Coastal campuses polarised on religious lines as secular organisations lose ground in Karnataka

A file photo of students entering the Government Pre-University College in Udupi, Karnataka.

A file photo of students entering the Government Pre-University College in Udupi, Karnataka. | Photo Credit: MANJUNATH HS

The weakening of secular student organisations especially in the coastal region of Karnataka has further polarised students along religious and ideological lines. So when Aliya Assadi, 17 — one of the six students at Government Girls’ Pre-University College, Udupi, who is at the centre of the hijab row — “unwittingly” participated in a protest organised by the Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad she immediately came under pressure. 

That she took part in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-affiliated ABVP protest against the rape of a student in Manipal in October 2021, did not go down well with her community. “My college principal mobilised students and sent us for the protests without telling us it was an ABVP event. As my hijab clad pictures in the protest went viral, I came under huge pressure from my parents, relatives and the community. I was even trolled online,” she said. 

BJP leaders allege that another student organisation, the largely Muslim dominated Campus Front of India (CFI), reached out to Muslim students like Aliya who particpated in the protest, reprimanded them and instigated the hijab row. While students and CFI deny this, the organisation is supporting Aliya and her peers in their fight to wear the hijab to class. 

With the ascent of BJP in the coastal belt, its affiliate ABVP has had an almost unchallenged run for nearly two decades now, “often supported by faculty and college managements themselves”, said K. Phaniraj, who teaches at Manipal and is a prominent civil society voice of the region. In what seems like a response to this trend, CFI is growing from strength to strength on campuses in the region, organising mainly Muslim students. Though it claims to be independent, sources say it is closely associated with Popular Front of India (PFI). 

This division has also affected teachers. “It is true that many teachers have become communal and align with the majority community. But many progressives too have soft-pedalled PFI and its affiliates in the fight against the Hindutva right-wing,” alleged a senior teacher from the region.

Secular student organisations like the Congress-affiliated National Students Union of India (NSUI), Left parties associated Students Federation of India (SFI) and Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and all colleges unions that once dominated the campuses have lost ground.  A cross-section of students admitted that interactions “across the divide” are rare, often criminalised and stigmatised by moral policing incidents. 

Campuses are only a reflection of the larger society, said Muneer Katipalla, State president, DYFI. He said segregation of students along religious lines takes place mainly in schools in the coastal districts. “Over the last two decades, Hindus and Muslims have been sending their wards to schools managed by their communities. When these kids enter college, they interact across religious lines for the first time. They are not comfortable with these interactions. This is why secular organisations like ours find it hard to recruit students,” he explained. 

Senior Congress leader B.K. Hariprasad, a former student leader himself, conceded that NSUI had become weak in the region and rejuvenating it would offer an answer to the communal polarisation on campuses. 

Attaullah Punjalkatte, State president, CFI, denies they are a “communal” organisation. “It is true that we are presently dominated by Muslims. But we have taken up several campaigns concerning students across the spectrum,” he said.

However, those in the organisation admit that the hijab row has provided CFI with a robust recruitment drive. Office-bearers have been contacting Muslim girl students denied entry into education institutions for wearing hijabs, following the interim order of the Karnataka High Court, offering them assistance, sources said. 

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Printable version | Oct 4, 2022 4:55:38 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/coastal-campuses-polarised-on-religious-lines-as-secular-organisations-lose-ground/article65077797.ece