Hijab Controversy, a Manufactured Row to Prepare Grounds For Next Year Karnataka Assembly Election?

The engineered controversy over Hijab in the BJP-ruled Karnataka reveals the ugliest face of a cynical ideology that even poisons impressionable minds and divides students over a bogus uniform and dress code issue, writes Abdul Bari Masoud

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Abdul Bari Masoud

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The engineered controversy over Hijab in the BJP-ruled Karnataka reveals the ugliest face of a cynical ideology that even poisons impressionable minds and divides students over a bogus uniform and dress code issue, writes  Abdul Bari Masoud

The engineered controversy over Hijab in the BJP-ruled Karnataka reveals the ugliest face of a cynical ideology that even poisons impressionable minds and divides students over a bogus uniform and dress code issue. It all started from a sleepy coastal town Udupi, which has been home to Hindutva politics for about 60 years and took disturbing proportions. The matter is being heard in the Karnataka High Court which put an interim ban on Hijab and other religious attires.

The prohibition of Hijab in classrooms and campuses is termed as a ‘hate crime’ which threatens to spread to other states. Various pretexts are used by Hindutva supremacists to lynch, segregate and boycott Muslims, including Muslims’ collective prayers, azaan, the skullcap, and the Urdu language. Hijab is only the latest pretext to impose apartheid on Muslim women.

The video from Mandya town, Karnataka of a saffron-stole wearing mob of youth surrounding a hijab-wearing Muslim girl student and heckling her is indicative of how hijab can easily become the next ploy for mob attacks on Muslims.

It is to be noted that Muslim girls were allowed to wear hijab to college in Udupi as long as they matched the colour of the uniform, according to rulebooks of at least one of the Udupi colleges. The present educational disturbances were not caused by hijabs. The Hindutva-supremacist groups shattered peace by conducting demonstrations with saffron stoles and demanding a ban on hijabs. The prohibition of both saffron stoles and hijabs is not a just solution since, unlike some Muslim women’s hijabs, the sole goal of the saffron stoles in this case was to obtain a hijab ban and scare Muslim women.

It is also said that the principal of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) College Udupi is a hardcore member of RSS.

One Muslim girl student confided to Radiance that the principal of the college had taken the Muslim students in a protest a few days before the hijab controversy broke out. He asked them to come in hijab. The protest was being organised by ABVP, students organisation of the RSS, but the Muslim students were unaware of this. They had questioned the principal about this. When the hijab was banned a few days later, these girl students were incredulous. “Why were you so adamant on wearing the hijab as a form of protest? Why are you putting a stop to it now?” they asked the principal.

The whole world also witnessed the horrible behaviour of those wearing saffron turbans and shawls impeding the lone Muslim  girl and  aggressively yelling ‘Jai Shri Ram’ at her when she went to the college in Mandya to submit her assignment. Bravely facing these goons, she, in turn, chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) to muster courage.

Hijab is not an issue at all. If one had any doubts, the visuals of a Hindu teacher with a bindi on the forehead disrobing her Muslim, hijab-wearing colleague has demonstrated that the so-called anti-hijab debate in Karnataka is not about hijab. It’s a horrible video to watch — a teacher being publicly humiliated by a colleague who is supposed to be her equal.

According to political analysts, the Hijab Row can be traced back to Karnataka’s transformation into a Hindutva testing ground even before Gujarat. The coastal stretch of Karnataka has been a good hunting ground for Hindutva. In 1968, VS Acharya, a young doctor, was elected president of the Udupi town municipality, representing the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which 12 years later became the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Sri Rama Sene made national headlines in 2009 when they barged into a Mangalore pub and beat up young men and ladies during lunch. The women were accused of betraying “traditional Indian values.”

BJP’s political quest for the Babri Masjid only began in the late 1980s. A decade before Ayodhya became popular, in 1978, the groundwork for reclaiming Baba Budangiri, a Sufi shrine in Chikmagalur district, had been prepared in Karnataka.

In an article, Krishna Prasad, a veteran journalist and former editor of Outlook weekly, has traced the origin of Hindutva communalism in the state.

According to him, in 1990, when L.K. Advani’s ‘Rath Yatra’ passed through Karnataka, seven people died in Bidar in communal riots. But 600 kms away, in and around Bangalore, at least another 33 people died in clashes at five locations. It was not an accident.

The head of the Pejawar Mutt in Udupi was a key behind-the-scene player – and mentor to the likes of Uma Bharati in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. His successor is a member of the Ram Temple Trust.

In 1921, the Anjuman-e-Islam got the Idgah Maidan in Hubli on lease for 999 years. But the Sangh Parivar contested the construction thereon in the 1960s. When Uma Bharati tried to hoist the national flag in 1994, riots claimed five lives.

Moral policing is an old story in Karnataka. In 2009, long before Yogi Adityanath woke up, sangh outfits in Karnataka were sharpening their rhetoric on “love jihad”.

Hindutva’s thali in Karnataka isn’t complete without cow protection – and a ban on cow slaughter. Here again the state was first off the blocks with the Ramachandrapur Mutt in central Shimoga playing a pivotal role in mainstreaming it, in 1998.

Add the demonisation of Tipu Sultan, and the picture is complete. From Hubli in the North, Udupi-Mangalore in the West, and Bangalore-Mysore in the South, the discourse is polarised on issues of food, flag, land, love, and livelihood.

Besides Maharashtra, many RSS honchos like H.V. Seshadri and K.S. Sudarshan hailed from Karnataka. Dattatreya Hosabale is said to be next in line to succeed Dr Mohan Bhagwat.

Once-progressive Kannada media is now an embedded wing. Seven out of nine dailies have sangh links, television is a barefoot soldier, and fake news enjoys deep political patronage. So the Hijab Row is just the latest manifestation of a state in deep rot.

It is also to be  noted that Lingayat community is the politically and economically  dominant  community struggling for separate religious status from the Vedic dharma.  That may be one of the reasons to keep communal pots boiling.

It is said the hijab controversy was stoked to divert attention from the state government’s failure. B S Bommai, a Lingayat, is considered a ‘weak’ Chief Minister. The Hijab Row is the perfect slide to show for a performance appraisal in Delhi for him who has done nothing to justify his elevation as the Chief Minister replacing B. S. Yediyurappa and rumours of his replacement abound.

Former home minister of Karnataka Ramalinga Reddy says the hijab issue was staged to divert attention and polarise voters before the assembly election due in 2023 as the BJP government did nothing to go public. BJP had its own majority of the assembly seats in these two districts in 2018 and stakes are high for the party.

Naheed Ataullah, a veteran journalist based in Bangalore, gave an insightful perspective about the raging Hijab controversy. Few would have expected an outcry in Karnataka when New Delhi rejected the Kerala government’s request for a Republic Day tableau portraying social reformer Sree Narayana Guru, she told Radiance. However, the districts of Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada erupted in rage. The ‘insult’ enraged the Billava sect of Sree Narayana devotees. The BJP went on the defensive, rushing Billava community ministers V Sunil Kumar and Kota Srinivasa Poojari to defuse the situation and do damage control.

The BJP blames the SDPI and Campus Front of India (a wing of Popular Front of India) for politicising the  Hijab issue. Refuting the allegations, SDPI general secretary, Elyas Muhammad Thumbe told Radiance that the party has not involved in any way in the ongoing controversy over dress code. We create awareness in people about the fundamental rights and ask them to defend democratically, he added.

There is RSS propaganda against Hijab that it cages women and affects their public life.

Rebutting this propaganda, Maimuna Rais (college student) and Safia Rais (school student) said Hijab is not any hindrance in pursuing studies and at public places.

“Absolutely not!  Has it ever been that wearing clothes becomes a hurdle in anyone’s education then why hijab will be? Hijab is also a piece of cloth with which we cover our head. It has never put obstacles in education. Career is made with hard work and the passion towards it, not with any type of cloth worn by a person. We wear hijab everywhere. It is just covering our head, not brain!” both girls told Radiance.

The youth in saffron scarves have blamed Muslim women of “suddenly bringing religion into the classroom” by wearing hijab and have said there should be “no religious symbols in classrooms”.

Meanwhile, around 2,000 feminists, academics, attorneys, and others signed an open letter calling the restriction on hijab in classrooms a hate crime and an attempt to impose apartheid on Muslim women. They reasoned that since Sikhs are permitted to wear turbans and Hindus are permitted to wear bindis and tilaks, Muslim women should be permitted to wear hijab.

Sikh leaders say the Sikh community stands with Muslim women and their right to wear Hijab.

Paramjit Singh Sarna, former president Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC), said Sikh religion strictly forbids speaking against any other religion. Speaking with Radiance, he asked why this (Hijab) issue has not been raised for 74 years and why it is being raised today. Nothing can be imposed on anyone in a democracy, otherwise, democracy is meaningless.

Women are required to wear shalwar-qameez and a dupatta on their heads in the Sikh religion. In Punjabi, there is an adage that if you want to be safe, keep your hair and woman covered.

When being asked Hindu supremacists may turn the heat towards Sikh religious symbols, Sarna quipped, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“The trouble is, I don’t want to say it, but their women’s clothing is becoming increasingly scarce. When they see our women, they are envious. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said that ladies should dress modestly, expressing his displeasure with the growing trend of revealing garments,” he added.

“If there is a problem with uniforms, the school teachers should urge them to sew a certain colour hijab, rather than imposing a ban. I told an English newspaper editor that we were completely opposed to it and that we supported the Muslim community on the hijab problem. No one’s faith should be restricted or interfered with in any way. We do not live in a dictatorship, but rather in a democracy,” said Sarna.

Echoing Sarna’s views, Rohini Singh, a senior journalist from the community, fears that “Today the target is a Muslim, tomorrow it could be a Sikh, Parsi, Jain or a Christian”.

In India every religion has a symbol or an identity attached to it, even Hindus wear Janau (sacred thread) or keep a ponytail. So why is it that only one community is being targeted? Does it mean that the country is going to have a uniform dress code? she asked.

The hijab controversy has also drawn our attention to two educational policy texts, both of which were drafted during the BJP regime and talk of religious tolerance and equality, caution against religious prejudice, and praise the need of respecting diversity.

The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) of 2000 had underlined the need for respecting religious diversity. The National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020 stresses on removing biases and stereotypes in school curriculum.

Former NCERT director J.S. Rajput, during whose time the NCF was drafted, claimed the hijab debate was more political than academic, and that such disagreements should be handled by institutions.