What’s behind the escalating row over hijabs in India?

The dispute highlights the growing marginalisation of Muslims, as activists say the ban violates religious freedom.

A Muslim woman holds a placard as she takes part in a protest organised by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMM) against the recent hijab ban in few colleges of Karnataka state, at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, India
A Muslim woman holds a placard as she takes part in a protest organised by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen against the recent hijab ban in some colleges of Karnataka state [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Bengaluru, India – The ban on hijab in colleges in the southern Indian state of Karnataka has triggered a major row amid growing concerns that the attacks on Muslim symbols and practices are part of the larger Hindu far-right agenda of imposing majoritarian values on minorities.

The country’s 200 million Muslim minority community fear the ban on hijab violates their religious freedom guaranteed under India’s constitution. The US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom on Friday said the hijab ban would stigmatise and marginalise women and girls.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs governments in Karnataka as well as at the centre, has backed the discriminatory ban. The BJP has for decades campaigned for the application of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which minorities believe would be tantamount to the imposition of Hindu laws.

On Tuesday, hijab-wearing Muslim girl students were barred from entering schools and colleges across the state.

The visuals of Muslim girls removing their hijab outside their schools created a furore, with social media users calling it “humiliation”, while Sujatha Gidla, author of the book Ants Among Elephants, said it reminded of “the French police terrorising Muslim women in burkinis” in 2016.

“Around 13 of us were taken to a separate room because we were wearing a headscarf over the school uniform,” Aliya Meher, a student at Karnataka Public School in Shivamogga district, told Al Jazeera.

“They told us that we cannot write the pre-board exam if we don’t remove our hijab. We responded by saying: ‘In that case, we will not write the exam. We cannot compromise on the hijab.’”

“Suddenly, they are asking us to remove hijab.”

Reshma Banu, the mother of one of the students barred entry to the same school, said the hijab ban is “unacceptable”.

“The hijab is an integral part of our faith. We admitted our children here since we thought their rights would be respected,” she told Al Jazeera.

A Muslim student shouts slogans as she takes part in a protest against the recent hijab ban in few colleges of Karnataka state, in Kolkata, India
Lawyers have criticised the restraining order on students wearing ‘religious clothes’ saying it amounts to ‘suspension of fundamental rights’ [File: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

But Susheela V, the principal of Karnataka Public School, said her institution is “only abiding by government orders”.

“It’s just a pre-board examination and we can make arrangements for them to write it later,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that “we will implement necessary rules as per the court’s judgement”.

Muslim students have challenged the hijab ban in the Karnataka High Court.

How did it begin?

The situation escalated last week when a group of hijab-wearing Muslim girls camped outside a college in the state’s Udupi district after the authorities shut gates on them. As soon as the video of their protests surfaced on the internet, there was a wave of solidarity from across the country with activists asking for a repeal of the ban.

But the college and the government did not heed the demands and it instead had a ripple effect, with several other colleges in the district imposing a ban on hijab after opposition from Hindu students and activists who donned saffron – a colour associated with Hinduism – scarves and shawls.

The state’s high court, which is hearing two petitions against the ban, has restrained students from wearing “religious clothes”, including hijab, until it issues a ruling. The lawyers have criticised the restraining order saying it amounts to “suspension of fundamental rights”.

Last Tuesday, sporadic incidents of violence were reported from different parts of the state as Hindu students clashed with police. In one episode, a student in hijab was heckled by a group of Hindu mob inside her college, sparking huge outrage.

What started as an issue of college dress code has turned into a Hindu-Muslim issue, with Hindu students starting to wear saffron scarves at colleges to oppose hijab.

According to social media posts on Twitter, Hindu supremacist groups in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh protested against hijab on Tuesday.

Schoolgirls arrive to attend their classes as police officers stand inside the premises of a government girls school after the recent hijab ban, in Udupi town in the southern state of Karnataka, India
Schoolgirls arrive to attend their classes as police officers stand on the premises of a government girls school after the recent hijab ban, in Udupi town, Karnataka [File: Sunil Kataria/Reuters]

The issue around hijab first started in late December when a group of Muslim girl students were removed from their class in a government pre-university college in Udupi district for wearing headscarves that many Muslims wear.

Campus Front of India (CFI), a Muslim student group active in southern India, came out in their support, arguing that the college was violating their religious and educational rights.

Syed Sarfraz, a student activist associated with CFI, told Al Jazeera that the government was validating and provoking the response of Hindu nationalist groups to oppose hijab.

“Multiple videos have emerged from various districts where leaders of Hindu nationalist groups are among the anti-hijab protesters wearing saffron shawls,” Sarfraz added.

According to an investigation by The News Minute website, the anti-hijab protests were not spontaneous “but a calculated Hindutva plot that has built on years of communal polarisation in Karnataka to mobilise students”.

Hindutva (Hindu-ness), the ideology which defines Indian culture in terms of Hindu values, has inspired India’s Hindu supremacists for decades.

Why protests in coastal Karnataka?

Udupi, at the centre of the ongoing controversy, is a district in Karnataka’s coastal region which is considered a stronghold of the BJP.

Samar Halarnkar, a senior journalist based in the state capital, Bengaluru, says coastal Karnataka is “the crucible of Hindutva” politics and “its proving ground”.

“They [Hindutva groups] began with attacking women having a drink in a pub and later started to accost and attack even friends who were of different faiths. They have been nurtured and empowered by the BJP, which is now in power, and find more support than ever before,” Halarnkar, who edits Article-14 news website, told Al Jazeera.

He said fundamentalism, both Hindu and Muslim, have found fertile ground in the coastal districts of Karnataka, where Muslims form 15 percent of the population.

Over the years, Karnataka has seen a rise in activities of Hindutva groups and the targeting of the state’s religious minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians.

Last month, the Karnataka state assembly passed a law that effectively bans religious conversions, with the BJP government alleging that Christian missionary groups were conducting “forceful conversions” of Hindus, an allegation rejected by Christian religious leaders.

Congress, the main opposition party in the state has called the hijab ban “inhuman and communal” accusing the government of creating controversy in order to gain political mileage before the upcoming state elections next year.

“We have been wearing hijab for years without any problem but now, the issue has been suddenly taken up by the BJP and Hindutva groups to rake up communal tensions,” Kaneez Fatima, a Congress member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, had told Al Jazeera, referring to the Hindu far-right groups.

Halarnkar said, “Hindu fundamentalist groups clearly sensed an opportunity over the hijab issue and used it to further radicalise society.”

But the BJP defended the ban, arguing that the hijab disturbs the “uniformity” among students.

“The concept of uniform is to avoid discrimination between students. There is neither place for hijab nor saffron scarves in educational institutes,” Smriti Hartis, the party’s spokeswoman, told Al Jazeera. She called the demand for hijab by girls an “unnecessary controversy” while defending the opposition by Hindu nationalists as “very normal”.

‘Both-side narrative’

Activists and groups who have come out in support of girls protesting for hijab have slammed the “both-side” narrative that is being pushed forward by media to “draw false equivalences”.

“Media that support right-wing forces are trying to strengthen the narrative that if hijab is our right then a saffron shawl is their right. They are hijacking the hijab question with the saffron shawl,” activist Ladeeda Farzana told Al Jazeera.

“With that, they effectively make the decades-old normal practice – controversial,” she added.

Muslims also fear that controversies like these are a part of the larger agenda of Hindutva groups to impose laws in the name of the UCC.

A petition has also been filed in the Supreme Court seeking the implementation of a Common Dress Code in educational institutions across India.

The legal experts, however, say the UCC has no bearing on practices like hijab.

“Hijab is an issue of basic fundamental freedom,” said MR Shamshad, a Supreme Court lawyer and member of AIMPLB, adding that “uniformity” is a subjective term as the outlook of all students in a school has never been “uniform”.

While the matter is pending ruling at the high court as the hearing is under way, the girls remain both hopeful and apprehensive about the outcome and the future of their right to cover their heads.

“We do not know what the court will say. There is a sense of insecurity in returning to campus, even with hijab, because of the positions taken against us within and outside our classrooms,” said Aysha Nourin, a 16-year-old student at RN Shetty PU College in Kundapura.

“We could be targeted even by fellow students.”

Source: Al Jazeera