From where I sit: If the robes fit...

April 22, 2010

Just when you think that things will get serious, suddenly they become absurd.

On 1 April, the Right to Education Act in India was implemented, which makes school education a fundamental right for all children aged between 6 and 14. But rather than the finer points of the act being debated, what hogged public attention were contestations about convocation robes.

The debate was sparked when Jairam Ramesh, the minister of environment and forests, chose to publicly discard the maroon and gold gown he was wearing at a convocation of the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal. Describing it as an impractical colonial relic, he asked: "Why can't we have a convocation ceremony in simple clothes?"

Newspapers and news channels had a field day, carrying the views of vice-chancellors, students, politicians and people from all walks of life on whether the ceremonial gown should be abandoned.

Discarding everything colonial, as many pointed out, would mean the end of parliamentary democracy, the postal system and the use of the English language itself. Others highlighted less sensible elements of the colonial legacy, such as the code "VT" - short for "Viceroy's Territory" - which continues to be used as the registration code for aircraft in India.

Among vice-chancellors, Laxman Chaturvedi of Guru Ghasidas University, a new central university in Chattisgarh, declared that the state's traditional dress would be worn during its first convocation on 26 April. This, incidentally, is what the Visva-Bharati University in Bengal has always done.

Visva-Bharati was founded in British India by the Indian litterateur Rabindranath Tagore who, in 1913, became the first non-Westerner to be awarded a Nobel prize.

At convocations at Visva-Bharati, neither the chancellor, who happens to be the prime minister of India, nor the vice-chancellor wears academic robes.

Will other universities discard this practice? Unlikely, it seems to me, and this is not because they haven't discarded colonial insignia.

The first seal, for instance, of my employer, the University of Delhi, was marked by the Crown and the Latin motto Scientia et Mores ("Knowledge and Character"). At independence, a proposal was mooted for a new university seal with a motto in Sanskrit and the Devanagari script, translated as "Loyalty, Courage, Truth". This was mooted not by an Indian but a Briton, Maurice Gwyer, vice-chancellor of Delhi from 1938 to 1950.

But the reason why convocation robes are unlikely to be discarded has to do with the fact that, unlike the Crown insignia, they are not particularly alien to our practices. Indians habitually "dress up" for all manner of occasions, from festivals to weddings, even on visits to temples and fairs. Wearing academic robes is simply another manifestation of this practice. It gels well with the norms that make "fancy" dress so normal in India.

Equally, academic clothes are markers of university hierarchy. At Delhi, the deans of various faculties can easily be distinguished from the heads of department because their scarlet gowns are marked by gold lace. In much the same way, the chancellor's purple velvet gown features four-inch gold lace, as compared with the mere two inches on the vice-chancellor's gown.

Why should such markers of identity seem foreign to people in whose social and religious lives similar markers of caste and difference can be observed?

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