On February 8, a video clip of a young Muslim woman facing off with a group of men heckling her for wearing a hijab went viral. Overnight, 19-year-old Muskaan Khan—shouting “Allahu Akbar” in the Karnataka town of Mandya, in response to Hindu activists’ “Jai Shri Ram” slogans—became the face of a raging controversy over wearing the hijab inside classrooms. The epicentre of the controversy, however, is 400 km away, in the coastal town of Udupi where it all started in January at a government college which barred Muslim girls from wearing the hijab inside the classroom.
Over the next few weeks, the issue spread across the state and even to other states and sparked a full-blown political war. The matter has even reached the courts, including the country’s top court. Opposition parties accused right-wing Hindu groups—at the centre of demands to ban the hijab inside classrooms—of infringing on religious freedom and personal choice. The ruling BJP in the state and at the Centre countered, accusing Opposition parties and Left-wing organisations of fanning a “non-issue” for political gains.
When some of the protesting Muslim girls moved court, the Karnataka high court said that no student should insist on wearing religious dress in classrooms. The court also ordered schools to reopen. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, said that though it will “protect fundamental rights”, it will step in at “an appropriate time”.
The genesis of the crisis goes back to April-May last year when teachers at Udupi’s Government PU College started asking students to leave their hijab outside the classrooms. Aliya Assadi (17) and Hazra Shifa (18), two students of the college who are at the forefront of the pushback by Muslim students against the ban, say they started wearing the hijab during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, following some senior girls who wore the headscarf. A Covid-induced lockdown was clamped during the same month and the issue remained unresolved. In September, when the classes resumed, the girls sent their parents to convince the principal of their college to allow them to wear the hijab. They argued that nothing in the undertaking they had signed at admission spoke about the hijab, and that they had only signed undertakings to the effect that they would wear the uniform.
“The principal would ignore our parents. They used to sit for hours outside the principal’s office. We got no positive response,” Aliya tells Outlook. After a point, their parents gave up but told their daughters to exercise their rights. In December, the girls started to wear their hijab to college again. Aliya, who wants to be a wildlife photographer, alleges that some of the teachers reportedly tried to yank off the hijabs of their seniors. Some of the girls were even injured by the safety pins they used to keep their scarves in place. Aliya recalls that on a few occasions teachers locked her out of her classroom. December 26, 2021 was their last day in the classroom.
In January, Udupi MLA Raghupati Bhat of the BJP held a meeting with parents and college administration to try and convince the guardians that the hijab was not allowed inside the classroom under a state law. It was in this meeting that Bhat was reported to have said, “If your people are wearing the hijab, next our people will start wearing saffron shawls.” Critics of the government allege that the public protests against the hijab intensified after the meeting. The initial protests by Hindu students, however, began as early as January 4, when students of Balagadi college in the neighbouring district of Chikmagalur turned up at their college demanding that Muslim girls be denied permission to wear the hijab. Two days later, Hindu students of Aikala Pompei college of Mangalore followed suit. Within a month, tens of colleges in Udupi, Mangalore, Chikmagalur and Shimoga districts began witnessing “spontaneous” protests against the hijab by saffron shawl-wearing, slogan-shouting students.
Many videos that surfaced over the past few weeks have added to the frenzy and even spawned wild conspiracy theories. In one video, some people said to be activists of the right-wing Hindu Jagarana Vedike are seen distributing saffron shawls and turbans to students of MGM College in Udupi. Also to come under the spotlight is the Campus Front of India (CFI), a students' union backed by SDPI, a conservative political party that primarily appeals to Muslims in the region, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the BJP. Both the CFI and ABVP have their areas—and colleges—of influence in Udupi and Mangalore which have been major educational hubs in the state’s communally fragile coastal belt. Students not just from far-flung areas of Karnataka but also from neighbouring Kerala arrive in these towns to pursue an education. Mangalore University itself has 204 colleges in the two districts, while Udupi has Manipal, a university town, with nearly 27,000 student residents at any time of the year. While several private colleges in these districts have barred students from wearing a hijab inside the classroom, government colleges have never stipulated that.
In October last year, many Muslim girl students—a few of them in hijab—had participated in protest demonstrations organised by the ABVP. This had apparently irked the CFI as it saw the Muslim participation as a sign of its weakening influence among the community it claims to represent. Right-wing groups claim that the CFI fanned the hijab flames by instigating parents and students of the community to assert their rights. In a press conference earlier, CFI district secretary Masood had admitted to the organisation’s involvement, “We are not instigating, we are not doing this behind the scenes, we are leading from the front.” This was seen both as an assertion and a confession, and the right-wing had latched onto it to target its political opponent. CFI state president Athaulla Punjalkatte had, however, laid out the organisation’s agenda in clear terms during the press conference. “This (the hijab row) is first an individual rights issue, a fundamental rights issue, a women’s right issue, and after all of this, it’s an issue about religious freedom.” The CFI has also not found much support within the Muslim Okkoota, an amalgam of all organisations representing the community. Sources say the Okkoota was keen on a compromise on the hijab issue but was overruled by the CFI.
The state machinery has sought to portray the demands for the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab—guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution—as being engineered and fuelled by outside forces. On February 7, Karnataka home minister Araga Jnanendra ordered a probe, putting together a team of police officers to “inquire if specific people or organisations have been pushing students into creating a stir over the hijab issue”. The CFI has denied the allegations and accused the ‘Sangh Parivar’ of trying to polarise society ahead of the assembly elections due in 2023.
Raghupati Bhat, an eloquent and suave two-time legislator, prefers to be seen as objective and impartial. “I pleaded with those kids to not make an issue out of this when there’s just one more month of classes left. They did not relent. I don’t blame them entirely. Some organisations are taking advantage of them,” he tells Outlook. “I cannot comment on what the Hindu Jagarana Vedike has done. My stand has always been the same. No hijab and no saffron shawls inside classrooms. Educational institutions should be places of equality and uniformity. Wear what you please outside. How’s it infringing on their religious freedom if I merely ask them to remove the hijab inside the classroom?” he asks.
When asked if wearing a hijab hurts anyone, Bhat says, “Few private colleges in Udupi allow the hijab. If the girls put their religion before anything else, they can go to any of the minority institutions where it is allowed. Except for these six girls, everyone has come to classes. These six have had a track record of being indisciplined. Now our stance is simple. We’ll follow the rules and the high court... Remove the hijab, you can enter the classroom.”
Though the hijab has not become an issue in the other southern states, the row has spread to neighbouring Puducherry where the BJP is part of the coalition government. In Ariyankuppam, a teacher objected to a Muslim student wearing the hijab. In the Union Territory, however, Opposition parties came out with a joint statement in support of the girl’s rights to wear a headscarf, and they unitedly called upon the school authorities seeking an explanation for the teacher’s behaviour. The issue was raised in a college in Rajasthan too but appears to have been settled amicably.
Amid the war of words and grandstanding by the warring sides, what has suffered is the friendship between Hindu and Muslim girls. “First they were supporting us. My classmate and I used to be together all the time. She is the one who first said, ‘Even I will come with you to protest. It is your right, I can see so much discrimination against you in this college’,” says Hazra, who has dreams of becoming a doctor. “But right now she is the one who has lodged a complaint to the DC that they are getting distracted. I don’t know how? We are the ones facing the police, we are the ones facing the media, we are giving media bytes. I do not know how they are getting distracted.”
The two students say that the controversy has taken a huge toll on their studies. “We are not even able to concentrate. Even if we think that we can sit at home and study, all these issues will not allow us to do it,” Hazra says. “This is about our comfort. It is not as if we started wearing the hijab at the age of 11 or 12, I have been wearing the hijab from my childhood,” says Alia. “The hijab is a part of my life. It is an emotion to me.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Veil of Resistance")