Ground Reports

Karnataka: The Boiling Battleground of Hijab vs Scarf


What was thought to be a storm in a teacup, when it all started in late January in Udupi, Karnataka is now making international headlines. The Supreme Court is also now concerned about the developments of the hijab situation. It has echoed in Pakistan and the UAE.

By M Raghuram, 13 Feb 2022

Former Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah has also criticised the deep conspiracy which is putting Muslim students in a fix over wearing hijab to their school.

Students themselves have felt and aired their fears, “our education and social life are at stake here. Our parents and elders will not allow us to go to school and get educated like normal children in normal schools and colleges without wearing hijab. Now in our school, the management has created problems for wearing Hijab. This controversy has put us into an identity crisis,” says Alia Assadi.

Alia and her parents have asked for justice in the Karnataka High Court. She wants the state’s top court to allow her five friends and her to wear hijabs to their school, the Government Girls’ Composite College in Udupi – a town almost 400 kilometers from Bengaluru.

The girls have stated that they revere the custom of wearing Hijabs, “after this incident of opposition to hijab by the saffron brigade, our resolve to wear Hijab to the school has become stronger. The 70 other Muslim girls who are studying in our college also want the right to wear their hijabs,” Alia told Mojo.

But, this is not the only incident that has put the civil society in Karnataka to shock and shame. On Tuesday, in the heat of the anti-hijab movement in PES college Mandya,  Muskan Khan, a second degree Commerce programmer student, had come to submit her assignment. She was mobbed by a group of saffron wearing youth who menacingly advanced towards her waving the saffron shawls and shouting “Jai Shree Ram.”

Visibly disturbed and naturally afraid, Muskan, all by herself, showed extraordinary courage and character to uphold her conviction and commitment to Islam and shouted ‘Allah hu Akbar” waving her fist at the agitated saffron wearing group of youth. Within minutes, Muskan had become an icon of the Muslim community as help and support poured in for her family and her from various quarters of the civil society.

A Muslim organisation, Jamait Ulema-I-hind, announced in a tweet a reward of Rs 5 lakh for Muskan as a testament for showing ‘extraordinary courage’ and upholding her religious identity in the face of adversity. The Jamiat said, “for having stood up to the hot and gusty winds of opposition to her Constitutional and religious rights, the brave student of PES College, Mandya, Muskan Khan, daughter of Mohammad Hussain Khan is being congratulated by Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind president Mahmood Asad Madani. Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind The Rs. 5 lakh prize was in encouragement to this brave daughter.”

Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind is an elite congregation of clerics in Islam. “We did not have a second thought about recognising this brave daughter of Islam for showing such great courage and character and love for Islam. Her spirit of rising up to her commitment is a rare quality, the cash prize was just a small token of gratitude from the Jamiat, we expect great leadership from Muskan beti,” Madani said.

Muskan had told a gathering at her house that, “it did occur to me in that incident to stand up to the adversity, or else many like me will succumb to the raw power of mobs. And since it was charged with religious sentiments, I raised my hand with a tight fist and cried, Allah hu Akbar. I am sure that has made an effect. It reflected the anger I felt at that point in time, but all my classmates and many from other classes, even Hindu girls and boys, have always supported me in all my activities. I had feared at that moment for my personal safety, but the principal and a few senior faculty members stood between me and the mob leading me safely into the college building.”

Muskan, who comes from a lower-middle-class family, lives in a small house in Gutthalu locality in Mandya city. Her father and brother run a gym in the city and also own another business of car accessories. Her father, Mohammad Hussain Khan, was in a vortex of confusion, “I wanted my daughter to only be safe and she was. My relatives and my Hindu neighbors were also with me during this difficult time.”

Muskan’s relatives do not believe that the entire Hindu community is against girls wearing hijabs to the college, “it is a mob, misguided youngsters a small portion of the society had whipped up this controversy.” 

On Friday, over 5000 people had gathered around her house to show solidarity with her. A close relative of Muskan’s family told Mojo that Muskan’s family is wary of these developments and she had told her parents not to accept any money from anybody. Muskan was afraid that these things would take away the focus of her life and her educational career would be disrupted. Moreover, she did not want anybody to take advantage of her family. She wanted them to be allowed to continue their way of life in Mandya.

On Friday, MLA of Bandra East (Mumbai), Zeeshan Baba Siddique visited Muskan and her family presenting her with an iPhone and a smartwatch while also assuring her family of all the help possible. 

Mandya has had no history of communal discord. This marks the first time that society has taken communal colors. The city was predominantly an agricultural city, our fights were only for water for our fields. But this time our society has faced divisive tendencies. The escalation of the hijab issue to this level was rapid and spontaneous, which does not augur well with the values this city has followed, politicians in the city say. 

In Davanagere, formerly a textile hub, the hijab-shawl tussle had taken communal colors. On two occasions, in Harihar town in the district, the police had lobbed tear gas and resorted to lathi-charge to quell mobs of Hindu and Muslim students who went on a rampage around the first-grade college in the town. Two students suffered head injuries in the stone-pelting incident, several vehicles including police cars were damaged. Like Mandya, this was the first time when Davanagere and Harihar had experienced the heat of communal riots.

This series of anger has spread further. In the Bagalkot district, police faced opposition from the saffron wearing students. However, the theories were floated that the Muslim boys, adorning saffron, from nearby towns had come to Bagalkot to pelt stones.

In Honnali in Davanagere district, hijab-wearing students had a loud argument with the MLA and Chief Minister’s media advisor MP Renukacharya. The students faced the MLA on the school campus and disregarded his advice to remove the hijab if they wanted to sit in class. The students proceeded to class stating that we have been wearing hijab now and will so in the future. Renukacharya left the campus meekly thereafter. 

In Chikkamagaluru, the left-backed organization, ‘Samana Manaskara Vedike,’ helped the students to organize a protest against right-wing Hindu organizations and school management in the district. Close to 1500 students wearing a burkha or hijab met at the Azad Maidan in the company of their parents, Muslim fringe groups and political activists. 

Similarly, students in Gadag, Shivamogga, Belagavi and Hubballi have joined the pro and anti-hijab movements. Muslim elders in Belagavi backed by a few Muslim organisations and political parties have declared that they will go to Udupi and Kundapur in big numbers to hold protests against the schools and its officials. They appealed to the government to allow hijab-wearing students into the class. 

The principal of the Udupi Government Composite College on Saturday complained that students fighting for their right to wear hijab in the classrooms had irregular attendance and were discourteous towards their teachers and peers, “I had complained to their parents a number of times but no corrections were done,” Principal Rudregowda told Mojo.


Police action:

The police have arrested and filed cases against 16 people around the state for rioting and disturbing public peace. The force has cited milder sections in the CrPc, but nothing prevents them from charging the accused under stronger sections. The police say that they are showing concessions to those arrested since they are juveniles. 

But in Kundapur, the police have arrested two persons for carrying concealed weapons when the pro and anti-hijab unrest was at its peak. In another incident, in Madikeri, a student was stabbed by two others in the heat of the hijab-shawl confrontation. The student has been admitted to a hospital and is stated to be out of danger. The police and the Rapid Action Force have together conducted flag marches in three places in the Udupi district – Udupi city, Kundapur and Kaup.

It was easy for the fundamentalist forces to attribute motives and spread conspiracy theories, “we have been uncharitably attributed with weaving a conspiracy against the state with the help of anti-national elements, but trust us we at the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), are not what BJP and its communal arms are making us be. We are not a Muslim Party, yes many of our members and office members are Muslims but deep inside our party is secular and committed to the protection of democratic and secular values,” says Abdul Majid Kodlipete, State President, SDPI. 

Our objective was to help the poor, disadvantaged, backward class, minorities, and other marginalised groups with social justice and empowerment. “We are not a religious party,” he stated emphatically. “All over the state, we are improving our presence in democratic organisations and local self-governments and Urban Local Bodies and many of our voters are non-Muslims,” Kodlipete said. 

The Women India Movement national president Shaheeda Tasneem speaking to Mojo quoted Rajendra Singh’s Sachar report and said, “Muslim women in India are educationally too backwards, this move of banning wearing headscarves will further bleaks the prospects of girl children in the Muslim community of getting educated in the normal streams. Let us not see the Hijab issue from the religious viewpoint but social empowerment and social justice angle.”

Even at the hyper-local level of women’s movement in the state things are changing rapidly. Some of them want collateral damage. “Hijab is our religious right, it is a part of the women’s personality among the Muslims. If the Hindus do not want it to be worn in schools then how can the Ganapathy and Saraswathi poojas be held in the schools? They must ban these poojas also,” observed Shamshad Abubakarm, a councillor in the Mangalore City Corporation. Similar views have been aired by Muslim women who are Panchayat members.

The Campus Front of India (CFI), which had been a voice for the hijab issue, has also been accused by MLA Raghupathi Bhat of being in league with Islamic forces and for ‘arranging’ the students to protest hijab banning in the schools and colleges. 

“This is not the only issue that is on their agenda, but soon many issues will crop up like Azan over the loudspeakers, doing Namaz on the roads and public places and also making Urdu the official teaching medium in the schools and colleges commonly for all students,” Bhat had accused.

But, the Campus Front of India leaders feel that all that was the entitlement of the young people and the present society, the government should make way for the new order. CFI national president MS Sajid said, “that the RSS and ABVP want people to be polarized on religion or caste. In these testing times, delays in delivering the judgment will only make the situation worse. The Hindu activists camp is looking for such an eventuality. Wearing customary dresses according to the prescribed uniform is a right. The judiciary should stand straight to uphold secular values.”

Athaullah Punjalkatte, state president, reiterated the statement of his national president and said the local MLA Raghupathi Bhat was tacitly supporting the RSS and ABVP agenda. Punjalkatte adds that Bhat is keeping away from addressing the issues that the Muslim students were facing regarding hijab and social segregation by the schools. “They are government schools and the management cannot take anti-student steps,” the state president argued. 

The hijab-wearing students were given a different place to sit inside the college in Udupi and Kundapur composite colleges, while the saffron wearing students continued in the normal classes. The teachers of these two colleges have reported that for the first time since Covid began, they will experience 100 per cent attendance on Monday – just a day before the High court hears the case. There’s hope that the state’s top institution perhaps gives a direction to the education department towards normalizing the situation through a firm policy towards maintaining dress code in the classes. 

Government’s take:

State Education minister BC Nagesh states that while more than 100 students from the same community were attending the classes without a hijab like all normal students questioning, “Why do only six girls have the problem?”

“To give a sense of equality and unity between the children who attend the government schools and composite colleges, the rule of uniform had been brought by the government. Why should there be problems for a few students and their parents, we still do not know,” the minister said. 

According to recommendations made by the school development and management committee, the uniform rule was brought in in 1985. But recently, this act of breeding inequality and exclusiveness has been started by some people, concludes the high-level committee which has been constituted by the government. The single-judge bench has referred the findings to a larger bench of which the first sitting will be held on Monday. Since the single judge bench has already heard the argument of the counsels of complainants and that of the Advocate General of the state, the High Court larger bench may also give its observations on Monday.