Asia Life

What’s In a Hat? Indian Culture on Politicians’ Heads

Recent Features

Asia Life

What’s In a Hat? Indian Culture on Politicians’ Heads

In India, you can test the dialogue between culture and politics through headgear.

What’s In a Hat? Indian Culture on Politicians’ Heads
Credit: Flickr / narendramodiofficial

We usually can’t tell what politicians hide in their heads but we certainly can check out what they have on their heads. And this, in fact, can be quite useful.

In a country as vastly diverse as India, a politician cannot simply ignore cultures other than his own. If he does, he will be deemed intolerant. But on the other hand, if he is seen as accepting everything in every culture he will come across as inconsistent, shifty, and disloyal to his roots (while all of these traits may scare away his entire electorate, the third will most directly affect his core and original electorate). Political scientists may ponder this topic for decades and even come up with theories and methodologies, but I have a simple solution – a headgear test.

During an election campaign, a candidate will attend numerous rallies and while coming to the dais, he or she will usually be greeted with flower buckets or garlands and may be offered a piece of traditional headgear, peculiar to the prevalent or dominant local electorate. He or she may also already be wearing such headgear before the grand appearance. With so much traditional attire to choose from, this usually makes for an amusing spectacle.

Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, is a good example.

Having toured so many campaign zones, he, while originally coming from the state of Gujarat, has been seen wearing hats and turbans completely different from the ones sported in his home state. The Internet is full of images of Modi wearing, for instance, the traditional warrior headgear of Naga tribesmen, with white horns protruding from a red cap, or a distinctively broad Assamese japi, not to speak of a number of turbans. His opponents, of course, make use of the same techniques. Yet, as the Indian media were keen to notice, in 2011 Narendra Modi refused to accept a Muslim skullcap when being greeted by clerics on a dais during an event in his home Gujarat. He reportedly asked to be given a green shawl instead, an interesting sign that headgear is perceived as more important a symbol of one’s attitude to culture.

When criticized over this gesture, Modi pointed out that famous politicians like Gandhi, Nehru, or Patel were never censored for not wearing various headgear. He said he would not wear the hats of various groups for the appeasement of certain communities. Modi also stressed that his job as a statesman is to protect every tradition and make sure nobody disrespects anybody’s headgear, but he still has own tradition to which he will remain attached.

In response to this controversy, Omar Abdullah, then the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, a Kashmiri, and a person that comes from a Muslim family who has Kashmiri Muslims in his electorate was quick to post not only a number of photos with Modi wearing various headgear on Twitter but commented, “The problem isn’t that you refuse to wear caps/turbans for a photo op, it is the refusing of only one type of cap that is wrong.”

Modi is presumably right that Indian politicians of the first half of the 20th century did not so often show off various hats (but, then, we have fewer source images of that period). Wearing the white, simple hat called the Gandhi cap (whom the Gandhi himself did not wear all that much) had, at a certain point, become a declaration of support for Gandhian politics. In other words, in terms of headgear, in the 1920s and 1930s the electorate adapted to the political leaders, not the other way round. Similarly, Gandhi was skillful in inspiring the people to follow his ideology, and not just in listening to their claims and wishes. The custom of accepting various caps and turbans by a politician belongs, I suppose, to the period of independent India and can presumably be linked to the leaders’ growing preoccupation with regional electorates.

That a community may be very attached to its headgear was also experienced by the British a long time ago. In 1806, the Vellore rebellion started in part because of a change in the dress code of Indian soldiers, which included the replacement of turbans by European-style military caps. Such challenges were seemingly recognized by the government of independent India; for example, Sikhs serving in the police have a right to wear their turbans.

But Abdullah was right that Modi cannot defend himself with such a non-appeasement argument while accepting turbans and rejecting skullcaps. This is exactly where Modi’s political strategy and ideology regarding other cultures has been tested. Moreover, the current Indian prime minister, being an icon of style in political circles, is seen dressed in well-tailored Indian attire much more often than Western suits. The event when he was seen on the bank of Sabarmati river dressed up like a white man on a safari should rather be regarded as a one-time fashion accident. The prime minister is more often seen wearing a Western-style suit (but in this case rather without headgear) when addressing a European or American audience.

The ideology at the heart of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi’s party, is the profession of Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” once laid out by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the main theorist of Hindu nationalism. “Hinduness,” Savarkar assumed, is a combination of common culture, common blood, and a common and holy motherland. While all Hindus share the same blood and are thus one race, Savarkar stated, the Indian Muslims and Indian Christians stand apart due to their different culture and by not regarding India as their sacred homeland. On the other hand, Savarkar and his later Hindu nationalist followers regarded all Indian tribes – including those following obviously non-Hindu rites – as Hindus and claimed their cultures to be a part of a broader Hindu civilization. Despite Hindu nationalists’ later statements about respecting Muslims just like everybody else, the basics of Hindutva where once again revealed when Modi sported various tribal headgear but refused to accept a Muslim skullcap.