Bengaluru, India – For four days a group of 28 Muslim girls stood in protest in front of the Junior Pre-University college in the Karnataka state after they were denied entry for wearing hijab – an issue that has snowballed to other colleges in the southern state.
On Monday morning Farheen (name changed) and her friends were allowed to enter the premises of the college located in the coastal town of Kundapur in Udupi district, but they were in for a shock after college authorities did not allow them to sit in their respective classrooms with other students.
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On the same day, the college officials posted a notice outside the gate declaring prohibition of hijab in classrooms as part of the college uniform code.
“Our teachers told us they will not allow our entry in classrooms or teach us without government orders”, Farheen, a commerce student, told Al Jazeera.
It left Farheen and her friends “hurt and humiliated”.
An official from the education department visited the girls while they were seated in a separate classroom. “Give up on your hijab. If you hold on to this, you will lose out on your education’, he told us,” Farheen recounted.
“How is it fair that other students are being taught and we are told to sit separately and self-study just for wearing a headscarf,” said Farheen’s friend, who also wanted to remain anonymous.
“We used to sit in class all these years with hijab. Now suddenly, they are treating us like criminals and keeping us in a separate classroom. We are hurt.”
The decision of the Kundapur college to segregate Muslim girls, however, has angered students and activists who called it a form of “religious apartheid” and “untouchability”, a reference to the banned practice of discrimination against members of lower castes in the Hindu socio-religious hierarchy.
The Campus Front of India (CFI), an organisation of Muslim students active in southern Indian states said in a statement on Sunday that a ban on hijab is “an organised nationwide conspiracy [that] is systematically executed by the right-wing Hindutva [Hindu-ness] groups to dehumanise Muslim women”.
Visuals of students being shut outside the gate by several colleges in the state have caused mounting outrage among the Muslim minority and triggered protests since last week, with rights groups alleging that the move violates the rights of Muslim students to practice their religion and access education.
The tensions escalated after students and activists allegedly backed by Hindu nationalist groups started to wear saffron colour scarves, calling for hijab ban in educational institutions in the state – where Muslims form 12 percent of the population.
On Tuesday, students and Hindu right-wing activists were seen marching into campuses wearing scarves and turbansin many colleges across the state andin some cases, clashing with police.
A viral video showing a student in hijab being heckled by a group of Hindu men in Mandya district has caused an online outrage, with many hailing the girl for her bravery in standing up to the “mob”.
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced a three-day closure of educational institutes across the state and appealed for calm.
“I appeal to all students, teachers and management of schools and colleges, as well as people of Karnataka, to maintain peace and harmony,” Bomai said in a tweet.
Last week, his government issued a directive that all educational institutions should follow dress codes set by management.
Siddaramaiah, former chief minister and main opposition leader in the state, blamed the government for “trying to create communal disharmony throughout the state in the name of hijab”.
The government was “denying education to Muslim girls”, he said.
The right of freedom of religion
On Wednesday, the state high court which is hearing a petition by the Muslim girls to allow the use of hijabs in educational institutions has referred the case to a bigger panel of judges.
The lawyers appearing for the girls on Tuesday argued before the court that the practice of hijab is protected under the right of freedom of religion guaranteed in the Indian constitution and that the state has no power to ban it.
Kaneez Fathima, a member of the state legislative assembly from the opposition Congress party, who led a demonstration in Kalburgi city in support of girls said that she wears a hijab and sees it as an essential part of a Muslim woman’s life.
“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”, she told Al Jazeera, referring to the Hindu far-right groups.
The controversy over hijab first started a month back when a group of six Muslim students at a government-run women’s college in Udupi district was denied entry into their classrooms because the administration alleged they were defying the rules by wearing the hijab.
The girls, however, defiantly resisted the pressure even as they were made to sit outside the classrooms on stairs.
BJP defends ban
The controversy has reignited the debate about the rights of India’s minorities under the Hindu nationalist government. Activists have said attacks against Muslims and their religious symbols have increased under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The hijab ban came as the religious minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians, faced attacks from the right-wing Hindu groups in the state – home to the Indian IT hub of Bengaluru. The state’s Hindu-nationalist BJP government has passed laws against cow slaughter and anti-conversion believed to target minorities.
However, the governing BJP defended the hijab ban, arguing that it violates rules on uniform.
“Educational institutions are not the place to practice one’s religion. The girls must focus on education and come to college to study not to assert identity,” Ganesh Karnik, the party spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
He said that it was a small group of students stirring up the issue as the government on Monday ordered an investigation into the role of “vested interests” supporting students demanding entry of hijab-wearing girls.
But the girls said they cannot be forced to give up their hijab.
“We can’t just remove it. This is targeted harassment by the authorities,” Al-Rifaa, a student from another college in Kundapur, told Al Jazeera.
“For the last 30 years, the college had no issue with hijab. Why is it suddenly a problem, what has triggered this?,” Rifaa asked.