On the same day that this paper carried Asim Ali’s article, “Imprisoned minds” (Oct 29), there was a report of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, mooting the idea of “one nation, one police uniform”. I found a strange connection between the two. Ali’s essay was about the Indian school system failing to promote liberal thinking. At one point, he wondered why a student didn’t ask why it was necessary to march in schools. This got me thinking about uniforms and oneness on the one hand, and discipline and regimentation on the other. Modi argues that states have been rendered borderless by technology, so, in this case at least, individual identities of states could be disregarded in favour of one uniform. I doubt that this idea would be welcomed.
The innocuous uniform signifies other things besides ‘oneness’. It represents discipline, which helps the leader, in no small measure, to keep his hold over people. Discipline, in turn, means different things to different people. Schools, for instance, sometimes churn out, in the name of discipline, passive young people who, far from daring to dissent, aren’t even allowed to question authority. The good conduct medal usually goes to obedient students who dutifully see that the student body is never out of line. Hence, Ali’s contention about Indian schools not producing liberal thinkers.
Some schools try to produce ‘free thinkers’, but I am told that the outcome is somewhat ‘weird’. I have not had the opportunity to study this ‘weirdness’ but I have been thinking about a vice-chancellor’s recent question to a roomful of school heads: “What happens to your beautifully disciplined students once they enter college?” Perhaps, it was sudden, unfettered freedom at work. If schools wish to prepare citizens of a democratic country, they must avoid extreme regimentation and give students adequate freedom, which they must be taught to handle responsibly.
Returning to the topic of one uniform, it may generate a feeling of oneness as the prime minister dearly wants and it may present an image of equality, but it is also about regimentation and not just discipline. Some schools give students a choice. For instance, the skirt (or trousers) remains the same but the shirt may be selected from a range of school colours but all of them would have the school logo emblazoned on them. This freedom of choice— although limited — helps students express individuality within the system.
A uniform is usually worn with great pride but not when it is imposed forcibly. Even in the army, a soldier is proud of wearing the uniform of his own specific battalion. When students are permitted on special days to attend school in attire of their own choice, the whole atmosphere becomes charged with the spirit of joie de vivre.
Autocratic individuals in places of power tend to start behaving like dictators. Such leaders usually possess irresistible charisma, practically mesmerising a whole people into doing their bidding. Some heads of schools, too, begin to rule their worshipful students (and compliant colleagues) with an iron hand and feel very pleased with themselves when they are commended for the excellent discipline of their institution. Such headmasters are often described as ‘legendary’. Their old students remember them gratefully for the caning they received which made them disciplined yet left them unscarred and contributed towards making them the successful men they are today. In this context, it is useful to remember Michel Foucault, who compared the control exercised by the Western-style public school to the “the disciplinary ordering in prisons”. In other words, schools, like prisons, “repel the assertion of individual rights”. Ali believes that the internalisation of values by students, which results in a “soul crushing” conformity, happens through an entrenched system of reward and punishment rather than the curriculum.
Many will not agree with this view. It is perhaps not a bad thing to march in uniform to the rhythm of the school band as long as the school system recognises that some children hear the beat of a different drummer and the preoccupation with ‘oneness’ is set aside to listen to individual voices.
Devi Kar is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta