In defence of suit, boot: They are shorn of caste trappings – unlike the dhoti, langoti or pagri


Born in the then Travancore Princely State, Mahatma Ayyankali (1863-1941) led many a social revolution. His revolt of 1893 is the lighthouse in Dalits’ struggles for self-esteem. Central to his rebellion was his dress code. He dressed like a Nair from toe to neckline, sported a white pagri. Dalit men in Ayyankali’s time, most often, wore Konakam; a loincloth paralleling north India’s langoti.

Dress code disobedience marked Dalit struggles for most part of the 20th century. In fact, the Perinad Mutiny of 1915 – mark the word ‘Mutiny’ – is the greatest known Dalit uprising when women in Perinad village of the present day Kollam district set their Kallumala ornaments on fire. Made from ugly stone pieces and wooden beeds, this jewellery worn around necks marked Dalit women’s inferior status in the then Travancore society.

With his Bhartiya Kisan Union, Mahendra Singh Tikait had evolved into an unparalleled kisan leader in the 1990s. Mostly small or marginal farmers, Dalits didn’t fit into his scheme of things. Jaipal Singh Mitharia, a Dalit, began organising Dalits under a separate umbrella. Landlords and Dalits clashed at occasions; Dalits were at the receiving end.

Tired of persecutions by the landlords, Dalits organised a meeting, Tikait joined as an arbitrator. Dalit leader Mitharia accused Tikait of siding with landlords. According to Mitharia, Tikait had sarcastically commented after the event that ‘Ek dhoti wala hai, ek langoti wala; aur langoti wala dhoti wale ko dekh kar jal raha hai’ (there is the dhoti guy, and there is the langoti guy; the langoti guys are jealous of the dhoti guys). Worn from waist to toe, dhoti spoke of caste pride. Loincloth shaped, langoti spoke of caste indignity.

Born in the Pali district countryside ML Parihar, a Dalit, is a noted veterinary doctor; at least 10 of his books are in the syllabus of veterinary schools. Parihar vividly recalls caste associated pagris; Dalits knew that they were forbidden from sporting pagris with long tails, often, longer beyond the waist. “People’s caste could be figured out by their dress, jewellery,” Parihar affirms.

Not just a purity/ pollution preservation apparatus, caste structures people’s lifestyles intensely. Caste determined what Dalits could wear, from clothes to jewellery; what they could eat. At some point of time, ghee or wheat were prohibited to Dalits. Elderly Dalits recall how Dalits’ dressing rebellions attracted the wrath of upper caste nationalists. Later when Ayyankali led his most accredited dress code defiance, a kind of dress code democracy has been realised, almost. The dress code democracy however, has not been accomplished by man; not even by the master of the time, the Angrej. It is Angrejiate that has caused the dress code democracy.

The Angrejiate isn’t language; it evolved out of the dress the Angrej wore, hats that they sported, lifestyle that they practised. The trouser, for instance, didn’t contain social hierarchy. It is either full trouser, or shorts. Lord Macaulay and his peon, both could opt for either of the two designs. The hat is a headgear anyone can deploy. The Angrejiate eliminated the Nair dress, and Konakam as well. Angrejiate sent dhoti into near extinction. Hat and caps have turned pagri into an embarrassment.

The Angrejiate hasn’t much to do with Angreji the tongue. Who understood Angreji when the Angrej set foot in India? But his Angrejiate – the suit and boot he wore – was well-understood. As the Angrej settled down, his mannerism transcended into a civilisation. The toilet the Angrej built turned into a Western object, so his cutlery, literature, sciences, machines, even drinks that Angrej fashioned. The Angrejiate turned into a civilisational issue – East-West, Poorab-Paschim. It posed an existential threat to the Hindiate that had just managed to crisscross the Vindhyas; and paused before the Satpuras.

Notionally a civilisation, the Hindiate blazes out from the womb of the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan trinity. The Hindiate is certainly not about Hindi, the tongue. Adherents of the Hindiate loathe Angrejiate as a form of Westernism; stemming from the mlecchas. To the Hindiate, Angrej is mleccha, Dalit is mleccha. The Angrejiate is thus, an evil on the land of Hindiate.

Over the past seven decades, Angrejiate sneaked into the very DNA of India. It produced an elite that adores Angrejiate, married its future with the new civilisation. The domestic mleccha – the Dalit – reclaimed his  humanity under the Angrejiate. India, post-1947, has emerged a much freer landscape to Dalits than ever before in the known history of India. For ages, the Hindiate had its knees on Dalits’ necks. Freed, Dalits can enter schools, wear caste neutral dresses, consume even ghee.

The Hindiate had almost given up post-1947, but it hasn’t died. The National Education Policy’s opposition to Angreji has as its unstated target not Angreji the tongue, but Angrejiate the civilisation. Shadowed under the NEP, the Hindiate has scared the elite and Dalits both, for the moment.

The Hindiate however, cannot halt the march of Angrejiate that is rooted in London; the Middle Kingdom of modernity. The Hindiate’s conflict with Angrejiate is a conflict with the very idea of India that millions of Indians have been dreaming for long. A war on Angrejiate is also a war on Westernism, a war on New York-London-Brisbane. The best thing the Hindiate can do is to find a museum for its well-being.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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