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Kolkata: After footpaths, lamp posts and flyovers, all government school uniforms in West Bengal will now be coloured in chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s favourite shades: white and blue.
A notification has been sent to all government, government-aided and government-sponsored schools asking them to adhere to the order from pre-primary level to Class 8. The logo of ‘Biswa Bangla’ – a branding of the state which is also Banerjee’s brainchild – will also be part of the uniform.
For boys, the dress code would be white shirts and navy blue full or half pants. For girls, from pre-primary to Class 5, it will be white shirts and navy blue tunics. For classes 6 to 8, the schools have been given the options to choose between white kameez and navy blue salwar and navy blue kameez and white salwar.
“From now on, all state-run schools will have the same colour coded uniform and the state government logo – Biswa Bangla – on them,” the notification, issued on March 14, said. Sources in the school education department told The Wire that the entire project was chief minister Banerjee’s idea.
The decision has drawn sharp criticism from a large section of the society which feels the order is uncalled for and unacceptable. Uniforms are an indispensable part of a school’s identity, history and heritage, and more importantly, help identify school students as such.
The uniforms of many schools in Bengal have become iconic over the years – the orange colour of Kolkata’s Kamala Girls’ School, the grey trousers of Jodhpur Park Boys’ School, the bottle green trouser and tie of Cooch Behar Jenkin’s School, the khaki pants of Ballygunge Government School or Purulia Zilla School and so on.
The logic behind the move offered by the government is that the new uniforms will be made by local self-help groups (SHG) which will generate employment for them. Names of local SHGs have already been sent to all schools and madrasas and a detailed ‘chronological flow of process’ with deadlines signed by the chief secretary has been sent to local administrative officials.
It is not clear how a common uniform will aid the process of empowering SHGs when the government could have directed institutions to get uniforms stitched by local groups, without changing their colours.
In addition, the words ‘Biswa Bangla’ and its logo are generally used on all state government paper works, on the dais and publicity materials for state programmes. They are also visible on government installations and buildings. But to make it mandatory for schools uniforms can be seen by many as a forcible and unnecessary exercise of state power.
Author and songwriter Chandril Bhattacharya dwelt on these ramifications of the move, while fully supporting the government’s interest in supporting SHGs. He said apart from the practical problems like difficulty in identifying a school in a large gathering, there is another aspect that concerned him.
“Any kind of uniform is a symbol of loyalty. And if the uniform is decided by the government, there could be a subtext in the decision; that of subtly demanding allegiance to the state, and by extension to a particular political party. A government worth its salt should look to celebrate heterogeneity in all its forms and expressions. Any attempt at homogenising a large mass and forcing on them a colour or a logo chosen by the government is not entirely acceptable. It might not immediately look atrocious, but in the long run it may lead to something else, i.e., a more blatant demand for subservience,” he told The Wire.
Jadavpur Vidyapith, a well-known state-run school in Kolkata, has had an all-white uniform since its inception. Debalina Chakravorty, an alumna and now assistant professor at St. Xavier’s University, said she would be sorry to see her school uniform change without any pressing reason. “Every time I wear white, it makes me think of my school days. Every time I see present students of my school, I identify them with the uniform. The white skirt and top is part of the school’s identity and my childhood,” she said.
Presidency University professor Sumit Chakraborty expressed similar opinions. He told The Wire that he was against the move because it will compromise the individuality of institutions. “Many schools across West Bengal have their individual identities marked by their uniforms, among other things. Local micro-histories, stories of survival against odds, ideologies, local sentiments or memories are often associated with their choice of uniform. The government has no business meddling with that,” he said.
Educationist Pabitra Sarkar sees this exercise as ludicrous and meaningless, not only because uniforms give an institution its identity, but also because of the plain fact that there are so many real issues in the state, particularly in the field of education, that need to be addressed urgently.
“There is no rhyme or reason behind the move. It seems the government has nothing to do, so has found this absurd idea, whereas the reality is the whole education system of the state needs meaningful positive steps. Recruitment in schools, for example, is one area where the government has failed miserably. I strongly feel the government should not interfere in the choice of uniforms,” he told The Wire.
Sarkar hinted at the state’s miserable records in recruitment of staff in government schools ever since the Mamata Banerjee government has come to power. Recently, three separate CBI probes have been ordered by the Calcutta high court into allegations of large-scale corruption in appointment and hundreds of out-of-turn or illegal appointments have been cancelled.
The Bengal state unit of All India Students’ Federation has filed a public interest litigation in the high court, challenging the government decision on school uniforms. A division bench of Chief Justice Prakash Sribastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj is likely to hear the case later this month.
The Government School Teachers’ Association on Thursday wrote to the chief minister requesting her to reconsider the decision, The Telegraph has reported.
The Wire tried multiple times to reach out to the state education minister Bratya Basu and the principal secretary, department of school education, Manish Jain for their comments, but failed to get a response. This report will be updated as and when they get back.