The moment you think of a uniform, the first image to enter your mind would be a school uniform. You immediately see rows of children standing for morning assembly, with their teachers reprimanding them if their shoes aren’t polished properly, hair isn’t braided or shirt isn’t tucked in. Children with the whitest shoes, tidiest hair and the best-ironed shirts are pushed to the front of the line, becoming model students for the rest of the class. Some students who are declared prefects or house captains have the power of the badge, giving them the authority to correct their peers.

What does the uniform really symbolise? It is obvious that for a country with citizens with disparities in income, class, region and caste, a uniform is important. Wearing a uniform erases such differentiating factors, and also promotes the fact that everyone must be treated equally. This is why any personalisation in it, by adding accessories or changing the dimensions of the clothes, by shortening the trousers or skirts is frowned upon, because those will deviate from how everyone else’s uniform looks. No matter who you are, and where you come from, you will be treated equally in the eyes of the teachers and the administration is what it echoes and reinforces.

In most schools, some days of the week are reserved for the house uniform in the colours of blue, green, yellow and red. Before you joined the school, you didn’t care if Nilgiri House won the Inter-house spelling bee competition. Now, with your blue house T-shirt, you suddenly do. Why? That’s because the shared attire creates a sense of belonging for all its wearers, whether they know each other personally or not. This belongingness is almost always connected to prestige or pride through narratives. For instance, students on a field visit are always told, “Students, please behave properly. What will people think of our school, otherwise?”

Demands Discipline

The uniform holds a revered place in the Indian middle-class culture. Through its association with education, it is a ticket to a better life. Elders of middle-class families often bless children by saying, “Mehnat se padhai karo, aur aage badho” (Study hard and progress in life.) Proud of its values, the Indian middle-class upholds hard work and discipline as a means to progress. They know that the uniform demands and reinforces notions of discipline by itself — when students polish their shoes, iron their shirts and go to school. Meant to be only worn during specific times and settings, the uniform is highly attached to the function of education. When it is worn, it signals overshadowing other dimensions of a child’s life — underlining how important true and genuine learning is.

At a more practical level too, the uniform’s promise of equal opportunity and meritocracy is appealing. The middle-class’ values or even its bank balance do not permit it to make donations for securing college admissions or jobs. Armed with the uniform at its side, the middle-class is assured that there is a world out there which values its commitment to hard work and discipline.

(Hamsini Shivakumar is a Semiotician and founder of Leapfrog Strategy. Khushi Rolania is a senior research analyst at Leapfrog Strategy.)