Mumbai University’s convocation robe gets an ‘Indian’ makeover, but some find a ‘saffron’ agenda in it

(Left) Old convocation gown of University of Mumbai. (Right) New convocation attire.

Musab Qazi

Mumbai: The University of Mumbai has decided to replace its colonial-era convocation gown with a new dress, which is said to be in line with ‘Indian traditions and culture’. However, for many, it was yet another political ploy aimed at ‘saffronisation’ of 162-year-old varsity.

The new dress includes a medieval era angarkha (tunic), with a Paithani border work and a headgear inspired by the one worn by Jagannath (Nana) Shankarseth, a philanthropist and educationalist from the city. The three elements are said to represent bravery, beauty and scholarship, respectively. The dress will be made up of khadi, with the fabrics procured from the Centre’s Khadi and Village Industries Corporation.

The attire was recommended by a varsity-appointed three-member expert committee and was approved by its management council on Wednesday. However, only the varsity staff and guests will dorn the new dress in the upcoming convocation ceremony of the university in November, while the graduating students will continue to wear sashes.

“The plan to change the university’s convocation has been under consideration since last year. A three-member committee was appointed to suggest this change by undertaking an in-depth study of Indian traditions, culture, colour combination, fabrics and material. The dress was finalised in accordance with the meetings of the committee and its findings,” said MU vice-chancellor Suhas Pednekar in a statement.

However, some have criticised the move. On Thursday, Republican Bahujan Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group, wrote to V-C and other varsity officials, claiming that the attire is based on the “Peshwai” and “Brahmanshahi” dress code, referring to the Brahmin ministers of the Maratha empire who later gained prominence as titular heads of the empire. “The university has chosen to highlight only one community – Brahmins. Nana Sankarseth also belonged to this community. MU is a coastal university hosting an amalgamation of cultures. Indian society, too, is socially unequal and diverse. The convocation dress should reflect that. This is nothing but RSSisation of the university,” said Somitkumar Salunkhe, a visiting faculty at the varsity’s department of law, referring to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Earlier this year, students at Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) had also protested the varsity’s decision to replace the cap-and-gown attire for convocation with kurta-and-pyjama with Puneri pagdi, claiming that it furthers RSS and right-wing agenda.

Arvind Ganacharya, a city-based historian and former professor at MU, said that the move is an expression of ‘neo-nationalism’. “The university should have continued its traditional convocation attire. There’s no reason for this change. I don’t see any ‘desi-ness’ in the new dress as such… I see here an agenda and politics ” adding, “The outer facade of the university now very much looks saffron.”

In August, MU had come under fire for setting up a centre named after Balvant (Bal) Apte, the late lawyer, Rajya Sabha MP and ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

However, Neel Helekar, a member of the varsity management council defended the decision, claiming that angarkha is inspired by Maratha warrior king Shivaji’s outfit, not Peshwas, and that Shankarseth wasn’t a Peshwa either. “The British gown isn’t suitable for our climatic conditions, so why cling to it? There’s added advantage of history and legacy in the new dress,” he said.

Ganacharya said that university should focus on improving its academics instead of “creating issues out of non-issues”. “MU doesn’t figure in even top 500 universities of Asia. Universities are not known by their robes, but by their scholarship. We need desi intellect, not dress,” he said.

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