KANPUR, India, 14 March 2000 (Newsroom) - Two women students who defied a ban on wearing jeans and other Western clothing to their college classes have been suspended and may face attempted murder charges in Uttar Pradesh state in north India. Members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), during the last month have earned the appellation "culture cops" for their efforts to force Indian women to wear traditional attire to classes at several colleges in Kanpur, an industrial city of 3 million people about 550 miles south of New Delhi. Kanpur, nestled on the banks of the Ganga river, is considered holy to most of India's 820 million Hindus. It also is home to the Indian Institute of Technology, one of India's finest engineering colleges. In early February, ABVP activists persuaded administrators at S.N. College to instruct women students not to wear any "improper dress," such as jeans, skirts, or any Western outfits, but instead the Indian salwar and kameez (wide loose pants and long tunic). Two jeans-clad students, Chetna Bhatia and Heena Koisar, refused. When college student president Priya Trivedi and college Principal Madhulkekha Vidyarthi denied them entry into the college, the two women and some friends tried to force their way in using martial arts skills. Vidyarthi complained that girls wearing jeans or skirts "were trying to pollute the college atmosphere" and that "it was a law and order issue." Bhatia and Koisar were suspended for seven days beginning March 6. Vidyarthi announced that "Entry to college wearing jeans, skirts, and midi will be denied. It is henceforth compulsory for everyone to wear the salwar (and) kameez and chunni (long scarf)." Police in the BJP-ruled state, India's most populous and home to at least four prime ministers including the current leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, may press attempted murder charges against the two students for defying the ABVP ban.

In a related incident a traffic constable tried to stop a jeans-clad student to question her about her dress, but she rode away on her scooter. Chetna said she will not be told what to wear. "If we don't speak up against these elements, who will?" Another female student, who asked not to be identified, said, "On one hand they want us to get into the 21st century, and (on) another they want us to go back to the medieval ages." Koisar and Chetna say they are prepared to risk their careers and dared the principal to bar them from writing degree examinations. Rallying behind the two are women's groups like the National Alliance of Women, which has organized sit-ins and other activities to support the two students. "On one hand we say India is part of a global infotech revolution where IBM or Coke are equally at home as Levis or Lees and now you have these culture police people telling us what to wear and what not to wear," said Ratna Kumar, a student who wears jeans. "Today it's something to do with the body, on the outside, and tomorrow they will start controlling our mind, and that seems to be the ultimate game plan." Five women's colleges in Kanpur, including S.N., have decided to follow the ABVP ban on Western dress. Some will include the dress code in their prospectus for the next academic year. ABVP members have warned that they will blacken the face of any girl defying the dress code. "We cannot allow the degradation of our Indian culture which happens when girls wear body-hugging clothes and tight jeans and skirts that provoke men," said an ABVP activist who claimed that majority of the students supported ABVP's stance. He would not give his name. In addition to imposing a dress code on women, the ABVP also banned the college students from observing Valentine's Day on February 14, because it is a Western celebration.

The ABVP, founded in Delhi in 1948, acts as the student wing of the BJP and has more than 3,000 branches with nearly 1 million students as members, making it the largest student organization in India. According to its charter, the ABVP wants to involve students in "national reconstruction" of a nationalist India because it believes that India's character has deteriorated over several centuries of foreign rule. Muslims in the Uttar Pradesh capital of Lucknow, about 150 miles east of Kanpur, also announced recently that Muslim teenage girls attending school or venturing out of the house must wear a burqah (veiled black dress). The Students' Islamic Movement of India, supported by Jamait-e-Islami, said that the dress code, which also bans the use of lipstick, is binding on all college-going women. Students of Kanpur's Muslim-run Halim Degree College already have been warned of the new dress code, which also suggests that men wear a sherwani -- a Taliban type dress - at least once a week. One teacher from a Muslim college in Kanpur, who asked not to be identified, said that the inspiration behind the new dress code was the Hindu student group. "Girls are supposed to dress simply and decently, and unmarried girls are not supposed to wear any makeup like lipstick that will attract men," the teacher said.

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