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India: Karnataka state imposes school hijab ban

25th Feb 2022
India: Karnataka state imposes school hijab ban

Muslim students leave after being denied entry into a college in Udupi, Karnataka, on February 16, for wearing hijabs. (Credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency)

Sajeda Haider

What started as a standoff between a state college in the southern Indian state of Karnataka and a few Muslim students who wanted to wear the hijab in class has spiralled into a national debate on the rights of Muslims in a democratic, secular country.

Should Karnataka’s college hijab ban hold up to judicial scrutiny, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is certain to extend it nationwide, stripping Muslims of the right to dress as they please.

The row began in January when six students at a college in Udupi were denied permission to don their hijab in class. Until then, girls wore hijabs on campus but removed them as they entered the classroom. “The institution did not have any rules on hijab-wearing as such, and since no one used to wear it in the classroom in the last 35 years, this was the norm,” said college principal Rudre Gowda.

Once the issue became public, in solidarity with the girls in Udupi, 23 Muslim girls in a state college in Kundapur, Karnataka, also asked that their hijab be allowed in class, which was denied.

The row attracted the attention of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, who have added fuel to the fire. Wearing orange (a holy Hindu colour appropriated by Hindu nationalists, including the BJP) scarves, young men demonstrated outside colleges, urging authorities to ban the hijab in all educational institutions.

The government of Karnataka backed the demand for a ban, with the BJP framing it as an issue of secularism. The state asked colleges to ensure that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn” – effectively saying the hijab was disruptive and unlawful. However, the Constitution guarantees the rights to equality, education, and freedom of religion to every citizen.

India’s 200 million Muslims have witnessed a deterioration of the right to practise their faith in various ways since the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014.

Muskan Khan has become a symbol of Muslim women’s resistance to protect their right to wear hijab speaking at her home in Mandya district of Karnataka, India.  (Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency)

Simmering tensions escalated after a video clip of hijab-clad student Muskan being heckled and intimidated by a group of youths wearing orange scarves and chanting “Jai Sri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram) on college premises in the city of Mandya in Karnataka, went viral on social media. Unafraid, the determined young woman responded with “Allāhu Akbar” (God is Greatest) and “My hijab is my right”.

There were subsequent chaotic scenes at a few colleges, with groups of students shouting slogans at each other and police being called in to disperse protestors. The government ordered high schools and colleges to be closed across the state for the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, the Karnataka High Court, which is hearing a clutch of petitions filed by six students demanding the right to wear a hijab in class, gave an interim order asking The government to reopen educational institutions. The court order also restrains all college students from wearing saffron shawls (Bhagwa), scarves, hijab or religious flags in class. Although the Order applied only to colleges with a dress code, many educational institutions interpreted it as a blanket hijab ban.

As schools and colleges reopened on February 15, reports surfaced of students, teachers, and, in some instances, even parents being forced by authorities to remove their hijab outside the gates of the educational institutions before entering. There was a massive police presence outside schools in Muslim localities to enforce the orders.

Muslim students who refused were denied entry and sent home, in some cases, missing critical exams.

Emboldened by their brethren’s anti-hijab success in Karnataka, far-right Hindu outfits spread the hijab row to other BJP-ruled states.

In the Datia district of Madhya Pradesh in central India, a group of youths heckled two hijab-clad students with chants of ‘Jai Shree Ram’, and the college principal immediately banned the wearing of the hijab on college premises. The college principal, D R Rahul, said, “Nobody can come here wearing this kind of religious attire, including the hijab”.

Ravivarma Kumar, the counsel for the Muslim students contesting the hijab ban, told the Karnataka High Court that “Indians flaunt diverse religious symbols, from the pendant to the hijab to the bindi and turban. Why is The government picking on the hijab alone and making this hostile discrimination?” Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, General Secretary of the Indian National Congress, spoke out in support of students’ right to wear the hijab in classes.

Vadra, who is also the granddaughter of the late PM Indira Gandhi, tweeted, “By letting students’ hijab come in the way of their education, we are robbing the future of the daughters of India”.

She also tweeted, “Whether it is a bikini, a ghoonghat (a veil), a pair of jeans or a hijab, it is a woman’s right to decide what she wants to wear. This right is guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Stop harassing women”.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also tweeted its deep concern over recent public calls for the genocide of Muslims by Hindutva proponents in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. As well as “reported incidents of harassment of #Muslim #women on social media sites, as well as the banning of Muslim students from wearing #hijab in the state of #Karnataka.”

It urged India to ensure the safety and welfare of its Muslim community and bring the instigators and perpetrators of hate crimes to justice, in addition to calling on the “international community, particularly the # UN mechanisms and Special Procedures of the # HumanRights Council, to take necessary measures.”

The Indian government retaliated by accusing the IOC of harbouring a sectarian ethos and asserting that its disputes are resolved following its “constitutional framework and mechanisms, as well as our democratic ethos and polity”. As a response to any foreign criticism, the Modi government invokes India’s democratic status while eroding its democratic institutions and transforming it into a Hindu ethnostate.

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