First Person

Social apartheid: I was barred from entering a Kolkata mall because I was wearing a dhoti

Filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak writes about his experience at Quest Mall on Saturday.

On Saturday, I was denied entry into Kolkata’s Quest Mall because I was wearing a dhoti and kurta. This was not the first time I have been stopped from entering a place because of my clothes. In the past 26 years that I have been wearing a dhoti and kurta as a political statement, there have been a number of times I have been discriminated against and profiled because of my attire. I have been denied entry in neo-colonial clubs in Kolkata as well as restaurants and upmarket-gated apartment complexes in Mumbai. Over the years, I have refused to go to places that discriminate on the basis of clothes. This is an intolerant practice and reeks of cultural and social apartheid.

However, when I was denied entry into the upmarket Kolkata mall over the weekend, I was profoundly upset. I have never had problems in entering malls anywhere in India. I have also been to Quest Mall many times earlier in the same attire, to watch movies and eat at their restaurants. So I was taken aback when I was stopped and categorically told that I would not be permitted inside because I was wearing a dhoti.

When I questioned them, the security guards at the gate who stopped me said, “We have been ordered by the higher-ups that people in dhotis and lungis are not allowed.” It was only when I argued in English that I was allowed to go in. I was dismayed and I demanded to meet the management. A couple of security personnel spoke to me, but were not able to give a clear explanation. All they said was that they have explicit orders to not allow people with dhotis and lungis into the mall as they were a security risk. This was appalling and inexcusable.

When we got back from the mall, my companion Debleena Sen, who had witnessed the ordeal, decided to write about it on Facebook. The post unexpectedly went viral. Very soon, news outfits, journalists, and television channels were calling us.

Upon learning of the incident, journalists who questioned the management of Quest Mall were informed that there is no dress code, but certain liberties were given to security person to prevent people from entering the mall who can “annoy other customers”. They also mentioned that I was held for just 20 seconds, which is absolutely incorrect. I was held for more than few minutes.

However the question is not how much time I was held up for before I could protest, assert myself and then be satisfactorily profiled and let in. The question is: why was I held up in the first place, when I was dressed adequately? Why and how did clothing become a marker of social and cultural segregation for a public space like a mall?

Temples of discrimination

Here, it is important to talk about the spatial politics of Quest Mall. This purportedly exclusive mall in Kolkata is located in the Muslim-majority neighborhood of Park Circus, which has a large population of underprivileged working-class people. They are evidently marked with their clothing: lungis and dhotis.

There is an unwritten rule to prevent these so-called lower-class people from entering an elite place. This is unashamedly intolerant and bigoted.

The problem, however, is more sinister than it appears on the surface. Neo-colonial clubs, elite restaurants, gated apartment complexes and now upmarket malls have become the temples of prejudice in modern India. Like the dogmatic temples of ancient India, they unabashedly practice discrimination and oppression.

However, instead of the caste discrimination followed in Hindu temples, these architectures of neo-liberal India discriminate by class. Just as Dalits were not (and in many instances, still are not) allowed to enter temples, the poor and the marginalised, marked by their dhotis and lungis, are not let into these elite, privileged architectures of inequality.

Quest Mall is essentially a civic market place and if a public space like this follows social and cultural segregation, then it poses is an ethical crisis not just for the establishment that runs the space, but also for the state that allows such discrimination and the society we live in.

Journalists have asked me if I seek an apology from the mall authorities. I do not. If the management of Quest Mall has any self-respect, it would tender an apology to the society that it attempts to serve and not just to me. I represent hundreds and thousand of those who have been denied the basic civil right of peaceful coexistence in a public place on the basis of mere perception!

Around the world

Before I end, it’s important to mention that since 1999, I have been dividing my time between India and the US. I studied at one of the most prestigious universities in world (Stanford University) and taught at another (Yale University). For the past seven years, I have been working as a professor at University of Rhode Island.

As a filmmaker, I have travelled to many parts of the world. In all these years, I have assiduously worn dhoti (weather permitting) and kurta. I do not have a single instance of discrimination outside of India to report. I have taught at these universities wearing dhoti and kurta, I have walked in their hallowed corridors, I have addressed theatres full of people where I’m the only person dressed this way. But I have never been differentiated against on the basis of how I look and what I wear.

I am monumentally distraught that in my city, among my own people, I have been insulted, discriminated and victimised. In a society, when bigotry, intolerance and prejudice reaches such an obnoxious level that appearance becomes a reason for oppression, there is a severe crisis not just of the state, society but that of the civilization we are part of.

I protest not because I feel my constitutional right as an Indian citizen has been violated. I protest because my humanness has been desecrated.

The writer is a film-maker, and professor in film/media at Harrington School of Communication, University of Rhode Island

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