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WHEN a smiling Miss World, Priyanka Chopra, arrived in her hometown last week, there were no flower-bedecked cavalcades to greet her attainment of image nirvana. Not that Bareilly, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, is more into guns than roses. Just that the state government had other ideas. No congratulatory letters or personal invitations went out from the chief minister to the 18-year-old beauty queen. In fact, Rajnath Singh reacted most uncharitably: he imposed a 'ban' on beauty pageants in Uttar Pradesh.
The general opinion in India on beauty pageants may have gone from the initial thrilled disbelief to include large areas of grey, but Rajnath Singh's blanket (some would say knee-jerk) ban has got at least one group crowing. "At last we have a chief minister who has seen reason in our demands," says Srikishen Dixit, of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (aBVP), the students' wing of the bJP. "It is time to restore our cultural values. This crown is not worth giving up our cultural values for," he adds. Cultural values, as defined by the aBVP (see box), Were in any case getting propagated on university campuses in UP in not very subtle ways in recent months. Now, encouraged by official fiat, they're planning a door-to-door 'sudhro and sudharo' (improve and help improve) mission—inter alia, handing out books that speak of the role of Indian women.
In Bareilly, the CM's word, coupled with the ABVP's enthusiasm, got the district administration into a tizzy ahead of Priyanka's arrival. Miss World, better known as Mimi here, was barricaded from those closest to her. People could barely approach the neighbourhood teenager they knew. For most of them, she "walked in and out of town like a star", leaving everyone in a daze.
Rajnath Singh's diktat, meanwhile, may not find endorsement down the line. Some 24 beauty contests have been held in UP in the last two years, thronged by aspiring beauty queens and hunks from all sections of society. Says Aruna Saxena of Fantasies, a local organisation in Lucknow: "Parents and relatives are showing a lot of enthusiasm. Most of our candidates have an extremely good academic background."
SAXENA was the first organiser to face the ire of the administration after Singh's decision. One afternoon she was told that an upcoming show on December 16 couldn't be held. Saxena immediately went to court challenging the decision. The court, diplomatically enough, turned down her petition saying the show was cancelled due to security reasons as it fell on the 19th day of Ramzan. "I fail to understand why our show, which was not even ticketed, was cancelled and a nearby hotel was allowed to hold a DJ night," she protested.
Left with little choice, she tried contacting a resort-owner on the outskirts of the city. Rakesh Pratap Singh agreed to host the show, but requested the organisers to change the title of the programme. "As you have agreed to modify the presentation of the function to make it a 'Personality Development Programme', we have agreed to provide the venue...", read his letter to the organisers. But at the last hour, he too backed out. "Not surprising, for he is a bjp mlc," says a Lucknow-based fashion designer.
Aspiring beauty queens, however, are not much deterred by their 49-year-old CM's decision. "The CM has a right to his opinion but it need not have been so whimsical. There was no need for a total ban on beauty contests; a ban could have been imposed on certain specific rounds, if required," says Avantina Sharma, a contestant for the Miss Lucknow show that eventually didn't take place. "He can't stop us from becoming beauty queens from another state," says Meenakshi Arora, a college student from Lucknow. Another aspirant, Neha Pandey, says: I think this is extremely unfortunate for the youth in Uttar Pradesh. I fail to understand why a personal whim is being imposed on the entire society. All these youngsters felt beauty contests could, in fact, breathe new life in embroidery crafts like nalli (made of small metal pipes), chikankari and zardozi.
Organisers of beauty contests too are indignant. Says Pratap Chandra of Shaireen Publicity: I have already decided to take the contestants to Delhi next year and to Jaipur in 2002.Meanwhile, to keep his business going, he is marketing ideas on the Internet and also holding various contests for kids in the city.
So far no legal notice enforcing the ban has been sent to any organisers of pageants. Had we been prepared, we would have not lost almost a lakh of rupees, says Saxena. The district magistrate, Sanjay Agarwal, was evasive when questioned on such complaints. But there is little doubt that without an executive order, this ‘ban’ is being imposed a trifle arbitrarily. Lucknow commissioner Saurabh Chandra, however, is quick to justify such moves. In such cases, the district administration has the full right to use its discretion, he says.
While the chief minister’s personal tastes may have carried the day, Miss World Priyanka Chopra too did her bit in espousing the cause of her ilk in the state. While addressing a gathering at the Bareilly Club, she said: When I meet the prime minister, I shall try and discuss this ban in my home state. Let’s hope I can do something about it. Her last bit of advice to the beauty queen wannabes was: You don’t have to be from a metro to do what you want. That should be motivation enough for the forlorn youngsters in the state to continue chasing their dreams.