Headscarf and a social fabric in tatters

 Students sit outside their school after school authorities denied entry to them for wearing hijabs, in Kundapura of Udupi district, Karnataka.

 Students sit outside their school after school authorities denied entry to them for wearing hijabs, in Kundapura of Udupi district, Karnataka. | Photo Credit: PTI

As the sun set on the coastal town of Udupi in Karnataka on Tuesday, 17-year-old Aliya Assadi sat on the steps of Jamia Masjid, her mind racing in different directions. She wants to be a wildlife photographer. She’s worried about her board exams. But her thoughts keep circling back to the violence and anger over her choice of attire: the hijab.

Assadi is one of six students of the Government Pre-University College for Girls, Udupi, who has been barred from the classroom since December 27, 2021, for wearing a hijab. “I have been wearing a hijab since I was six years old. It is religious and it gives me a sense of security and confidence. I am uncomfortable removing it. What I don’t understand is why I am being forced to choose between the hijab and education,” she says.

Her fight for the right to wear the religious headscarf, in addition to the prescribed uniform, to school, which she has taken to the Karnataka High Court, has exploded into what is called the “hijab controversy” in Karnataka. This has spread like wildfire, further exposing the communal divide and the growing lack of trust between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

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Fuelled by social media, television channels, and Hindu and Muslim student orgranisations, there is a deadlock across the State with the defining image being of teachers closing college gates on girls clad in hijabs. This comes at a time when five States are holding Assembly elections with all eyes on communally rife Uttar Pradesh.

How it began

While the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders insist that Assadi and her peers have been “brainwashed” by radical student organisations, the students themselves say otherwise.

According to K. Raghupati Bhat, BJP MLA from Udupi and Chairman of the College Development Committee (CDC), in December 2021, eight girls tried to enter classes wearing hijabs. “There are over 80 Muslim girl students in the college who attend classes without any issue as we have a prescribed uniform. Students wear their hijabs till they reach the college premises, but remove them in classrooms. Eventually, two of the girls removed their hijabs, but the rest refused to budge,” he says.

Bhat argues that the hijab-wearing girls were not allowed to enter classrooms as their attire violated the uniform norm in the college. “These students have been trained by the Campus Front of India [CFI, a student organisation dominated by Muslims and growing from strength to strength across campuses in coastal Karnataka],” he alleges.

Another member of the CDC and a national BJP office-bearer, Yashpal Suvarna, says, “The girls were part of a rally organised by the BJP’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), against the rape of a student in October 2021. The photos of that rally went viral. According to the information we received, CFI approached the families of these girls and reprimanded them for participating in an ABVP rally, brainwashed them and provoked this campaign,” says Suvarna, who was an accused in a lynching case in 2005, but was later acquitted.

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The girls tell a different story. Their petition to the High Court includes testimonies by some of their seniors who claimed they wore hijabs in the classroom as well. Assadi says her seniors had reportedly been facing harassment over the past three years for wearing the hijab. She alleges that there were even instances of some teachers asking pupil leaders to pull the hijabs from girls’ heads. “Sometimes, when they did it, the safety pin worn to keep the hijab in place hurt the girls,” she says. Despite this, because her first year was entirely online, Assadi was under the impression that the authorities would not find anything irregular about her wearing a hijab.

“Due to the pandemic, my entire first year was online, including exams. Once physical classes resumed in September 2021, some of us were taken aback when we were asked to remove our hijabs in classrooms. Our parents met the principal and requested him to allow us to wear our hijabs. He dragged the issue for two months. During that time, we did not wear hijabs in the classroom. Fed up with this, our parents asked us to wear hijabs anyway, resulting in this confrontation,” Assadi says.

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The college principal, Rudre Gowda, says it is true that the girls had made repeated requests to be allowed to wear their hijabs inside classrooms, but he did not give them permission as the CDC was clear on the rule for uniforms.

The six girls were made to sit outside their classrooms for over a month. “When I once tried to enter the class, a teacher shut the door on my face. I felt so humiliated,” Assadi alleges.

The CFI took up their issue and petitioned district and State-level authorities, but to no avail. “The girls and their parents approached us and we have been supporting their cause. That is no secret. But it is baseless to say we provoked the row,” says Ataullah Punjalkatte, State president, CFI.

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The organisation claims to be independent, but sources say it is closely associated with the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). The BJP has locked horns with the PFI and SDPI in Karnataka and Kerala.

Assadi, who was one of the girls who had participated in the ABVP rally and is seen in the photograph with a hijab, alleges that the college principal mobilised students and sent them for the protest without revealing that it was organised by the ABVP. “Not all the six girls now seeking the right to wear hijabs were part of the protest. I was the only one there. Many Muslim girls were part of the ABVP rally and are attending classes without hijabs. These are unconnected incidents. But it is true that I faced a lot of pressure from parents, relatives and the community for unwittingly being part of the ABVP rally,” she says.

How it spread

On January 7, a group of Hindu students from the same college as Assadi petitioned the management threatening to wear saffron shawls if female students were allowed to wear hijabs.

As the deadlock continued, Minister for Primary and Secondary Education B. C. Nagesh sided with the college management. Calling the students’ demand an “act of indiscipline”, he said educational institutions were not places to practise religion. “I agree that there are no fixed codes for uniforms for colleges, but wherever the CDCs have prescribed a uniform, it has to be followed,” he said. The Department of Pre-University Education set up an expert committee to look into the uniform row in the Udupi college on January 25, and asked for the status quo to be maintained until a decision was taken.

The Minister’s comments stoked communal tension in the coastal district. In the neighbouring town of Kundapur, local BJP MLA Haladi Srinivasa Shetty, who heads the CDC of the 145-year-old Government Junior College, introduced a ban on hijabs. This was a campus where students had been wearing hijabs for several decades. “I did nothing proactively. I only implemented the government order of January 25,” Shetty insisted, defending his decision. However, the government order clearly pertained only to the Udupi college.

The Kundapur college campus has an Idgah arch and students have been wearing hijabs for several decades. Thairin Begum, a second-year pre-university student, says her mother graduated from the college wearing a hijab.

Also read | Government PU college in Kundapur allows hijab-clad students to protest inside campus

But on February 1, everything changed. Fathima Bushra, another student from the college, recounts the events of the day. “Muslim girl students were asked to gather at the library where the principal announced that from now on, we won’t be allowed into classrooms if we wear hijabs. When we protested and asked why there was a sudden change of rules, he cited a government order,” she says.

The next day, Shetty chaired a parent-teacher meeting to announce the new rules. As students and parents arrived at the college, they were greeted by a group of over 50 students wearing saffron shawls. This was the first “saffron-shawl protest” that would quickly become a recurring scene across many campuses in Karnataka. The MLA and the principal used the example of students in saffron shawls to further argue for a ban on hijabs, sources say. The principal of the college, Ramakrishna, refused to speak to The Hindu and said he was under strict instructions from the MLA not to speak to the media.

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By February 3, hundreds of students – both boys and girls – all wearing saffron shawls gathered outside the college. The principal closed the college gates on 28 Muslim girls who had arrived wearing hijabs, triggering protests. The footage on news channels and social media further fuelled the debate. “We sat in front of the gate demanding our right to education. We were treated like criminals. The college authorities refused to let us use the washroom. We went to the government hospital nearby to use washrooms,” says Begum.

Akshay (name changed), a student from the same college who had donned a saffron shawl for the protest, claims the idea was organic, taking root in student-run WhatsApp groups. “Since the Udupi row broke out, we became uncomfortable with girls wearing hijabs in our college. Moreover, many more girls started wearing hijabs. If they were asserting their religion, why can’t we assert ours,” he asks, denying the involvement of any Hindutva organisation behind the protest. “We want uniformity on our premises, and hijabs mark out the girls as special. We are only asking for equality on campus,” he says.

So, where did all the students find saffron shawls? “For most Hindu households in this region, finding a saffron shawl is no big deal. For instance, I attend a weekly bhajana mandali where I wear a saffron shawl,” says Sachin, another student.

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All the students claim that they are not members of any Hindutva organisation, but the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, a right-wing Hindutva group that is part of the Sangh Parivar, was in touch with some of them.

It did not take long for the saffron shawl “response” to spread to other colleges in Kundapur. Within a day, similar protests were held at the Bhandarkars’ Arts and Science College and the R.N. Shetty Composite P.U. College. These colleges, which had until now allowed students to wear hijabs in classrooms, turned them away.

Bhandarkars’ Arts and Science College specifically said in its diary distributed to the students that girl students were allowed to wear a scarf. “We have always worn hijabs to classes, but we were suddenly denied entry,” says Fathima Sana, a student of the college.

However, College Principal Dr. N.P. Narayana Shetty says the rules only mentioned “scarf” and it was wrong to interpret it as “headscarf.” If that was the case, why did the college not object to hijabs earlier? “Rules are interpreted when they are challenged,” he says.

The “saffron shawl protest” spread to Udupi’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College. Shodhan Kundapura, a second-year BA Journalism student, associated with the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, was one of those who led the protest. “We observed an uptick in the number of girls wearing hijabs. Some even wore burqas. We asked students to bring shawls, but keep them in their bags. We also told Hindu female students that when their Muslim peers were so keen on their religion, they should also contribute to the assertion of Hinduism. When the girls wearing hijabs entered the college, we sported shawls and saffron headgear. With the girls wearing saffron, it became viral,” he says, denying the involvement of any organisation.

Students in hijab and saffron shawls at the premises of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College in Udupi. Photo: Special Arrangement

Students in hijab and saffron shawls at the premises of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College in Udupi. Photo: Special Arrangement

However, the media spotted Prakash Kukkehalli, Secretary, Mangaluru Region of Hindu Jagarana Vedike, and Suvarna near the college as the students in saffron shawls argued with their hijab-clad peers. Kukkehalli and Suvarna denied any role, but videos of students handing over saffron headgear after the protest also went viral.

Suvarna says Hindutva had become part of the consciousness of the coastal belt and required “no organising anymore”. K.T. Ullas, State president of Hindu Jagarana Vedike, also claims that the protests were spontaneous and that the organisation had maintained a neutral stance.

After the order

On February 5, the State government intervened and the Department issued a government order mandating that students must follow the rules in colleges where the CDC had prescribed uniforms. It cited orders by the Kerala, Bombay and Madras High Courts to conclude that it was not illegal to ban hijabs on campus.

This set the ground for further protests on February 7 when colleges resumed after the weekend. The conflict, which was restricted to Udupi district, spread like wildfire to over 54 colleges in 15 districts including Chikkamagalur, Mandya, Kodagu, Bagalkot, Belagavi and Shivamogga. Until then, these confrontations had been limited to colleges that had prescribed uniforms. But on February 7, degree colleges and other institutions with no rules were drawn into the controversy.

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Stone-throwing incidents were reported in Shivamogga, Madhugiri and other places. Students in saffron shawls hoisted a saffron flag at a government college in Shivamogga. A young woman clad in a burqa was gheraoed by a group of male youth in saffron shawls while she walked to her college in Mandya. The young woman stood her ground facing the students.

In an unprecedented move, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced a three-day holiday for high school and college students across the State following these incidents. This was extended for nearly a week, before the institutions reopened.

Professor K. Phaniraj, who teaches at the Manipal Institute of Technology and is a prominent civil society voice in the region, points out that there is no student organisation that could unite youth from all communities under one banner. “The communal polarisation of campuses in the coastal region has only been made worse by the almost vanishing act of the National Students’ Union of India, associated with the Indian National Congress that once held sway over campuses in the region, and the Students’ Federation of India, associated with the Left parties,” he says.

“The Hindutva hegemony in the country, especially in coastal Karnataka, has successfully criminalised so many aspects of Muslim life. Their cross-faith interactions are termed ‘love jihad’. Hijab is the latest. Now, the hijab has also morphed into a symbol of resistance against this onslaught,” he says.

Political context

There has been a series of confrontations targeting minorities in the State over the last eight months. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties recorded 39 attacks on members of the Christian community alleging conversion in 2021, mostly in the latter half of that year. This was followed by the passing of the “anti-conversion” Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, in Karnataka’s Lower House. The Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, which keeps track of every communal conflict in the coastal region, observed a sharp spike in 2021 with 120 communal incidents targeting both Muslim and Christian communities in the region.

Also read | Hijab row likely to hit education of Muslim women, experts fear

The BJP has also suffered several setbacks in urban local body polls, bypolls and council polls recently, with the Congress giving the party a tough fight. With just over a year to go for the Assembly polls, the BJP faced a challenge from the Congress when the latter took out a ‘Swabhimana Nadige’, with a tableau of Narayana Guru, a 19th-20th century social reformer from Kerala, who enjoys a demigod-like status among the Billavas of coastal Karnataka, a major support base of the BJP. The Kerala government had alleged that the BJP-led Union government rejected a tableau of Narayana Guru for Republic Day.

“The Narayana Guru controversy has disturbed the social base of the BJP among the Billavas. Fearing a backlash, even Hindutva organisations joined the march. The BJP always seeks to hold elections on the plank of religion and not caste. The hijab issue that was limited to one college in Udupi spread across the State days after our programme. This was done to bring the conversation back to the religious polarisation plank not just in coastal Karnataka, but also in Uttar Pradesh,” says senior Congress leader B.K. Hariprasad, Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Council. A Billava leader, he too led the Swabhimana Nadige.

Though BJP leaders rubbish these claims on record, the uneasiness is palpable. “We promptly went into damage control mode, met senior community leaders and showed how the Narendra Modi government granted funds to the Sivagiri Temple started by Narayana Guru in Kerala. We also joined the yatra honouring the social reformer, blunting its political nature,” says a senior BJP leader from the region.

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The coastal region has also seen the PFI and SDPI grow rapidly at the grassroots. In the recently concluded urban local body polls, the SDPI won six seats in the region. “PFI-SDPI and BJP and Hindutva organisations have been indulging in competitive communalism, but the BJP has successfully tagged and blamed the Congress for the ills of SDPI, hampering it electorally,” says a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named. For instance, the Siddaramaiah government withdrew over 175 cases against members of the PFI and SDPI in 2015. This came back to haunt the Congress when the BJP took up a campaign that alleged that 22 Hindu activists had been killed by these organisations in the run-up to the 2018 Assembly polls. The BJP swept the coastal region, where it had lost ground to Congress in 2013.

As politicians across the country wade into the debate on whether a female student should be allowed to wear a hijab in the classroom, Assadi is anxious about the Karnataka High Court order. “I am praying they will allow us to wear our hijabs to classes. I don’t want to even imagine what would happen if they don't,” she says, switching easily between Kannada and English.

On February 11, the High Court passed an interim order that restrained “all the students regardless of their religion or faith from wearing saffron shawls (Bhagwa), scarfs, hijabs, religious flags or the like within the classroom, until further orders” in institutions where uniforms were prescribed. “We were taken aback by the interim order of the High Court. We hope the final order will be in favour of upholding our constitutional rights,” she says.

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Following the interim order, high schools in the State reopened on February 14 and colleges on February 16. With media cameras at the gates of most institutions, students and even teachers were made to remove their hijabs before entering the premises, which has caused much heartburn within the community.

Hundreds of Muslim female students wearing hijabs were sent back. Many broke down in front of the cameras asking the same question that Assadi had posed: Why are we being forced to choose between the hijab and education?

Not one of the students at the centre of the controversy in Udupi and Kundapura has returned to the classroom. But what if the High Court doesn’t rule in favour of the hundreds of Muslim students who want to wear the hijab? Assadi, the teenager who dreams of becoming a wildlife photographer, is resolute that she will not remove the hijab to attend classes.

With inputs from Raghava M.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 1:25:09 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/ground-report-on-the-hijab-controversy-in-karnataka/article65062115.ece