Mumbai’s Religiously Oppresive School Uniforms

During a recent visit to India’s greatest city, Mumbai, I had the chance to speak to a few Swaminarayan devotees in an area commonly referred to as “Proper Mumbai”. In the course of conversation I came to learn that their elementary-school-aged children were being harassed by a teacher because they wore their tilak-chandalo* to schools. They were being hit over the head and ridiculed among other things. Once, during an exam, a teacher even walked over to take a swipe at a kids forehead hoping to smudge or spread the mark of his faith. I was appauled that teachers in such a supposedly civilized city and at a respectable private school would act in such a way.

Of course, I soon discovered that the reason for such rash actions was that the school, like many private secular schools in Mumbai, has a uniform code which prohibits students from wearing any religious symbols in public. Meaning if you’re a Christian you can’t have your cross on the outside of your shirt, if you’re a Sikh you can’t have your hair tied up in a pagh or bun, if you’re a Muslim you can’t wear a hat or headscarf. In essence, you should cleanse yourself of your faith’s marks before entering school. I was a bit stunned to say the least. As I tried to understand the policy and my reaction my mind focused on the following thoughts:

1. What is the purpose of a school uniform? I’ve always heard it’s to assure an environment focused on learning. It stops the genders from peacocking themselves to each other with unspoken contests about who has the coolest, most expensive, or most revealing clothes. It stops people from wearing gang symbols that lead to battles on school grounds. So maybe this policy was also meant to make sure that there were no fights in school over student’s religions. I can see how one might wish to do that. But the fact is, I’ve yet to come across any epidemic of fights caused by religious hatred in Mumbai’s schools – including those without such policies. Is it really necessary to make religious symbols the equivalent of gang signs in private schools? And isn’t taking the idea of uniformity to such an extreme of erasing any traces of personal identity just another form of zealotry (albeit nonreligous)? This position makes even less sense when one considers that institutions that value discipline alot more that elementary schools, institutions like the military in which discipline is the difference between life and death, don’t ban such benign marks like the tilak chandalo. Members of the BAPS fellowship are well aware of the example of Prakash Mehta – a satsangi who was supported by a military court in wearing his tilak-chandalo while serving in the Ameican Army.¬†Interestingly the school’s policy only applies to students. I asked a man who teaches at the school where those kids studied what he would do if Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, came to visit his school. He said, of course Mr. Singh would be allowed to wear his turban. The rules are only for kids. Why is that? If religious symbols are so potent and distracting, why shouldn’t anyone who enters the school grounds be stripped of their religious identity as well? On the one hand, we accept as a fact of life, if not with pride, that our nation’s Prime Minister is a conspicuous Sikh and on the other hand we insist our children should not have to deal with conspicuous faith. That doesn’t sound like good policy; it sounds like hypocrisy.

2. There is also the question of what such a policy teaches children about faith. It is hard not to see such policies as overt efforts to promote the lack of faith in children. Schools are institutions of learning. They hold a place of respect and honour in our communities. When schools ban religion from their compounds, they essentially send a message the religion is not a thing welcome in respectable and honourable society. They implicitly teach children to be ashamed of their faith and practice it only in hiding away from the public eye. Some people may just call this secularism, but I disagree. This flavour of secularism, as practiced in nations like France, has lot led to more and more segregation and hostility. On the other hand, I grew up in a secular nation, in America, and I wore my tilak chandalo proudly and was often encouraged by my Caucasian Christian peers to do so. So this isn’t just a secular effort to bring peace and goodwill; it’s a dangerous policy because…

3. It means the school is not serving it’s purpose – to educate the future citizens of the world; it¬†shows that the school is failing at one of its main missions – to prepare these children for the “real world”. The communities these child citizens and future leaders live in will certainly be pluralistic societies. They will see and interact with Prime Ministers who are overtly Sikhs and businessmen who are conspicuously Muslim. They will be dealing with people from different cultures from around the globe and if they can’t learn to tolerate each other, understand each other, and cooperate with each other, you will have created just a new order of extremists.

The long and short of it is this. There is a trend in private education in Mumbai that is working against the religious freedom that true secularism includes; there is a rising tide trying to relegate religion to shameful recesses away from society. And something must be done. People with means and minds should be talking about this policy in a real open debate and working to expunge this policy. And for people without means but with minds: they should use their hearts and minds to make powerful decisions like changing schools and enrolling their children in their fellowship’s version of Sunday school or bal mandal to assure that while receiving a “world-class education” their children are not falling prey to the false-secularist who wish to wash them of their moral and spiritual values.

*the tilak-chandalo is a religious mark applied by Swaminarayan devotees ont heir forehead. It consists of a large U made from sandalwood paste with a filled red circle in the center made from vermillion.