but I would have even less respect for them if they were selective in imposing the code. For the fact that this particular college did not succumb to placing the guests’ importance higher than that of their students, for this fact alone, I hold a twisted kind of respect for this college. Sure they were being unreasonable, but at least they were uniformly unreasonable, right?

If colleges think that a rule is not important enough to be imposed on everyone equally, then what is the reasoning behind enforcing that rule on anyone at all?

Of course it was quite tactless of them if they forgot to inform the guest of the rules beforehand, as Mr. Shankar claims (the college denies this). But again, by complaining about this, is he suggesting that if they had informed him beforehand, he would have turned down the invite? Or would he have ditched the denim; his strong beliefs about dress codes “defeating the purpose of entrepreneurship” never having had to come to play?

I totally support the outrage against regressive college rules that persist in our country but I can’t quite fathom this outpour of sympathy for the influential Mr. Shankar, who in my opinion squandered the perfect opportunity to cause some real change and resorted instead to a rant on social media.

He may have succeeded in making the college look bad; he may end up getting a profuse apology; RMD Engineering College may in the future welcome their guest lecturers even if clad only in Speedo shorts, but I doubt much good will come out of this for the category of people who are actually suffering, the category of people whose welfare Mr. Shankar is pretending to hide his self-importance under – the students.

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )