Why Lakshadweep residents are saying no to a change in school uniform

The decision to change uniforms is the latest in the series of controversial reforms introduced in Lakshadweep since Praful Patel took charge as Administrator.
School students in uniform in Lakshadweep
School students in uniform in Lakshadweep
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Islanders in Lakshadweep were surprised when they saw a tender document for the supply of new school uniforms circulating on social media last week. Many were aware of a proposed change in colour, but it was only when they saw the document that  they realised it was much more than that. As per the document, for girl students from Class VI to X11, salwar suits would change to stitched divided skirts and full sleeves shirts to half sleeves. The islanders, a majority of them Muslims, felt uneasy not knowing what was going on as girl students in higher classes are used to dressing modestly. Many had reservations about the sudden uniform change, which was publicised without consulting them, perhaps in the backdrop of the recent events in Karnataka, where a strict enforcement of uniform code in educational institutions resulted in exclusion of girls wearing hijab.

It was on April 8 that a tender inviting interest from dealers and manufacturers for supply of readymade uniforms along with samples, signed by Rakesh Singhal, Director, Education, Union Territory of Lakshadweep was floated. Six-column tables contained specifications for readymade uniforms: stitched skirt for girls up to class 5 and stitched divided skirt for the higher classes; half sleeve shirts, ties and belts for all. Boys graduated from half pants in the lower classes to full ones in classes above 5. Existing uniform had girls in the primary school wearing skirts and full sleeve tops, while the older ones wore salwar suits.

“They didn’t consult any of the stakeholders – the local politicians or the parents. There was a discussion earlier about changing the colour of the uniform, which had been blue and white for a long time. We had also proposed a few patterns. There was no reply to any of that, and suddenly they floated a tender which mentioned new uniforms,” says LG Ibrahim, District Panchayat Member, Minicoy.

The tender specifies that uniforms will be ‘readymade’ clothes and Ibrahim wonders how the authorities can decide on this without knowing the measurements of the children. “How can one size fit all? All the changes are decided by the Administrator, the Education Secretary or the Director, none of whom are from the Dweep (Lakshadweep). They don’t know our ways, our culture,” Ibrahim says.

Children have also not gone to school for a long time due to Covid-19. Even after classes began after a long break, the school hours were reduced since many contract teachers were let off during the pandemic, Ibrahim adds.

Nizamuddin, another district panchayat member from Kavaratti and NCP leader, says that the administration has mostly been acting in an autocratic manner since Praful Patel took charge in May last year. That was the time a series of reforms were imposed on the island, triggering protests. This included land reforms, a beef ban and lifting prohibitions on the sale of liquor, among other changes not acceptable to the residents. They see the uniform change as another nail in the coffin.

Watch: Why Lakshadweep residents were against the new reforms

“They have been autocratic, without holding any consultations. All such changes in uniform usually happen under the district administration. After the notice came, various political parties and organisations have written to the Administration, registering their opposition,” says Nizamuddin. 

Around 20 schools across the various islands of Lakshadweep will be affected by the change, he reckoned.

An official source confirmed that a change in uniform has been proposed. The source also says that there is so much concern among the islanders because it is a Muslim majority community, following a certain dress code, and many could not come to terms with the idea of their girls switching to ‘modern uniforms’.

The girls too are not willing to go to school in the new uniform, says Haseena, a parent. “All the parents I know are opposed to the idea. And most of our girls are too. My daughter is entering Class IX next year and we are all waiting for the school to reopen to take the issue forward. She and other girls in the neighbourhood say that they wouldn’t go to school wearing the divided skirts and half sleeve shirts,” Haseena says.

They are also concerned whether the uniform code would interfere with the Islamic practice of wearing a ‘thattam'. Most senior girls wear a shawl loosely around the head, not necessarily the mafta (pinned hijab). Media reports suggest that there will be no hard and fast rule against the wearing of hijab since it is a Muslim majority population. The concern follows from the hijab ban suddenly imposed at the end of last year and fought by girls and young women in other parts of the country, especially in Karnataka. Hundreds of girls have lost out on education, missing classes and exams because they are not allowed to wear the hijab inside the campus. Going to court had also not helped their case so far.

“In the order, there is no mention of mafta or thattam (shawl) that the older girls wear around their head. It is also not clear if they mean half skirts or full skirts. This proposal asking girls to switch to skirts and half sleeves has hurt the sentiments of the people following the local Islamic culture. No people’s representative, no panchayat member or local politician, not even the parents association was consulted before they decided on the change. Letters protesting against the move to change uniforms have been written by all political parties (except the ruling one) and organisations,” says Lukmanul Hakeem, a parent and CPI(M) secretary.

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