Karnataka hijab row: a standoff between Muslim women’s right to education and Hindutva fascism
Karnataka’s hijab row has been occupying India’s mainstream media coverage for weeks and it has been helping the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to polarise the majority Hindu community using Islamophobia, once more. What started as brave defiance by Muslim women students who were denied entry to the classrooms for wearing their headscarves, has turned into a Hindu-Muslim dichotomy, thanks to the political myopia of a section of the so-called “left-liberals” and the Islamist forces.
The genesis of the Karnataka hijab row
The Karnataka hijab row started in Udupi’s Government Pre-university (PU) College for girls—where students from 11th and 12th standards study—in December 2021 as soon as it opened after a year’s closure due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Six out of 19 Muslim girls entered their classrooms wearing the Islamic headscarves, to which their teacher objected and asked them to seek the permission of the principal to continue wearing headscarves—not part of the uniform—in the classrooms.
The principal had reportedly objected to the students wearing the hijab inside the classrooms and told them that they may wear it inside the campus but not inside the classrooms. This irked the girls and they decided to protest the decision. The principal didn’t budge after the girls started protesting and a standoff ensued.
By January, the viral pictures of the Muslim women barred entry into the classrooms of the Government PU College for girls in Udupi became viral throughout coastal Karnataka—a hotbed of communalism—and it started reaping rich yield for the BJP.
As most PU colleges and other educational institutions, both government and private, are controlled by people affiliated with the BJP or its parental body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a diktat was issued to ban hijab inside the campus of all educational institutions, within and outside Udupi, creating a standoff between the Hindutva fascists and Muslim women.
Soon, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai grabbed the opportunity to score communal brownies and secure his position, which is weakened due to incessant factional feuds in the BJP. Invoking Article 133 (2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, Bommai’s government came out in support of the colleges, leaving the Muslim women to lurch in darkness.
Following Bommai’s order, the Karanataka Education Minister Nagesh BC backed the college authorities and said that the hijab isn’t part of any uniform and can’t be allowed in the classroom. To show an artificial “equality”, the RSS mobilised Hindu students—both boys and girls—to attend the campus wearing saffron shawls.
The BJP government called this saffron shawl—hitherto unknown as a Hindu attire—a religious symbol and ordered that no student can wear saffron shawls inside the campuses as well. While the Hindu students mobilised by the RSS discarded their shawls, the Muslim women were left stranded.
Not only in the classrooms but these women also were not allowed inside the campuses as well. As the Muslim women remain off the campus, it offered political ammunition to the BJP and the RSS to project the Muslims as regressive and orthodox regarding their religious symbolism, concealing how the Hindutva fascists themselves have effaced all thin lines that demarcate religion, a personal choice, from public life.
When the students filed a plea in the Karnataka High Court to secure their right to attend their classes wearing hijab the case was transferred to a division bench of three judges, which withheld its verdict and issued an intermittent order that barred wearing any religious symbol in the classrooms, including hijab and shawl.
Though the hijab is a known Islamic attire, the saffron shawl is a new and forceful induction by the RSS to build a case of artificial ‘equality’ in terms of deprivation from the right to wear a religious symbol, which the high court’s division bench has reportedly overlooked.
Though the stand-off continues, Bommai has ordered the campuses, which were closed due to the controversy, to open from February 14th and asked the students to attend classes following the Karnataka High Court’s order. Now, as the Muslim women are left with no choice but are forced to do away with the hijab in the classrooms, it’s unlikely that they will end their protest and budge to the government’s demand. This will provide further ammunition to the BJP to vilify the Muslims and polarise the teenagers, who had studied together so far.
How the Hindutva fascists are reaping benefits from the Karnataka hijab row?
For the BJP, the Karnataka hijab row came as a blessing in disguise. After the party started suffering massive anti-incumbency waves across the country over its gross failures in resolving the unemployment crisis and the intense economic mismanagement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, it was seeking a way out through communal conflagration. At this point, the Karnataka hijab row fell on its lap.
The BJP leaders of coastal Karnataka whipped communal frenzy over the six girls’ defiance against the uniform code. The BJP’s other backward classes (OBC) organisation—OBC Morcha—leader and Udupi College Development Committee’s vice-president Yashpal Suvarna has lambasted the protesting students saying “they (protesting students) aren’t interested in education, they can’t tolerate development of country…Hindu Rashtra is our main agenda…(sic).”
According to the RSS’s doctrine, the Hindu Rashtra is a theocratic dictatorship of upper-caste Hindu elites, to which the majority of the people, ie, the OBCs, ostracised Dalits, tribal masses and religious minorities like Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, must show unconditional obeisance. By calling the action to deny the women their right to education a part of the Hindu Rashtra agenda, Suvarna allowed the BJP’s cat to get out of the bag.
While the BJP and the RSS have been arguing about the concept of following uniforms in educational institutions, their attempts to efface the vestiges of secular education through constant saffronisation of the syllabus, reorganisation of the education system and by perching rabid Hindutva hatemongers atop public educational institutions, etc, have exposed their hypocrisy.
Moreover, the protesting girls have alleged that scanned images of their admission forms, containing contact details of their parents and guardians, have been circulated through WhatsApp by the college authorities. The girls, who are supposed to write their exams in a few weeks, are complaining that their parents are receiving threat calls and they are unable to concentrate on their studies due to this ruckus.
As the Government PU College for girls is managed by BJP’s legislator K Raghupathi Bhat, it’s evident that in case the allegation levelled by the protesters is correct, then the saffron party is even preparing the ground for physical harm to the Muslim students. To this effect, the RSS didn’t even spare the Hindu teenagers as well. It has been utilising them as pawns to peddle Islamophobia and instigate violence.
The radicalisation of young Hindu minds
Using the Karnataka hijab row, the RSS managed to stoke communal tension in the volatile coastal Karnataka. Feral Hindutva-incensed teenagers were found in a viral video intimidating a burqa-clad Muslim girl named Muskan Khan, by chanting the Hindutva war cry of “Jai Shri Ram” (hail Lord Rama). When the girl tried to thwart their aggression by desperately chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), the tension escalated.
While the RSS-led digital hatemongering and fake news universe started vilifying Khan, the Muslim fundamentalists showed her defiance as an Islamic resistance against Hindutva aggression. The intimidated girl’s fierce resistance in face of bullying has been used incessantly for political chicanery by the BJP and its mainstream opponents.
Another viral video showed a boisterous mob of teenagers, mobilised by the Hindutva fascist camp, hoisting the saffron banner of the RSS in the Government First Grade College at Bapuji Nagar in Shivamogga city while chanting “Jai Shri Ram”. This toxic-masculine muscle-flexing by rabid Hindutva fascist teenagers exhibit how successfully the BJP and the RSS have managed to brainwash and radicalise the youth who will become future voters. Instead of showing solidarity towards their classmates, the students are found captivated by the Hindutva fascist doctrine and bullying the women.
The successful conversion of the young students into bigots is an achievement of the RSS’s proselytisers in coastal Karnataka who have so far only managed to stoke communal tension over the “love jihad” bogey and purported evangelism by Christian pastors.
With such a huge army of young pawns, the BJP can play long innings in coastal Karnataka and incite violence against the minorities. The failure of the parents of the teenagers to cajole them back to normalcy also points how the malaise has permeated deep into the majority community, including the OBCs.
How the Hindutva fascists are depriving women of their right to education?
Karnataka hijab row is a carefully manufactured plot by the RSS to whip up communal sentiments and polarise the upper-caste Hindus as well as the OBCs and the ostracised Dalits. The BJP is receiving full support from the Muslim fundamentalist forces that have grown under the RSS’s patronisation in the area.
While according to the 2011 Census, Karnataka’s Muslim population is over 15%, in Udupi Muslims are 9.56% of the total population. Though the Muslim community’s literacy rate in Udupi was 80.65% in 2011, the rate of literacy of Muslim women was 78.83%.
Though Muslim women formed 8.12% of Udupi’s population, their presence in the Government PU College for girls has been approximately 9.5%. As most of the students of the college come from lower-middle class and poor families, it’s evident that education is quite important for these girls to build their future.
However, coming from a patriarchal society, where hijab is a compulsion for women who go out, these women, unlike those who are economically well-off, can’t take off their hijabs to attend classes as the Muslim clerics and the right-wing Muslim organisations like Campus Front of India (CFI) exert indirect social and peer pressure on them to use the headscarves.
Hijab is an essential part of these Muslim girls’ existence outside the four walls of their houses and by obstructing them from attending their classes, the BJP-run institution has prevented them from carrying forward their studies. The students started their protest to win the equal right to education irrespective of their headscarves, which the Hindutva fascist administration denied them.
Does wearing a headscarf matching the colour of the uniform affect the learning of a student? If the students are wearing their uniform and adding an extra piece of cloth over their heads, how does that affect their learning? Why can’t the institution let the girls decide what to put or whether to put anything on their heads? Why are they using communal vitriol to cajole Hindu students to wear saffron shawls that none had known as an essential part of Hindu attire so far?
The BJP’s intention is to prolong the issue so that the Opposition and the Islamists jump into the fray and fall into its trap. Though the ostensible goal of the BJP-led government and its college administration is to enforce the “uniform”, they want to create an environment where conservative Muslim families—mostly the rural and semi-urban poor families—don’t send their women for higher education. This will create major socio-economic roadblocks for the Muslim women who formed 4.24% of Udupi’s total population in 2011.
The right to education is a constitutional right of each Indian citizen. So is the right to profess, practice and preach any religion by an Indian citizen. The government is bound by the Constitution to ensure that the right of all religious communities is protected. If it doesn’t, as the BJP’s practice has been since time immemorial, then it’s a breach of the Constitution.
In a landmark judgement in the SR Bommai—former Karnataka chief minister and father of current chief minister—vs Union of India, Supreme Court of India said: “…religious tolerance and equal treatment of all religious groups and protection of their life and property and of the places of their worship are an essential part of secularism enshrined in our Constitution. We have accepted the said goal not only because it is our historical legacy and a need of our national unity and integrity but also as a creed of universal brotherhood and humanism. It is our cardinal faith. Any profession and action which go counter to the aforesaid creed are a prima facie proof of the conduct in defiance of the provisions of our Constitution (sic).”
In the Miss Mohini Jain vs the State of Karnataka and others judgement, the Supreme Court has shown that the right to education, enshrined in Chapter IV of the Constitution as directive principles, is a fundamental right and it can’t be violated by the state. “Although a citizen cannot enforce the directive principles contained in Chapter IV of the Constitution but these were not intended to be mere pious declarations (sic)”, the Supreme Court had said in its judgement.
“The directive principles which are fundamental in the governance of the country cannot be isolated from the fundamental rights guaranteed under Part III. These principles have to be read into the fundamental rights. Both are supplementary to each other. The State is under a constitutional mandate to create conditions in which the fundamental rights guaranteed to the individuals under Part III could be enjoyed by all. Without making “right to education” under Article 41 of the Constitution a reality the fundamental rights under Chapter III shall remain beyond the reach of large majority which is illiterate”, the judgement said.
The act of the Karnataka government, which earlier brought stringent legislation to curb the religious freedom of the Christian community, is “in defiance of the provisions of our Constitution” as per the Supreme Court’s verdict in the landmark SR Bommai vs Union of India case. Though the Supreme Court has passed the ball to the Karnataka High Court’s court to settle the hijab row, on which the bench is deliberating, the above-cited judgements still stand in force.
By violating the Muslim women’s right to equal access to education, and by denying them entry into the classrooms, the Government PU College authorities and the Karnataka government have violated the Supreme Court’s earlier verdicts. This is a communally biased and anti-minority act, which is driven by a nefarious political agenda of the ruling party.
However, none of the Opposition forces countered the BJP-led government on the issue of Muslim women’s right to education irrespective of their headscarves. Rather, the Opposition parties like the far-right Congress party, the Salafist All-India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM)—which has grown exponentially under the Modi regime’s rule—and other Islamist student organisations like the CFI, etc, have turned the issue into one of asserting Muslim identity and helped the BJP in consolidating its Hindu support base, despite a spike in anti-incumbency sentiments.
How did the Opposition fall into the Hindutva fascist trap?
Following the template of the movement against Modi’s contentious citizenship matrix in December 2019, Muslim organisations like the AIMIM, CFI, etc, supported by the Congress party, have created a ruckus over the question of Muslim identity. Rather than intensifying the struggle for the Muslim women’s right to education and opposing the Hindutva fascist conspiracy to impose an apartheid rule, the movement around the Karnataka hijab row has been glorifying the hijab and mellowing down the feudal Islamist patriarchy that suppresses women’s rights alike Brahminical patriarchy.
From urban elite “liberal” celebrities to the uncouth fundamentalists, the demand to consider hijab as an essential part of Islam, as a mandatory custom of Islamic culture, has gained prominence, which will have severe repercussions in the future. It takes a long struggle for Muslim women to fight against the patriarchal oppression within the community, which, along with the larger Hindutva fascist patriarchy, subjugates them to the whims of men.
By turning the movement from one that sought equal access to education for Muslim women to one that glorifies hijab, the so-called mainstream “Opposition” caused great damage to the Muslim women’s cause. The students who are now stranded in a communal battle, have been used as pawns by these unscrupulous political forces. The glorification of the hijab and the cacophony over Muslim identity provided leverage to the BJP, which is now glorifying Brahminical patriarchy by labelling it as “tolerant” vis-à-vis the “intolerant” Muslim patriarchy.
This political standoff over the hijab is also helping the RSS to polarise the young Hindu students. This will vitiate the environment in the educational institutions as the Muslim women, who mostly come from unprivileged backgrounds, will be further marginalised in the classrooms and will suffer more discrimination.
The only ray of hope for the girls is that the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), the students’ wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, is trying to broker peace by reaching a compromise formula that will allow the women to wear hijab inside the campus but not in the classrooms. Though such an initiative by the SIO will restore the right of women to attend their classes, it will neither alter the discriminatory regime unleashed by the BJP nor end the communal polarisation of the students done by the RSS.
What lies ahead?
The Karnataka hijab row won’t end in Udupi but will spread throughout India as the BJP will use the template to stir communal troubles in different provinces and deny Muslim women their right to education. While Muslim men don’t wear skullcaps while attending non-Muslim educational institutions, unprivileged Muslim women are required to wear the hijab. It will become hard for women to sustain their education unless there is a real political change in India.
By helping the BJP in the Karnataka hijab row, the so-called “Opposition”, the liberals and the Islamists have exposed their true colours and how they work as appendages of the RSS. In the days to come, they will continue to provide similar fodder to the RSS and empower Hindutva fascists to suppress Muslims and deprive them of their rights using popular majoritarian support. To end this vicious cycle, India must develop a pragmatic, far-sighted and bold alternative that can combat the Hindutva fascist menace and establish equality, freedom and justice for the people in the true sense.
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