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Cover Story: Hijab controversy

Tearing the social fabric

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
 students  arriving at a government college in Karnataka’s Mandya on February 16. The police personnel on duty asked Muslim students to remove their hijab and burkha before entering the campus.

students arriving at a government college in Karnataka’s Mandya on February 16. The police personnel on duty asked Muslim students to remove their hijab and burkha before entering the campus.

Outside  Udupi’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College on February 8, Hindu students wearing saffron shawls and turbans only to counter the Muslim girls in hijabs.

Outside Udupi’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College on February 8, Hindu students wearing saffron shawls and turbans only to counter the Muslim girls in hijabs.

Basavaraj Bommai, Chief Minister. There has been a surge in the activities of the Hindu right wing in Karnataka since he took charge in July 2021.

Basavaraj Bommai, Chief Minister. There has been a surge in the activities of the Hindu right wing in Karnataka since he took charge in July 2021.

The hijab controversy is a part of the Hindu right wing’s strategy of alienating Muslims by creating an ‘us versus them’ narrative. Observers see the entire controversy as a ploy to gain political capital and gain the support of students voting for the first time in the Karnataka Assembly elections in 2023.

THE LAST TIME EVENTS IN COASTAL Karnataka became the focus of intense media attention was in February 2009, when a gang of young men belonging to the Sri Rama Sene (SRS), a right-wing Hindu group, stormed into a pub in Mangaluru shouting the ‘Jai Sri Ram’ slogan and savagely booted out young women who were having a drink. Pramod Muthalik, the head of the SRS, proudly took responsibility for the shameful attack and justified it, saying, “We are the custodians of Indian culture.” Thirteen years later, in early February 2022, visuals of bedlam in several colleges of Udupi district and other districts of Karnataka were streamed into people’s living rooms through television news channels and viral videos filled social media. The visuals showed college students—boys and girls—wearing saffron shawls and/or pethas (turbans) and screaming ‘Jai Sri Ram’ confronting smaller groups of Muslim girls in burkha (a long, loose garment covering the whole body) or hijab (headscarf).

Saffron-clad youth intimidated young girls, defining the boundaries of Hindutva’s cultural nationalism through dress codes for women, and consequently, drawing a line between the insider and outsider. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led State government blatantly stood on the side of Hindu right-wing organisations as government colleges shut their gates on hijab - clad Muslim girls. The state’s message was plain and clear: If Muslim girls wanted to access public education, they would have to conform and leave their hijabs at home; they did not have a choice.

In 2009, the girls at the pub were targeted because they were behaving ‘immodestly’; ironically, in 2022, girls were targeted for clinging to a piece of cloth that, in their opinion, protected their modesty in accordance with Islamic strictures. In both instances, the message was clear: do not cross the thin wedge of territory defined by Hindutva and any one crossing that imagined boundary will be treated as the ‘other’ in India’s mainstream. With the state’s frontal role in 2022, the difference between the fringe and the centre of Hindu nationalist politics (represented by the BJP, which is in power at the Centre and in Karnataka) has ceased in the 13 years since 2009.

The Udupi incident

This is why the relatively small challenge posed by six girls at the Government Girls Pre-University College in Udupi insisting on wearing the hijab inside the classroom, an issue that could have been handled at the college or district level, has drawn attention. The teenagers, who have been speaking about rights as defined in the Indian Constitution, have taken on the might of the Hindu majoritarian state. The escalation of the local issue also demonstrates how the BJP can easily manufacture controversies for communal polarisation and how these controversies form a strategic part of a well-entrenched process of alienating Muslims by creating a narrative around the binary of ‘us and them’ with the help of a pliant section of the media.

The success of this narrative can be gauged from the simple fact that in television news channels where this issue is discussed and in the toxic space of social media, Muslims have been cast as backward and regressive, and the hijab-wearing girls as guileless victims of patriarchy. Recently, a more dangerous manifestation of this narrative has been on display wherein Muslim girls and women are forced to remove their hijabs and burkhas outside the gates of their colleges and schools, while local media channels voyeuristically record these scenes.

Muzaffar Assadi, professor of political science at Mysore University, vehemently objected to this manufactured, widely prevalent narrative. He said: “The six girls in Udupi are resisting gender bias by clearly articulating their demands without any male presence, they are challenging the cultural nationalism of Hindutva that is forcing them to conform to a uniform notion and also questioning the stereotypical representation of hijab-clad girls as backward and trapped in a patriarchal set-up.”

Long-term observers of Karnataka will not be surprised that this bizarre controversy, which hinges on the simple demand of girls to wear a headscarf, originated in the scenic and highly developed coastal strip of the State, described as the laboratory of Hindutva since the late 1990s. K. Phaniraj, a teacher at an engineering college in Manipal, said, “For me, it is not surprising that these events took place here. What has changed is the audacity, and if you observe the rise and rise of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka where every five years there is a structural change in the intimidation of Muslims, what is worrying is that this politics finds consensus in society.”

For Phaniraj, the question to be posed is, “Why can’t the girls come to college wearing the hijab?” Instead, the question being asked even by common people is: “Why are they coming to college with the hijab?” He said: “It is very normal that a Muslim girl would wear a hijab, and these developments display criminalising of normal life. Will Muslim girls be next made to sit separately as part of the college rules? Will it lead to criminalisation of the hijab in public places?”

The reasons for the region’s severe communalisation have been discussed in the past (“Communal Cauldron”, Frontline , September 30, 2016). The districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi (which were part of a composite district until 1997) are frequently in the news for instances of moral policing, cow vigilantism, the bogey of ‘love jehad’, attempted boycott of Muslim businesses, and unproven allegations of forced religious conversions. While a robust network of Sangh Parivar affiliates such as the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagrana Vedike (HJV) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, along with the student body Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), are often guilty of playing a provocative role in the area, the region’s relatively high proportion of Muslims has also helped the identity politics of the Popular Front of India, its student front, the Campus Front of India (CFI), and its political party, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). Thus, the entire hijab matter needs to be contextualised within the communal politics of coastal Karnataka along with the aggressive rightward turn of the State government under the chief ministership of Basavaraj Bommai.

The origin of the controversy

The six girls in Udupi began wearing the hijab in December last year after realising that there was no rule banning the practice. Explaining the circumstances that led to this, Aliya Assadi, 17, one of them, said: “When I joined the college for 1st PUC [Pre-University College, or Class 11] in 2020, the college authorities forced me to remove my hijab because, according to them, there was a circular that banned its wearing within the classroom. Colleges were closed after this because of COVID lockdown. When colleges reopened for 2nd PUC [Class 12] in September last year, I realised that there was no specific rule that banned the wearing of the hijab in the classroom. I urged my parents to speak to the principal, but when they went to meet him, he ignored them. Finally, I started wearing the hijab to college with my parents’ support because it is my right. Since then [December 27, 2021] we haven’t been allowed into the classrooms.”

Eight girls initially challenged the diktat and remained outside the classroom, although two students later succumbed to pressure from the college administration. Photographs taken by local news media outlets in January, before the issue became national news, show the girls sitting in the corridor outside their classroom with notebooks in hand.

Speaking to a Kannada news channel, Hazra Shifa, a 2nd PUC student, said, “In the past, our seniors were allowed to wear a shawl [hijab] in classrooms, so they should give us the same right as well. On January 1, at a meeting of the College Development Committee [CDC], our parents requested the principal and the local MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] K. Raghupathi Bhat [chairman of the CDC] to allow us into the classrooms, but he said that if he allowed us with the hijab, then other students would wear saffron shawls. It is because of the MLA’s statement that students are wearing saffron shawls all over Karnataka. Otherwise, there was no opposition to our silent struggle.”

CFI’s involvement

The girls reached out to the Campus Front of India to help them with their agitation because, as Shifa said, “the CFI has been proactively involved in students’ issues, such as securing scholarships.” The CFI became involved in the row at this point and ‘guided’ the students. For the hordes of journalists who have been visiting Udupi to cover the issue, the CFI’s presence is hard to miss; members of this organisation were initially arranging media interactions with the girls. The CFI’s involvement has led to accusations against them (and the PFI) of ‘brainwashing’ the students. But Shifa denied this. “This accusation is baseless. How can they brainwash us and force us into fighting for our rights?” she said.

The extent of the CFI’s involvement in the entire affair is hard to determine, but its role has provided valuable ammunition for the BJP and its affiliates to paint the struggle as part of an ‘international conspiracy’. Prakash Kukkehalli, general secretary, Mangaluru Division, of the HJV, told Frontline that the “hijab case is merely a front, but there is an international network behind this agitation. We saw this even in the anti-CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] protests that were organised as part of a toolkit. The intention of all this is to demean India on the international forum.”

Senior BJP members in the State, such as Home Minister Araga Jnanendra and Primary and Secondary Education Minister B.C. Nagesh, have echoed this version. Ganesh Karnik, spokesperson for the BJP, told Frontline that “the entire issue has been orchestrated by the CFI to impact the voting of Muslim women in the five States where elections are held.”

Imran P.J., the CFI’s national media secretary, denied that the organisation was involved in the issue in any way apart from providing “legal advice” to the six girls on their demands, which led them to file a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court on January 31. The writ petition has sought that the wearing of a hijab be recognised as a fundamental right under Articles 14 and 25 of the Constitution as it is an essential Islamic practice. By the end of January, when the girls approached the High Court, students in a few colleges in Udupi and Chikkamagaluru had already begun to wear saffron shawls as a way of exhibiting their opposition to Muslim girls wearing headscarves. Several observers in coastal Karnataka have also pointed out how the BJP shrewdly fanned the issue to divert people’s attention from the growing protests against the Central government’s rejection of Sree Narayana Guru’s tableau proposed by the Kerala government for the Republic Day parade. The social reformer, who died in 1928, has a large following in coastal Karnataka.

A government order that segregates

It was after this, on February 5, that the State government issued an order that students should only wear the uniform (without headscarves) in government schools while the CDCs will have the right to decide on the issue in government pre-university colleges. According to local journalists in Udupi and Mangaluru, knowledge about the G.O. had reached educational institutions by February 3, that is even before it was officially issued, and they began barring Muslim girls from wearing headscarves from that date. Thus, 20 girls were stopped from entering the Government Pre-University College in Kundapur in Udupi district on that morning. On February 4, a government-aided college in Kundapur barred hijab-clad Muslim students even though the rule book of that college allowed the wearing of headscarves . A few other colleges in the region followed suit. While some colleges allowed girls wearing hijabs into the campus, they were made to sit separately, eerily similar to scenes from segregation-era United States where black and white students were seated separately.

By insisting that there should be not be the slightest deviation from the prescribed uniform (and consequently disallowing headscarves), the G.O. disingenuously created a false equivalence between Muslim girls who wore headscarves as part of their faith and Hindu students who wore saffron shawls only to counter the Muslim girls. Development educationist Niranjanaradhya V.P. told Frontline that “there was no history of [anyone] wearing saffron shawls or pethas in schools and colleges. I asked officials of the Department of Pre-University Education whether they had any data on how many students were coming dressed like this [in saffron garb], but I haven’t received any answer so far, whereas Muslim girls have been wearing hijabs to schools and colleges for a long time. Teachers and fellow students have not complained about the hijab, and it is clear that this issue has been manufactured by Hindu fundamentalists.”

Leaders of the BJP, such as Mysuru Member of Parliament Pratap Simha, endorsed the G.O. vehemently. Speaking at a press conference on February 5, Simha said, “If you want to wear the hijab and traditional Muslim pants, wear them and go to madrasas. If you Muslims want everything according to your whims, you should have gone to another country carved out in 1947. Since you chose to stay back, you have to respect the culture of the land.” Basangouda Patil Yatnal, MLA from Vijayapura City, made similar provocative statements. He said, “You want Urdu, the hijab and other Islamic necessities, then go to Pakistan.”

These simmering incidents exploded on February 8 when colleges across Karnataka witnessed unruly scenes at the same time that a single judge bench of the High Court began hearing a clutch of writ petitions on the issue. At Udupi’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College, protests took the form of a face-off between a large group of Hindu students screaming ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and waving saffron shawls and around 50 Muslim girls who retorted with slogans of ‘We Want Justice’.

The protests soon spread like wildfire to at least 12 districts. While no right-wing Hindu organisation has admitted that at least some of the protesting students were its members, investigative reports by the digital news platform The News Minute have revealed that the protests were coordinated by social media campaigns led by ABVP and HJV members.

Significantly, many observers who have their ear to the ground have noted that the protesting students were largely drawn from backward communities. Shivamogga-based Rajendra Chenni, retired professor of English at Kuvempu University, saw the enthusiastic participation of these students as an expression of the “merging of a supra-Hindu identity with caste identities”. He added, “There are two ways in which a backward community can climb the social ladder in Hinduism: one, by imitating Brahminism, and second, by identifying and attacking the other, i.e., Muslims in this case, to prove your Hindu identity. That is why the message of Hindutva has spread so successfully among the backward castes.”

Muskan’s defiance

Three scenes from the February 8 events have become emblematic of the disturbances: first, a group of students hoisting a saffron flag at the Government First Grade College in Shivamogga; second, Bibi Muskan Khan’s defiant chant of “Allah hu Akbar” in the face of a horde of saffron-clad Hindu students who were heckling the second-year BCom student of PES College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Mandya; and third, the spirited resistance of a band of around 25 students wearing blue shawls at the IDSG College in Chikkamagaluru and countering with rousing slogans of ‘Jai Bhim’ the ‘Jai Sri Ram’ of saffron shawl wearing students.

Punith A. R., a final-year student of BA (Journalism) at IDSG College, spoke to Frontline about what happened that day in Chikkamagaluru. “When we saw some boys wearing saffron shawls on the campus, we felt that it would increase communal feelings within the college. That’s why we wore blue shawls and raised slogans in favour of Dr B.R. Ambedkar,” Punith said. He is a Dalit and a member of a group of like-minded students consisting of Dalits, the backward castes and Muslim students in the college.

Interim order’s adverse impact

The Karnataka High Court’s single-judge bench of Justice Krishna S. Dixit referred the matter to a larger, three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi and Justices Krishna Dixit and Khazi Jaibunnisa Mohiuddin. On the first day of the hearing on February 10, the High Court issued an interim order restraining “all students regardless of their religion or faith from wearing saffron shawls ( bhagwa ), scarfs, hijab, religious flags or the like within the classroom…”. The interim order was confined to colleges “wherein the CDCs have prescribed the student dress code/uniform”.

The interim order has only added to the humiliation of hundreds of Muslim girls in schools and colleges across Karnataka as they have been forced to remove their headscarves and burkhas at the entrances before being allowed inside. Even though the order applies only to government schools and colleges which have a prescribed dress code, it has been widely misinterpreted and implemented in private schools and colleges as well. Many Muslim girls, who until recently were freely allowed to enter campuses with their headscarves, are now being forced to make a difficult choice. In disgraceful visuals that have emerged in local television media, teenage hijab-clad girls can be seen confronting the police stationed at schools and colleges who are cowing them down like petty criminals. Some Muslim girls have chosen to boycott classes rather than comply with the order, which will have a devastating impact on their education as year-end examinations are slated to be held in the next couple of months.

Hampering girls’ education

Vidya Dinker, a social activist based in Mangaluru said, “Muslim girls—both with and without the hijab—are thriving in educational institutions in academics as well as extracurricular activities across Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. If the court finally rules against the wearing of religious garments in colleges, this will have a huge impact as some of them may drop out of government colleges and go to Muslim institutions or even end up remaining at home which will shake the foundations of our secular democracy.”

Umar U. H., a career counsellor based in Mangaluru, concurred with this observation, adding, “First, there aren’t enough private Muslim institutions to cater to the demand, and second, will these poor Muslim families who send their daughters to government colleges because the fees are minimal even be able to afford the fees at private institutions?”

Niranjanaradhya, too, bemoaned that the gains made by Muslims in education would be lost. He said: “If you look at the findings of the [Rajinder] Sachar Committee report [submitted in 2006], it clearly shows how Muslims lagged behind in education. Over the past two decades, there has been an effort to catch up and they [Muslim girls] have been coming to colleges to access higher education. With girls wearing the hijab not being allowed in classrooms, there will certainly be an impact and parents may even withdraw their children rather than be part of this controversy. This will be a setback for the higher education of Muslim girls.”

Bommai’s Hindutva push

The fact that the Hindu right wing has received a fillip during Basavaraj Bommai’s tenure as Chief Minister is a crucial political factor that has to be accounted for in any analysis of the events surrounding the hijab controversy. Since Bommai took charge in July, there has been a surge in the activities of the Hindu right wing in Karnataka. The most egregious signal that Bommai gave to the cadre of various Hindutva organisations of his intentions was when he justified instances of moral policing as a “reaction”. The social anthropologist A.R. Vasavi, who has been tracking this aggressive rightward shift of the BJP in Karnataka, says that the hijab issue is “part of a trend”. “I completely anticipated that there would be communal events over the next year leading up to the 2023 elections. Social fragmentation has set in Karnataka and issues are triggered to bring out hostilities among people,” she added.

In his brief tenure, Bommai has displayed a brashness and hastiness in conforming to the Sangh Parivar agenda not seen even during B.S. Yediyurappa’s reign in Karnataka. Ironically, Yediyurappa was groomed in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, while Bommai has his roots in the socialist ideology of the Janata parivar which prevailed in Karnataka in the 1980s and 1990s. Apart from his signalling to the cadre of right-wing Hindu organisations that the State would back them, there have also been legislative decisions that have made the Bommai government’s intentions plain: the passage of the Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Act, which protects illegally constructed religious structures, and the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 (which is yet to be passed by the Karnataka Legislative Council). In all this, “real issues of education and of political economy and welfare that have an impact on the people are not being discussed and are being sacrificed in a big way,” Vasavi stated.

A. Narayana, a political commentator who is associated with Azim Premji University, said, “It is true that right-wing forces have become emboldened after Bommai took charge as he is playing the hardcore Hindutva card fully. It looks like he is proving his loyalty to the Sangh and if he doesn’t do that, his position will be endangered.”

P.S. Jayaramu, retired professor of political science at Bangalore University, agreed with this assessment and said, “Bommai came from the Janata parivar and had a so-called ‘secular baggage’. He has felt that he has to prove his Hindutva credentials strongly and is clearly on an overdrive to establish this.” According to Narayana, the BJP’s intention with the whole hijab issue was to “make political capital out of it and get students who will vote for the first time in the 2023 Karnataka Assembly elections on their side.” There was a chance that the whole issue would have backfired on the BJP as the controversy was tactically manufactured, but as Narayana and Jayaramu said, the High Court’s intervention has “brought a reprieve for the BJP government in Karnataka” as the ball has now shifted to the judicial arena.

Back in Udupi, the six girls who are at the centre of the entire issue, which has had national and international ramifications, have not been speaking to the media since February 10 when the case began to be heard by the three-judge bench. But a statement by Shifa that sums up the entire matter continues to resonate: “How a bindi is a source of pride and beauty for my non-Muslim sisters, the hijab is a source of pride and beauty for me in the same way.”