In the early 1990s, Italy had a renaissance moment of sorts. The moment of inspiration emerged out of a horrendous incident where a 45-year-old driving instructor was accused of raping an 18-year-old girl. The rapist was eventually apprehended and convicted of all charges but the Italian Supreme Court subsequently overturned the conviction in 1998. One of the reasons afforded by the Italian Supreme Court for overturning the conviction was that the jeans that were worn by the victim were tight and therefore the only way to remove the jeans would have been if the victim had consented to the act.
The Italian Supreme Court stated in its decision that "it is a fact of common experience that it is nearly impossible to slip off tight jeans even partly without the active collaboration of the person who is wearing them.” This later became infamously known as the “denim defence”. While the decision and observation were only ultimately overturned in 2008, the ruling by the Court sparked widespread protests. Reacting to the ridiculousness of the comments by the Italian Supreme Court, female lawmakers in Italy called on a “jeans strike” where the lawmakers decided to wear jeans to Parliament until the decision was changed. The movement struck a chord with women all over the world such as in the United States where the California Senate and Assembly also followed suit to show their solidarity. Now, April 29, is celebrated in many countries as Denim Day by women and men who wish to show their solidarity against archaic views such as those voiced by the Italian Supreme Court in 1998.
In India too, jeans were recently in the news when the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Tirath Singh Rawat offered his views on ripped jeans and on those who wear such attire. While commenting on the fashion choices of young mothers Mr Rawat said that he was shocked to meet a young woman who ran an NGO but adorned ripped jeans and lamented that our children will be negatively affected as they are not being taught the “right culture” at home. When given a chance to clarify his statement, Mr Rawat dug a deeper hole by stating that while clothing is an individual choice, people should respect “culture and tradition”, citing the example of Rani Laxmi Bai, who fought battles in a sari.
Mr Rawat is another self-proclaimed “protector” of culture from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ranks. Another lecturer about how our culture and that of our daughter is supposed to fit into the narrow-minded thinking of middle-aged men. He is not the first from the BJP and it is no surprise to hear Mr Rawat belittle a woman who worked with an NGO that aims to help people merely because of the clothes she was wearing or to reduce the great Rani Laxmi Bai to her attire in battle. Would Rani Laxmi Bai be any less revered or respected if she adorned clothing other than a sari? On the other hand, would wear “culturally appropriate” attire wash all our sins? I wonder if Mr Rawat had a chance to interact with his BJP colleague Mr Ramesh Jarkiholi, a cabinet minister in the Karnataka BJP government who was forced to resign two weeks back, from his post after a video of him was released allegedly uncovered disgusting sex for work scandal. Or perhaps Mr Rawat can speak to BJP’s youth wing leader, Pamela Goswami, who was taken into custody over allegations of possessing around 100 grams of cocaine. One suspects that if there was a Bollywood actress involved (preferably one that has spoken about rising fuel prices), the right-wing IT team would be blasting multiple posts about our “culture” being in jeopardy and how the BJP is here to save us from being damned for life.
The truth is that our culture cannot be typecast and reduced to ridiculous things like the clothes we wear. Instead, the idea of India is, as Rabindranath Tagore eloquently put it while writing to a friend, “ against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s people from others, which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts.” Therefore, at its very core, our culture is preventing people, who have no interest in serving but only in the ruling, from creating manufactured lines of division and representing ourselves as a unified people celebrating our differences and admiring our varied cultures.
However, the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Prime Minister focus only on our differences including the different clothes that we choose to wear. And Mr Rawat is not the only “distinguished” personality to focus on our attire. He is in distinguished company with Mr Modi who once said that protestors to the Citizenship Amendment Bill “could be identified by their clothes”. If we are to believe Mr Rawat, Mr Modi might have meant ripped jeans.
The BJP through its rhetoric and its actions aims to distract us from our true nature and seeks to distort the idea of India as eloquently described by Rabindranath Tagore. There is nothing in our genes (jeans?) to suggest that such differences are to be highlighted as instances of animosity but by focusing on our differences we are being forced on a path that is contrary to our nature. Therefore, it is no surprise that India now ranks 139 out of 149 countries (behind countries like Pakistan) in the World Happiness Report. However, we rarely get the media raising questions regarding why Indians are poorer, unhappier and less upwardly mobile than before. Instead, as one Twitter humourist put it, on reading India’s position on the World Happiness Report it is quite likely that a Hindi TV anchor and well-known apologist for the BJP government may remark: “Perhaps we should give sadness a chance”. As Denim Day shows, for us to get back on track on the idea of India that we deserve, we must celebrate both ripped jeans and saris and start getting uncomfortable with the idea of self-anointed protectors of our culture.