To Wear or Not to Wear

Did Modi think by making him wear the skullcap Muslims were trying to dupe him? Or did he merely think he should not give the impression to his supporters and antagonists alike that he had fallen prey to a trick, and become a possible object of ridicule?

Manash Bhattacharjee Delhi


Uneasy lies the head that wears a (skull) cap

~ With apologies to Shakespeare, in Henry IV.


To wear or not to wear the skullcap – that is the (secular) question!

No one to my knowledge has so far mentioned the most obvious thing in the topi controversy. Among some communities in India, the phrase “Topi pehnana” (making someone wear a cap) carries a connotation of ridicule that means the person allowed himself to be duped. The sarcastic accusation against Gandhi is well known, that though he made everyone else wear the Gandhi topi, he himself did not wear it, meaning to say he duped others with the (apparently tricky) significance of his own cap but he did not allow himself to be tricked. So perhaps we too can connote that Modi, by refusing to wear the skullcap, fell prey to the popular cultural prejudice by implying, ‘I won’t allow myself to be duped by the Muslims.’

Though this whole matter lies at the level of perception and speculation, it cannot be brushed aside, because politics is a lot about both. So we can ask the question, what can possibly be Modi’s perception of the gesture of the Muslims? Did he think by making him wear the skullcap Muslims were trying to dupe him? Or did he merely think he should not give the impression to his supporters and antagonists alike that he had fallen prey to a trick, and become a possible object of ridicule? If he thought the latter, then it’s merely Modi’s way of staying out of this potentially risky act. But if he thought the former, then it would prove that he felt the Muslims were making a false show of love, admiration and respect. If this possibility holds, it would further raise the obvious question: Why would Modi suspect that the Muslims want to make a fool of him? Since the whole episode is centered on the elections, there has to be a political reason why the Muslims would want to do that. Is the community trying to placate Modi in the event of his becoming Prime Minister? If the answer is yes, what does such an act of placation signify? That the Muslims are apprehensive, even scared of their future in Modi-ruled India? If Modi suspects that is the reason, why does he not try to allay their apprehensions and fears by wearing the skullcap? What prevents him from attaining at least a semblance of goodwill? It would have also countered his image of being anti-Muslim. But though he agreed to don the green chadar, Modi did not accept the cap. Why?

By his own admission, Modi avoided wearing the skullcap because for him it was a symbol of appeasement and he does not believe in the politics of appeasement. But in whose perception is wearing a skullcap offered by the Muslims a symbol of appeasement? Is it in the perception of the Muslims themselves, or Modi’s perception of the Muslims? Or is it in the perception of the majority at large, or Modi’s perception of the majority at large? It is clearly a game of perceptions, and Modi chooses to endorse the view that by asking him to wear the cap, Muslims had appeasement in mind. It also panders to those holding the majoritarian view that Muslims are an appeasement-seeking community. The skullcap becomes an intricate symbol—of dupery and appeasement. As if the fate of the head is doomed if it wears the cap; as if the fate of the cap is doomed if the head doesn’t wear it. Such are the ridiculous and dangerous travesties of the politics of prejudice.

The BJP has always accused the Congress of appeasing minorities and using them as vote-banks. It is however on record that ex-PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and party President Rajnath Singh have donned the skullcap. Were they also tacitly indulging in appeasement despite their declared aversion to it? Or were they displaying, despite party ideology, an intention of goodwill? Wearing a cap is too insignificant, despite its symbolism, to be considered appeasement. So the second reason sounds more plausible. But by insisting that wearing a skullcap is appeasement, Modi has not so much questioned the intentions of his predecessors in the BJP as much as allowed us to question his logic. If Modi is lying that he finds wearing a cap to be appeasement, it means he simply doesn’t want to appear like a man who is being duped. But if Modi is telling the truth, he is quite plainly dismissing the possibility of goodwill with Muslims. By this, he is also implicating the intentions of others in the BJP who have made that gesture. If Modi solely believes in the politics of appeasement and totally denies the possibility of a politics of goodwill, it leads to the legitimate speculation that there is a desire to preserve animosities and harden relations with the minority community. In other words, the denial of the politics of goodwill betrays a belief in the politics of ill-will. That borders on a belief in communal politics.

In all this, we however cannot forget the original problem. Those who agreed to put on the cap before chose to ignore the implications of cultural ridicule that could emerge mainly from a majoritarian public. Refusing the cap will have given fillip to the unwarranted sentiments of that section. To suspect that Muslims might gain anything by placing a cap on someone’s head shows the petty and damned mindset of majoritarian Hindus.

(The writer is a political science scholar from JNU, New Delhi, and a poet whose first collection, Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems, has been published by The London Magazine)