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West Bengal: Dress code battle

EducationWorld September 08 | EducationWorld

Industrialist Ratan Tata, whose tata motors factory at Singur near Kolkata is under siege right now (August 28), isnt the only victim of the old-fashioned politics being practiced in the eastern seaboard state of West Bengal (pop. 80.2 million), which has been — and is being — ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government for over three decades. Combining gobbledygook anti-industry Marxist economics with Victorian prudery, the Left Front government has precipitated a massive flight of capital — human and monetary — from the benighted state. Yet instead of focusing its attention upon urgent academic issues, the CPM dominated teachers fraternity is also preoccupied with trivia. As reported in these columns last month (August), a teenage girl was denied admission into the higher secondary section of her own school because she had accepted a product modelling assignment.A month later it was the turn of schoolteacher Kasturi Sen (24), employed by the government-aided Akra Krishnanagar Girls High School at Mahestala on Kolkatas southern fringes, to hit the headlines. The reason: the schools principal Dipanwita Pal insisted upon sartorial conformity as a condition of her being allowed to continue teaching. According to Pal, Sen had started wearing the popular salwar-kameez to school in breach of an informal dress code for teachers who are expected to wear the saree.
A Bengali language teacher, Sen joined the government-supported school last November. Although the school hasnt officially prescribed a dress code for teachers, Sen began her job following the standard conservative practice of wearing sarees to school. However owing to the rough and tumble of using public transport to and fro, she began travelling to work in salwar-kameez and changing into a saree before entering her classroom. This was unacceptable to Pal.
Principal Pal explains why: Consid-ering the social atmosphere and location of the school, I cannot allow anybody to come in a salwar-kameez. (NB: In conservative bhadralok (middle class) Bengal circles the salwar-kameez is regarded as ‘bold).
This unreasonable restriction imposed by the school principal has made Sen determined to assert her right to sartorial freedom. I used to bring a saree with me and change in the school before going to class. But now I insist on wearing salwar-kameez to class as well, she says. Almost everybody in the girls school supports Sen. All 23 teachers and over 1,100 students and members of the Pragatisil Siksha Mancha, a forum which fights for educational rights, have spoken up in her favour.
But with both sides, i.e. principal and teacher, sticking to their respective stands, the school managing committee was apprised of the matter. The committee summoned both Pal and Sen, and perforce had to take a soft line. There is no prescribed dress code for teachers, so we cannot take any legal action against Kasturi Sen. Nor can we stop her from taking classes as she is a government employee, says school secretary Ranjit Mondal. But Sen who is well aware that principal Pals order has no legal validity, continues to come to school and take classes in the attire of her choice.
The stand-off at Akra Krishnanagar Girls High has stirred public opinion strongly enough for the matter to reach the highest echelons of the West Bengal state administration. School education minister Partha Dey — who frequently finds mention in these columns — has taken a stand that is uncharacteristically firm. We cant tell teachers what to wear and weve never done that before, he says, making it clear that Pals order has no legal validity.
Sen seems to have won the dress code battle of Bengal.
Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)

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