A few years ago, my husband and I decided to attend a diploma course on Human Rights conducted by the Bombay University. It was a year-long course with lectures on Saturdays and Sundays. We were a group of about 25 people. Some of us were associated with projects in underprivileged areas. There were a couple of lawyers who intended to specialise in Human Rights legal practice. There were some social workers who wanted to formally study Human Rights. There were a few Police personnel and government employees who were encouraged by their respective departments to attend the course .

There were theoretical lectures by Professors of this discipline, as well as lectures by Human Rights activists. We found the course extremely interesting. We also realised that Human Rights legislation is generally formulated from the viewpoint of the developed Western nations- it often does not take into account the ground realities of life in the poorer countries.

We noticed, too,  that many Human Rights activists pursue their own personal agenda, which is often very different from what would really benefit the people that they claim to represent. But that is not the subject of this post!

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There was a lady in our group who was an officer in a Government department. One Sunday morning she came into the classroom a few minutes before the lecture was to start and sat down next to me. “Don’t you notice anything different about me today?” she asked.

I didn’t and told her so. ” Look, I’m wearing a cotton saree today and almost no jewellery” she explained.

Since I seldom notice what people are wearing, it was no wonder that I hadn’t noticed this. But now I understood what she meant. She usually wore expensive sarees and jewellery, so she did look different that day.

“Even my husband noticed”, she went on,”as I was leaving the house, he asked me whether I was ‘dressing down’ to fit in with the NGO types that were in my class.”

At this last sentence, I almost fell off my chair laughing. ‘NGO types’! Was that what the rest of us were!

But in a way she was right. When working with any project in an underprivileged area, it is necessary to establish a certain rapport with the people living there. We can understand what their situation is, what their problems are, only when they feel comfortable talking with us. And that does not happen if we stress the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ by wearing expensive or fashionable clothes.

So I suppose, ‘dressing down’ probably becomes a habit with anyone associated with activities in such areas. Not that I had really thought about it until this lady’s remark about NGO types!

And what she, no doubt, didn’t understand was that the attitude is much more important than the dress. I think that it’s advisable to ‘dress down’ your attitude if you want to successfully understand the problems of those living in underprivileged areas!

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Once our group went on a ‘field trip’ to Yerawada Prison in Pune.

For most of us, it was the first time we had been inside a jail. There were separate sections for male and female prisoners, and the ladies in our group were escorted to the section where the female prisoners stayed.

There was a large hall where the women inmates were taught weaving. They also earned some income by later working there. We talked with some of the inmates and learnt about their routine in the prison. It was a very different and fascinating experience for us.

I noticed a woman working alone, a little apart from the others, and went to talk with her. She had a young son, about two years old- he also stayed in the prison with her. She told me that though he would be allowed to stay there with her, she intended to send him to live with relatives in a year or two. She wanted him to attend ‘a good school’. All mothers want the best for their children, whatever their own situation!

I asked her whether they often got the chance to interact with people from outside. “Every few days” she told me! Visitors often came to see how jail inmates lived, she said. Even foreigners visited every now and then!

 I felt sad at this. Had we done the same thing? Come to see ‘how jail inmates lived’? Invaded their privacy just to experience something different? Or was our coming there justified because we wanted to understand their situation?

I really don’t know!