By Mohammad Ibrar, MA South Asian Area Studies
An intense debate is underway in India that could have repercussions for the secular nation’s interaction with religious attire in schools and colleges.
In early 2022, six teenage students donning hijab were denied entry to their government-funded pre-university college.
The issue arose in the region of Udupi in coastal Karnataka, a place that is known for Hindu-Muslim group tensions. It continued to the whole of the State of Karnataka where other instances of Muslim girls getting barred from college came to the fore.
The principal of the Udupi college, Rudre Gowda, claimed that the students used to wear hijab when they would come onto campus, but would remove it when entering class. He claimed that there was no hijab-wearing rule, and alleged that this was an effort by outside forces.
The protests took a turn when several men were seen protesting against hijab by donning saffron shawls – a marker of their Hindu nationalist or Hindutva background. These same men were found to be harassing Muslim girls in several videos that circulated online.
One such video that went viral was that of Muskan Khan, a student at Mandya district in Karnataka, who was seen getting down from her scooter and entering her campus with a hijab and a Covid-precaution mask on her face. Shortly after, she was heckled by a large group of boys who expressed slogans as they encircled her.
Speaking to the SOAS Spirit, Muskan’s father Mohammad Hussain Khan said that ‘my daughter is focusing on her studies right now. But we know that this issue will get resolved soon. The matter is in court and hopefully things will get better as this whole issue is created to stoke tension in the society.’
The hijab issue has now reached the Karnataka High Court when petitions were filed on 31 January 2022.
“Muslim students demanded the right to wear the hijab in classrooms”
Muslim students demanded the right to wear the hijab in classrooms under Articles 14, 19 and 25 of the Indian Constitution.
Protests across India intensified when the High Court on 10 February called for students to be banned from wearing any religious attire to school. This included saffron shawls that some students from the Hindu faith started wearing to protest against their fellow classmates who were wearing a hijab.
Shortly afterwards, a female Sikh student (who is obligated to wear a turban like her male counterpart) was asked to remove her turban by her college in Bengaluru, the capital city of the State of Karnataka. This event prompted the Karnataka Government to clarify that the interim order does not apply to Sikhs, making it targeted.
The government reserves the right to issue appropriate directions to schools and colleges to ensure maintenance of public order.
In the Karnataka High Court where the case is going on, the debates have covered what constitutes secularism in Indian schools and colleges, and what religious markers should be allowed. There are parallels with the law of ‘Laïcité’ in France, where any ‘religious article’ is not allowed to be worn in public.
Maryam Nasir Alavi, a lawyer who wears Hijab, stated that the attack on the hijab has escalated beyond freedom of conscience. ‘There is now video evidence of women in
hijabs being denied banking services, of teachers in hijab being forced to disrobe beyond institution gates.’
Alavi alluded to cases coming in from all over India where hijab-clad women were ‘discriminated against.’ New Delhi’s Municipal schools have also asked for students to not come to schools with a hijab. She further added that the Constitution of India protects ‘freedom of conscience and the courts have repeatedly recognised individual belief as the core of freedom of religious practice.’
Indian academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in an Indian Express article, stated that the motivating principle behind the removal of the hijab ‘is not progressive equal rights for all. It had four functions: An instrument by which to browbeat minorities and erase Muslim cultural presence in the public sphere; to continue and create a sense of dread and fear; to trap self-described progressives into a politics of ‘ifs and buts’; and to foment more violence.’
Photo Caption: Women wearing religious clothing walk on Hyderabad street, 2011 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).