Last week, students at Jamia Millia Islamia protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens took to the streets without their shirts despite the harsh Delhi winter. Their bare body demonstration on December 16 was a response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inflammatory remark that the people protesting the citizenship initiatives could be identified by their clothing – a gauche reference to Muslims.

Modi’s statement was an attempt to create the impression that only Muslims were demonstrating against the new law, which introduces a religious criterion to Indian citizenship for the first time. He was also trying to solidify the notion that the protests have uniformly been violent, playing to popular stereotype.

By shedding their clothes, the students at Jamia attacked his claims.

Contrary to the perception Modi tried to advance, the demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens – which prima facie ignore the Constitutional right to equality – are not limited to the Muslim community. In fact, they started in Assam and the North East. The protestors come from myriad backgrounds. They are students, teachers, lawyers, human rights activists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, men, women and queer. There have been hundreds of peaceful demonstrations across India, by both Muslims and others.

A basic element

To understand the bare body protest, it’s essential to examine what clothing means, both practically and in symbolic terms. By shedding their clothes, the students at Jamia have appealed to one of the most basic elements of existence – along with food and shelter. Their protest was an appeal to higher standards of morality, an attempt to get the state to recognise that by failing to act on the protests, it was reducing the humanity of its own people.

Most often, putting clothes on one’s bare body is a deeply personal act. It is also a public act, a reflection of how a person chooses to present themselves to the world. Clothing is determined by the climate and the availability of resources. Class also has an impact: both rich and poor wear their class on their bodies.

One’s choice of clothing is determined by the cultural and political norms of their time. For example, sporting a turban has been a symbol of pride for Indians. For centuries, the turban was an exclusive piece of clothing, denied to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The British colonial rules, on the other hand, wore hats that were tipped slightly or taken off entirely to signal respect. Thus, turbans and hats were at odds with each other during colonial times.

In colonial India, Indians were forced to take off their footwear in the presence of British officials or on entering administrative buildings including courts of law as a mark of respect. Since Indians wore no hats, but entered places of worship barefoot, the British felt it fit to exert their power to demand the removal of shoes.

Jain monk Tarun Sagar speaking in the Haryana Assembly in August 2016. Credit: HT Photo

India has also had an ancient tradition of gymnosophy or religious nakedness. Jain monks and Naga sadhus are examples of ascetics who renounced clothing. In the Jain tradition, there is renunciation of wealth and material and therefore also of clothes. The saffron robes, skull caps, the cross as a pendant and the kirpan in a belt are all elements of clothing. They are the religious symbols that privately religious people carry to the publicly secular spaces.

In other situations, clothing is professional and hence regulated. In this category are school uniforms, the clothes worn by sports players, the uniforms of staff at medical institutions, the police, army and paramilitary forces. The idea of homogenised clothing comes from the assumption that some roles should be empty of individual identities: all people irrespective of their caste, class, region, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation need to be treated as equals. The other reason is related to immediate recognition: certain professions need to be identified for they deal with situations of crisis.

Shaming their audience

By laying bare their bodies for public, the Jamia students shamed the audience for believing that they can identify protestors by their clothes. They point to the hypocrisy of the government that claims to respect the Constitution even as it works to create a Hindu rashtra, which passes legislation to criminalise triple talaq ostensibly to protect “our Muslim sisters” even as it orders brutal lathi-charges on them.

Bare body protests are also symbolic acts of deprivation. In this case, the protestors at Jamia signaled that they had been deprived of their basic right to question their government and of their rights to be treated as equal moral beings.

Besides, such gestures are acts of political courage, demonstrating the courage to stand vulnerable in a climate of animosity and hate. Among those who have employed this strategy was MK Gandhi. When he attended the Round Table Conference in England in 1931, Gandhi wore a dhoti with no shirt. On being asked by a journalist if he was dressed respectfully to meet the king, he responded, “The King had enough for both of us.”

There is also an element of political irony in the act of baring the body. In shedding their clothes, the protestors were rejecting the idea that they owe allegiance to a narrow religious identity and were calling on their common national identity as Indian citizens.

The bare body protest by the Jamia students asserted that the principles of citizenship are impartial, secular and equal. It conjured up a vision of an India that wears jeans and saris, dhotis and achkans, hijabs and bindis. It is a vision of India in all its multicoloured splendor.

Jigyasa Sogarwal is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Political Studies.