The recent controversy of a private school asking a female teacher to choose between her job and the attire of abhaya (long cloak-like robe covering the body with sleeves and a zipper or knotted over the casual clothes) with a hijab has brought up the debate on the dress codes of educational institutions and their implementation.
For me, it is Zia's ghost all over again. The trail of radicalisation that started from his war room plans in 1965 and ended in the Valley in 1989, is meticulously charted by Arif Jamal in his book, Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir. Pre-89 there was no Islamic dress or Hindu dress, of course, there were conservative, orthodox or liberal families, depending where the dupatta was placed, totally covering the hair, half-covering the hair or dangling around the shoulders respectively. Post '89, the war of the narratives has spilled over to a war of the dresses.
Many people have the perception that wearing the abhaya means religious piety, forgetting that social coercion in an increasingly radicalised state will automatically give social sanction to various veils, be it the burqa, or the abhaya, or the hijab along with the face-veil. One can go through pictures of Muslim-dominated countries during the 70s and see for themselves what Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many other were like. Then if they stretch their underactive minds a bit and read the history of the '79 Revolution in Iran, the petrodollar-fueled Wahabbism, and the Afghan-Soviet war spill over into Kashmir, they can easily see the connection.
The sari was never Hindu, it was just a fashion attire that many Muslim women too wore and still do, mostly from the elite class of the ruling feudal lords of the 40s, 50s and so on. Till date sari has never been the sole propriety or representative of any particular religion just as the kameez-salwar doesn't belong to any particular region, culture or religion. But the controversy has started this imbecile argument that if a sari can be allowed on campus, so can an abhaya. Which brings us to the question of the right to religious freedom or from religion.
Every institute has their own code of conduct and rules and regulations and while signing on or when given an appointment letter, it is made clear to the candidate that there are spoken and written norms of the school like a code of conduct, actions against malpractices, indecent or rowdy behaviour or anti-national or political activities, etc. Of course, over the period of the tenure, the unspoken norms became clear gradually such as no smoking, carrying a mobile phone, too much mingling with girl students for the male teachers, and vice versa as well as no obscene or unprofessional attire. The new recruits adhere to it or not, depending on their maturity levels and their attitude towards authority. To cry foul in the midst of a tenure, in the month of Ramzan, only to whip up religious frenzy reeks of vested interest in an already conflict-ridden state between the two countries.
Where obfuscation, lies, rumours, and coercion by gun rules the day, it is a dangerous policy to pursue an agenda using private and public institutes to create a controversy. Kashmir is not new to this, be it 2008, 2010 agitations or the sporadic violence generated by the ISI-backed militants, keeping the cross-border insurgency alive or the diplomatic wars in the UN and Foreign Offices. People are aware of the political mileage that the recent coalition of the government can gain but in an era where Hindutva right wing is already generating a xenophobia against Indian Muslims, these kinds of controversies only add more to phobia and bigotry.
Nobody is seeing the other side of the controversy, the fascist diktats of dress code by the self-styled woman supremo Asiya Andrabi, and her ilk of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat in the separatist camp that have been put in place since the 90s. Nobody is allowed to complain about the bigoted coercion of one dominant religion and culture over the minorities residing in the Valley, the increased Islamization of the youth with Salafi sub-cultures coming up through increasing number of mosques and madrasas.
So a person in dire need of a job has to choose over the only handful of secular institutes in the state or a large number of Salafist-influenced ones. Isn't that violation of individual liberties? Isn't that squeezing fundamental rights and liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution? What about ''there is no compulsion in religion'' rhetoric? Where will a minority, or Muslim who doesn't want to adhere to the strict interpretation of religion, go?
Educational Institutions have to be secular, religion needs to be kept out of them. As far as the propriety rights of the owner are concerned, he or she or they are well within their rights to make up rules and set down guidelines. Owners mostly keep the religious sentiments of people in mind hence the kirpan, kada, turban of the Sikhs is allowed on campus even to the extent of the religious expression of the Amritdhari Sikhs who carry a concealed dagger or sword. Same goes for the tikka (vermillion mark) on the forehead or the ''rudraksha'' beads arm bracelet, the Christian cross and the Muslim taweez, hijab, or skull cap or beard. In the midst of all this is the tolerated abhaya, and the burqa depending on the policies of the institute.
The Indian subcontinent has developed a tolerance for the religious sentiments of its people and hence its secular and democratic institutes do not allow any ''hurting'' of those sentiments. But there is respect for the sentiments of those who do not want to follow the dominant culture also, hence, a teacher could move the courts in Mumbai about being exempted from praying during assemblies and I am not forced to wear a sari on official occasions in my workplace.
As Babu Gogineni, Director of International Humanist and Ethical Union describes this dilemma of religion and education in a very nuanced Facebook post.
His essay comes in parts which perfectly underline the stance of a democratic country like India. Schools are Not Battlegrounds For Religions; Education is Preparation for Society; Schools are for Education, not Indoctrination; No Saraswati Puja, No Namaaz, No Hosanna in Schools; India Does Not Belong to Hindus; Secularism and Minority Rights; Why Prayer At All?
I see the same battle in ideologies going on in Pakistan over the Ahmedis and the Hindus, and the fight that various brave, secular individuals are waging for the soul of Pakistan. Zia's ghost has to be laid to rest. Otherwise, both our countries will be time and again played by radical forces and brought to the brink of war and that means annihilation of both. It's time to step up resistance to bigotry and radicalism in our educational institutions and keep knowledge free of religion.