In a circular released in early June, the University Grants Commission (UGC) asked all affiliated public and private universities to adopt ceremonial robes made out of Indian handlooms for their convocation ceremonies. The commission asked for an ‘Action Taken Report’ from the universities regarding the same.
The circular referred to a letter from 2015 in which Prime Minister Modi had advised colleges to make the change. Citing the revival of the Indian handloom industry as the foremost reason, the letter added that such a switch would bring a sense of pride and would be more comfortable in hot and humid weather.
A direct implication of this could be the complete removal of the black, western ceremonial robe and mortarboard.
Some faculty members support this new guideline. “Having Indian style clothes is not a bad thing. It’s more in keeping with our climate and our general ethos in the country. Sometimes, it looks very awkward to see people wearing robes, hats and caps, which are rather colonial – this will just be nice,” said Dr Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, Visiting Professor, IIT Delhi.
Speaking on how it would affect the students, he said, “They should be relieved that they don’t have to go out and hire a separate set of robes – it’s one less thing to do, one less expense.”
Calling the western garb a ‘relic from the past’, a professor at the private university said, “I don’t mind this change, as a visible symbol of the fact that the pedagogy and the process of education in India – as in all post-colonial countries – should not be built on a Western hemisphere-centric model.”
Dr Charulata Singh, Dean, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies also supports the move. She said, “We need to follow our own cultures and traditions and be proud of it. Many universities in India are already following it.”
After the 2015 UGC guideline, many institutions of higher education, including IITs of Kanpur and Bombay, introduced traditional attire for convocation ceremonies. In 2018, JNU’s second convocation ceremony, held after 48 years, mandated everyone present to wear white Indian attire.
However, the ceremony was boycotted by the JNU Student’s Union in protest against the alleged “systematic destruction of the campus” by the VC.
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But a professor from Delhi University raised some concerns. She said, “I have a problem with this ‘sense of pride’. Everything we do is being disciplined and conditioned towards ‘nationalistic pride’ and ‘being Indian’. I have an issue with this forced nationalism – now do we need to see it in clothes also? India is not a homogenous country. There are many traditions and creating a single narrative for everything is not a positive approach.”
Krithi Ramaswamy, a second-year Sociology student at Hindu College had a similar opinion about the intent of this move and said, “The whole ‘one country, one attire’ bit sounds eerily similar to something else.”
Another problematic side of this step is the potential lack of choice for the students to wear what they want. “The issue I have is with my free will to dress in whatever formal attire I want, not something that is forced on me in what could be an apparent attempt to ‘saffronise’ places of higher learning. The circular is also too vague and open-ended for me. Say, what happens if a student doesn’t want to wear Indian traditional [attire], will the UGC force the University to not confer a degree on that particular student?” said Shauryavardhan Sharma, a second-year History and International Relations student at Ashoka University.
Finding common-ground, Surmayi Khatana, a second-year political science student at Miranda House said, “The students can wear any article of clothing that they desire under their western robes, which won’t be an option if this decision comes into practice. Promotion of ‘Indian handloom’ and use of the robes are not mutually exclusive, both of them can co-exist as practices.”
Pranjal Asha, a recent graduate from Miranda House said, “I chose to wear a saree at my farewell, same as the rest of my batch. But, when you’re enforcing it on me, that changes the entire dynamic – you’re taking away my freedom to wear what I want on the day that belongs to me.”
She added, “I absolutely feel this guideline is nonsense. UGC doesn’t have time to address the issues of ad hoc professors; the cut-offs are still high, DU is under the stress of being privatised, students are protesting for basic rights and all they care about is what we wear on our convocation?”
Finally, there is no denying that in this post-liberation era, we grew up on a diet of Western college shows, where an almost iconic scene is one when graduating seniors throw their mortarboard hats at the end of the ceremony. Shauryavardhan Sharma, much like the other students, called it an experience he wants to partake in.
But as Dr Ramaswamy pointed out, at a recent convocation he attended, it was awkward to see these kids throwing their shawls. “That doesn’t quite have the same effect. No spin,” he said.
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