Clothes are deeply embedded in the regional and cultural framework of India. But today, they are being used for something far more sinister — religious profiling.
Certain clothing items are categorically unsafe to wear in this country because they make you easy targets, as the recent train incident in Jhansi with Christian nuns has proved.
Most church groups are already abuzz with directives for safety toolkits for nuns and priests. Some are even advising them not to step out in their habits unless absolutely necessary.
In todays’ political climate, being different is increasingly being conflated with being ‘dangerous’. Hence, something as obviously different as a Christian habit worn by nuns seems to have become an instant trigger for self-styled crusaders and vigilantes.
The Christian nuns and postulants were harassed by Railway personnel and members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS. The two nuns were travelling aboard the Haridwar-Puri Kalinga Utkal Express, when the men asked them to get down and falsely accused them of indulging in forceful conversion.
As Father Jacob G. Palackappilly, spokesperson of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference, explained, incidents like this have become a common occurrence in India.
In the past few years, especially, wearing certain items of clothing have become risky. One has to think multiple times before stepping out in anything that may suggest that you are different. An obvious example of this are skullcaps — there is an instant source of discomfort, which has been steadily influenced by bigoted media, when one sees a man with a skullcap on. More often than not, it leads to cases of violence and hate crimes. Similarly, there have been many instances of the Sikh community being targeted for appearing visibly different due to their turbans.
The incident in Jhansi proves that this is also the case with the Christian habit — worn by priests and nuns as a physical expression of their commitment to the faith. Ironically, the idea of a habit, among other things, is to make your appearance more austere, genteel, and therefore non-threatening.
Instead, it is now being used as a marker to channel religious hate.
Christians in India have always occupied a tenuous position. Their proportion in the country’s population is small enough to be non-threatening, but as a Christian child, you are taught to keep your head down from an early age.
This is the golden rule, you don’t trouble others and they won’t trouble you.
The predominant religious clash in this country has always been between Hindus and Muslims. But that has not stopped religious hatred and othering to extend to Christians either. While the hate is not as overt as for Muslims (most times), it is very much prevalent.
We are seen as the ‘other’ — western imports or trash converts. Every Christian has been called a ‘rice bag convert’ — a slur used to target Indian Christians for allegedly converting to Christianity for a bag of rice. Churches are also always trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, even during celebrations like Christmas, to avoid trouble with local people or authorities.
And now, it looks like Christian nuns and priests will have to be extra careful while travelling in public because their habits are easy markers of their religious identity.
This is, of course, not the first time that habits have been used to profile and target Christians in India. It was the foremost way of targeting people during the 2008 Kandhamal riots in Odisha. There was such a palpable fear of wearing the habit that my school principal, a nun, had to wear regular clothes to visit Orissa after the riots to help the victims there.
Clothes have always been used to stereotype minorities and have acted as triggers for majority populations.
In the US, a Black man wearing a sweatshirt or baggy clothes is instantly seen as dangerous. In fact, according to a study, most people assume that a poorly dressed person is more likely to be Black, while a well-dressed person is most probably White.
Similarly, a Muslim woman in a hijab is seen as the most oppressed individual on Earth, even if she herself doesn’t think so. Or a Christian habit, that seems to instantly ring alarm bells about alleged forceful conversions. This has very successfully created a fear psychosis.
If one thinks about it, however, this is really a natural progression of things. After all, our prime minister very explicitly encouraged profiling himself when in 2019 he said that those indulging in arson “can be identified by their clothes”, while accusing the Opposition of fuelling violence over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
And people are now doing exactly that — identifying the other by their clothes.
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