This week, a childhood memory comes to mind. As high school students, we were sometimes asked to help 'mind' small students. These were toddlers, barely three years old, and already frightened at being put in strange new uniforms, forced to sit still on benches with dozens of other kids in the room, crying and screaming. 'Discipline' was definitely in short supply.
One of the kindergarteners was being difficult. A young (female) teacher was kneeling in front of her, asking the child to do something, or else... The teacher was saying: “Do you want to be punished? I'll take off all your clothes and parade you naked around the school.”
I was watching the child's face. She was too little to understand why taking off one's clothes should be a punishment. After all, she still needed help washing her bottom. But she did understand that she was being humiliated and threatened. As the teacher began to unbutton the loose tunic that hung down to her ankles, the child broke into a howl.
It still saddens me when I think of that kid. I was tweeting about violence against children a few weeks ago when somebody wrote back to describe the time she was punished in class – made to stand up on a bench, arms raised, a teacher threatening to strip her. Clearly, the humiliation has not been forgotten, all these years later. I wonder how many millions of people in India have been brought up to associate nudity with public humiliation, or as a negative condition that is worthy of punishment.
And now there's this little to-do about Congress-affiliated student leader Suraj Thakur being suspended for taking off his clothes and dancing. He and two other NSUI office-bearers have been accused of 'indiscipline' and of course, it is the party's prerogative to decide what it sees as disciplined behaviour. Still, it is so saddening to think that leaders who fail to keep electoral promises are not punished for 'indiscipline'. Leaders who are corrupt, who live beyond their official income, who spend hundreds of crores on weddings while their constituencies reel under drought, who misuse the state's armed machinery against farmers demanding water or land or seed soverignty, against women demanding their right to be acknowledged as human beings – none of these politicians have been suspended.
All it took was for a young man to take off his clothes and look like he's having fun. If they had accused him of ragging, the suspension would have made sense. That would have been tantamount to breaking the law. But this whole furore seems to be centred on the fact that he took off his clothes!
It's such an ordinary, innocuous thing. Taking off your clothes does no damage to other humans. Even if you take off your clothes and dance like you've been electrocuted, you still damage no human being. You come off looking silly. Some colleagues might never be able to keep a straight face when, in the future, you stand up in Parliament to debate an important Bill. But there is nothing criminal, nor even indisciplined, about being naked.
This is the trouble with an attitude of shame vis a vis the human body. We refuse to look at it for what it is – a body. This is precisely what is wrong with our nation's attitude to women. We punish women for having women's bodies. We humiliate and terrorize children. And we squash all attempts by men, especially politicians, to actually enjoy their bodies. And what does this accomplish? What, except keeping us fearful and eternally humiliated?
First published here