On February 8, a video clip of a young Muslim woman confronting a group of men heckling her for wearing the hijab went viral. Overnight, 19-year-old Muskaan Khan, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ in the town of Mandya, Karnataka, in response to Hindu activists’ ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans, became the face of fierce controversy over the port hijab in classrooms. The epicenter of the controversy, however, is 400km away in the coastal town of Udupi where it all started in January at a government college that banned Muslim girls from wearing the hijab inside the classroom .
Over the next few weeks, the issue spread across the state and even other states and sparked a full-fledged political war. The case has even reached the courts, including the highest court in the land. Opposition parties have accused right-wing Hindu groups – at the center of demands to ban the hijab in classrooms – of undermining religious freedom and personal choice. The ruling BJP in the State and Center hit back, accusing opposition parties and left-wing organizations of stoking a “non-issue” for political gain.
When some of the protesting Muslim girls moved on, the Karnataka High Court said no student should insist on wearing religious attire in classrooms. The court also ordered the reopening of schools. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, said that while it “protected fundamental rights”, it would intervene “at the appropriate time”.
The genesis of the crisis dates back to April-May last year, when teachers at Government PU College, Udupi began asking students to leave their hijabs outside of classrooms. Aliya Assadi (17) and Hazra Shifa (18), two college students who are at the forefront of a crackdown on Muslim female students against the ban, say they started wearing the hijab during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, following some older girls who wore headscarves. A Covid-induced lockdown was put in place during the same month and the issue remained unresolved. In September, when classes resume, the girls send their parents to convince the principal of their college to allow them to wear the hijab. They argued that nothing in the commitment they signed upon admission mentioned the hijab and that they had only signed commitments that they would wear the uniform.
“The principal would ignore our parents. They used to sit for hours in front of the principal’s office. We did not receive any positive response,” says Aliya Outlook. After a while, their parents gave up but told their daughters to exercise their rights. In December, the girls started wearing their hijabs again in college. Aliya, who wants to be a wildlife photographer, claims that some of the teachers allegedly tried to rip off their elders’ hijab. Some of the girls were even injured by the safety pins they used to hold their scarves in place. Aaliya recalls a few times teachers kicked her out of her class. December 26, 2021 was their last day in class.
In January, Udupi MLA Raghupati Bhat of the BJP held a meeting with parents and college administration to try to convince guardians that hijab was not allowed inside the classroom under a state law. It was at this meeting that Bhat reportedly said, “If your people wear the hijab, ours will then start wearing saffron shawls. Critics of the government say public protests against the hijab intensified after the meeting. The first protests by Hindu female students, however, began as early as January 4, when female students from Balagadi College in neighboring Chikmagalur district showed up at their college to demand that Muslim girls be denied permission to wear the hijab. . Two days later, Hindu students from Aikala Pompei College in Mangalore followed suit. Within a month, dozens of middle schools in Udupi, Mangalore, Chikmagalur and Shimoga districts began witnessing “spontaneous” protests against the hijab by female students wearing saffron shawls and shouting slogans.
Amid the war of words and demagogy of the warring parties over the hijab issue, what has suffered is the friendship between the students.
Numerous videos that have surfaced over the past few weeks have added to the frenzy and even spawned wild conspiracy theories. In one video, people believed to be militants of the Hindu right wing Jagarana Vedike are seen handing out saffron shawls and turbans to students at MGM College in Udupi. Also in the spotlight will be the Campus Front of India (CFI), a student union supported by the SDPI, a conservative political party that mainly attracts Muslims from the region, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the union BJP wing student. Both CFI and ABVP have their areas – and colleges – of influence in Udupi and Mangalore, which have been major educational centers in the fragile coastal belt of the state. Students not only from remote parts of Karnataka but also from neighboring Kerala arrive in these cities to continue their studies. Mangalore University itself has 204 colleges in the two districts, while Udupi has Manipal, a college town, with almost 27,000 resident students at any time of the year. While several private colleges in these districts have banned students from wearing the hijab inside the classroom, government colleges have never stipulated it.
In October last year, many Muslim female students, some of whom wore the hijab, took part in protest demonstrations organized by the ABVP. This had apparently angered the CFI as it saw Muslim participation as a sign of its weakening influence within the community it claimed to represent. Right-wing groups say the CFI has fanned the flames of hijab by urging parents and students in the community to stand up for their rights. At a press conference earlier, CFI District Secretary Masood admitted to the organisation’s involvement: “We don’t incite, we don’t do this behind the scenes, we lead from the front. ” It was seen as both a statement and an admission, and the right latched onto it to target its political opponent. CFI State Chairman Athaulla Punjalkatte, however, had made the organization’s agenda clear at the press conference. “This (the hijab line) is first and foremost a matter of individual rights, a matter of basic rights, a matter of women’s rights, and after all that, it’s a matter of religious freedom.” The CFI also did not find much support within the Muslim Okkoota, an amalgamation of all the organizations representing the community. Sources say Okkoota wanted a compromise on the hijab issue, but it was rejected by the CFI.
The state apparatus has sought to portray claims of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab – guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution – as being engineered and fueled by outside forces. On February 7, Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra ordered an investigation, bringing together a team of police officers to “investigate whether specific people or organizations have been pushing students to create a stir over the hijab issue.” . The CFI denied the allegations and accused the ‘Sangh Parivar’ of trying to polarize society ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023.
Raghupati Bhat, an eloquent and suave two-time legislator, prefers to be seen as objective and impartial. “I begged these kids not to make a big deal out of it with just a month left of school. They didn’t back down. I don’t blame them entirely. Some organizations are taking advantage of this,” a- he told Outlook. “I cannot comment on what the Hindu Jagarana Vedike has done. My position has always been the same. No hijab or saffron shawl inside the classrooms. Educational institutions should be places of equality and uniformity. Wear what you want outside. How does it affect their religious freedom if I just ask them to take off the hijab inside the classroom? ” he asks.
When asked if wearing the hijab hurts anyone, Bhat replied, “Few private colleges in Udupi allow hijab. If the girls put their religion before anything else, they can go to any minority institution where it is allowed. Except for these six girls, everyone came to class. These six have a history of indiscipline. Now our position is simple. We will follow the rules and the high court… Take off the hijab, you can enter the classroom.
Although the hijab has not become an issue in other southern states, the row has spilled over to neighboring Pondicherry where the BJP is part of the coalition government. In Ariyankuppam, a teacher objected to the wearing of the hijab by a Muslim student. In the Union Territory, however, opposition parties issued a joint statement in support of girls’ right to wear a headscarf, and they unanimously called on school authorities to seek an explanation for the teacher’s behavior. The matter was also raised at a college in Rajasthan, but appears to have been settled out of court.
Amid the war of words and demagogy of the warring parties, what has suffered is the friendship between the Hindu and Muslim girls. “At the beginning, they supported us. My classmate and I were together all the time. She was the first to say, “Even I will come with you to protest.” It’s your right, I see so much discrimination against you at this university,” says Hazra, who dreams of becoming a doctor. “But right now she’s the one who filed a complaint with the DC that they’re distracted. I do not know how? We are the ones facing the police, we are the ones facing the media, we give bytes to the media. I don’t know how they are distracted.
Both students say the controversy had a huge impact on their studies. “We are not even able to concentrate. Even if we think we can sit at home and study, all these problems will not allow us to do so,” says Hazra. “It’s about our comfort. It’s not like we started wearing the hijab when we were 11 or 12, I’ve been wearing the hijab since I was a kid,” Alia says. “The hijab is part of my life. It’s an emotion for me. »
(This appeared in the print edition as “The Veil of Resistance”)