Sunday, May 19, 2024

When gates were shut; Exclusion of Muslim students in Karnataka

Exclusion of Muslim students in Karnataka
Six Muslim students of Government PU College in Udupi, Karnataka who were prevented from entering their classroom on the grounds that they were wearing hijab join a protest in Ajjarkad. Photo: Syed Mueen/Twitter

Last month, six students of Government PU College in Udupi, Karnataka were prevented from entering their classroom on the grounds that they were wearing hijab. According to a report, all six students have been marked absent from 31 December 2021, and have not been able to attend their classes. One of the students, Aliya Assadi said, “We are still sitting outside the class. We are not allowed to go inside the classroom. One day we had gone inside the classroom but the teacher’s response was: ‘If you don’t go out of class, I will push you out of class.” Assadi further testified, “We are practising Muslims, and the hijab is a part of our faith. Along with that, we are also students with aspirations for a career and a good life. Why are we suddenly expected to choose between our identity and our education? That isn’t fair at all.” Rudre Gowda, the principal of the college reportedly said that he has decided to ban the hijab for ‘uniformity’. Following this controversy, on the basis of a complaint lodged by Mohammad Riyazuddin, a resident of Kalaburgi district, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Udupi District Magistrate and the Principal Secretary of the Department of Higher Education.  “Facts of the case are disturbing. The allegations made in the complaint are serious in nature involving ‘Right to Education’. The case, therefore, involves a grave violation of human rights of the victim students,” the notice read. But the NHRC’s claims were denied by the Karnataka Education Minister B. C. Nagesh and Udupi MLA from BJP Raghupati Bhat. Both Nagesh and Bhat insisted that there was no violation of rights and that the discipline of the college uniform must be maintained by all students.

The move to prevent hijab-wearing girls from entering academic spaces spread to other colleges in Karnataka. On February 3, it was reported that at Government Junior College, Kundapura, in Udupi district, students wearing hijab were denied entry. In this instance, the disbarment of Muslim students from college premises became more striking when Ramakrishna GJ, the College Principal and other officials stood at the gate of the college and stopped hijab-clad students from entering. There are videos showing college authorities shutting the college gates despite the students’ attempts to reason with them. One of the disbarred students has testified, “I am 19 years old and have worn [hijab] my entire life. I have studied in this college for six months and wearing a hijab had never been an issue till now. I had read on social media the discrimination that Muslims in the country face but now I have experienced it for the first time. I was made to realise that I am a Muslim…It is horrible here, with the police and the boys in saffron shawls. Muslim girls feel unsafe on campus…There is no support from lecturers and the college administration…But I will not quit just like that. I will struggle and I will fight.” Other colleges closing their gates on students wearing hijab are: (1) R. N. Shetty PU College, Kundapura (2) Junior PU College, Kundapura (3) Bhandarkars’ Arts and Science College, Kundapura (4) Dr B. B. Hegde First Grade College, Kundapura (5) Junior PU College, Byndoor (6) Government PU College, Navunda (7) Sarasvati Vidyalaya PU College, Gangolli. In past years there have been reports of Muslim students in Karnataka colleges being asked to remove the headscarf, but the present crisis has seen a manifold rise in the number of institutions disbarring Muslim girls from entry.

The saffron shawl upsurge and ‘anti-hijab movement’

It was reported on February 2 that students of Sir M. V. Government College in Bhadravati in the Shivamogga district of Karnataka protested against the wearing of hijab by donning saffron robes or shawls inside the college campus. News of similar incidents has emerged from:

  1. Pompei College of Aikala village near the town of Kinnigoli, about 30 km from Mangaluru, in Dakshina Kannada district
  2. Degree college in Koppa town in Chikkamagaluru district
  3. Government Pre-University College in Byndoor town of Udupi district
  4. Government Pre-University College in Ramadurga taluk of Belagavi district
  5. Basaveshwara Degree College in Linsugur, Raichur district
  6. Government First Grade Degree College in Hagari Bommanahalli town in Vijayanagara district.

Several other college campuses similarly witnessed this upsurge, in what has been termed as a symbolic counter-protest and anti-hijab movement. The saffron wearing students said that if hijab is allowed inside college, then saffron shawls too must be permitted. On February 5, there were reports of girl students in saffron shawls joining street processions against the wearing of hijab in classrooms and chanting slogans of ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

Some sections of the media including those from Karnataka have framed this as a ‘hijab versus saffron’ controversy: pitting the saffron shawl against the hijab as if to suggest a Hindu versus Muslim issue. Such a perspective echoes Bajrang Dal leaders such as the district secretary Surender Koteshwar who said, “Police are restricting Hindu students from entering colleges if they have put on saffron shawl. Likewise, the police department shouldn’t permit Muslim students who are wearing hijabs and entering colleges.” Framing the controversy as a stand-off between the hijab and saffron shawls is a misleading reduction of the issue at hand. The issue is not one of different symbols of religious identity competing for signification in the public sphere of the school/college as Koteshwar insinuated. The issue is that of excluding girl students of a particular religious identity from educational spaces just because they wear the headscarf. The indignity of this act of exclusion cannot be explained away by banal assertions that both saffron shawls and hijabs have been disallowed in campuses. Such assertions have been made by the college authorities and the Karnataka government, in an attempt to seem impartial to all students and to deflect the fact that hijab-wearing girl students have been intentionally pushed out of academic institutions.

Even if the authorities managed to prevent saffron-clad students from entering the classroom (but were unable to stop them from entering the college premises), what was the motive of these anti-hijab campaigners: is the wearing of saffron shawls a prior expression of religious identity or is it an intimidation tactic aimed at Muslim girl students?  In this context, Siddaramaiah, Congress MLA and Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, said, “The BJP is making an issue of it by demanding the right to wear saffron scarves. They are doing it intentionally. Did they wear it earlier? Is it part of their custom?” In fact, one report has stated that ‘Hindu groups allegedly forced boys to wear saffron shawls in pre-university college classrooms in Udupi.’ Whatever be the motive of wearing saffron shawls, one of the debarred hijab-wearing students said in response to it, “We have been wearing [hijab] for years. But they just suddenly wore this, only as a mark of protest against us wearing the hijab on campus…We do not have a problem with them wearing what they want. But do not make us take off our hijabs. We do not feel complete without it.”

            There are reports stating that in several cases, the ban on the hijab and the resultant exclusion of Muslim students came after the saffron shawl protesters had opposed the wearing of hijab in college:

  • Around 50 students of a state-run degree college in Karnataka’s Koppa taluk wore saffron-coloured scarves as a way of protesting against Muslim women wearing hijab in classrooms on Tuesday, January 4. The college in Balagadi, in fact, initially asked women not to attend classes wearing a hijab, giving in to the demand of the students wearing the saffron scarves.
  • At Dr B. B. Hegde First Grade College, Kundapura, entry to students wearing the hijab was prohibited ‘following boys on campus taking to wearing saffron shawls to classes.’
  • At Bhandarkars’ College, Kundapura, the College Principal Narayana Shetty said, ‘there was a possibility of unrest in the college…I had to act on the instructions from the government. There was a possibility of 200 students wearing the saffron shawl inside the college, so we have been told not to allow any religious symbols.’
  • On February 8, at Mandya Pre-University College, Muskan Khan was heckled by slogan-shouting young men wearing saffron scarves. She later said in a TV interview, “When I entered the college they were not allowing me just because I was wearing the burqa…Our priority is our education. For a piece of cloth, they are ruining our education.”

Like Muskan Khan’s statement about education being her priority, another Muslim student, during a protest in Raichur said, “Hijab is not an issue. The quality of education offered and the infrastructure are the real issues. Instead of addressing these crucial issues, some vested interests are making hijab an issue. Wearing or not wearing hijab or saffron shawl is left to the individuals, and others cannot impose what one should or should not wear. If somebody comes to college wearing saffron shawls, we don’t have any objection as we respect his or her right of choice.” Nimrah, a 16-year-old 2nd PUC student of R. N. Shetty Composite PU College, Kundapura said, “We have examinations coming up and we have not gone through all of the portions yet. Will we get this time back for our education? It is as if our education and our dreams don’t matter and our identity is reduced to the hijab. We are protesting on the road and we are being treated like we have done something criminally wrong just because we wore our headscarves to college.”

These statements of Muslim students indicate the importance they attach to education, despite being excluded by college authorities and heckled by saffron shawl wearers. Hijabi students have even declared that they have no objection to anyone wearing a saffron shawl. In contrast, the hijab has been made a bone of contention by the saffron shawl sloganeers and Muslim students have been pushed out of academic spaces by both college authorities and the saffron shawl campaigners. It is crucial to note the extent of the violent and disruptive effects of the saffron upsurge, which include physically attacking a school teacher, hoisting a saffron flag inside a college campus and even an incident of students getting stabbed. The potency and ubiquitous nature of this saffron mobilisation indicates active participation of members of Hindu right-wing organisations.

The role of BJP leaders and Hindutva roups

Last month, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV) was reported to have warned the government of launching a saffron shawl campaign in all educational institutions in the district ‘if Muslim girls are allowed to wear hijab during classes.’ The HJV Mangaluru divisional general secretary Prakash Kukkehalli said, “If hijab is allowed, Hindu students will attend classes by wearing saffron shawls in schools and colleges in the district.” The HJV is affiliated to the RSS and it has a past record of violence:

In the present instance, there are several episodes of organisations like the HJV, ABVP, and Sri Ram Sene wearing saffron clothes and pressing for a hijab ban:

  • On February 8, the HJV Taluk Secretary in Kundapura, Naveen Gangolli, was caught on camera persuading students of S. V. College in Kundapura ‘to sneak saffron scarves into the college as a form of counter-protest’. When asked why he was doing that, Gangolli replied, “[T]his is Bharat and students will follow Hindu culture.”
  • On the same day at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College (MGM) in Udupi, 100 male students belonging to HJV and ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, donned saffron shawls and chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ against Muslim girls donning the hijab. Javeriya Fathima, a 20-year-old third-year B.Sc. student at MGM College testified, “First they [the saffron-clad boys] started to raise their voice against us. Then all the (Muslim) girls, we all started to raise our voices… They literally pushed us. Go out. Get out.”
  • At Government First Grade Degree College in Jewargi town in Kalaburgi District, a few students, who were said to be backed by Sri Ram Sene, wore saffron shawls to the college and ‘argued with the teaching staff when the latter prevented them from entering classrooms. The students, who were in an agitating mood, questioned the authorities why they had allowed hijab-clad girls into college.’
  • On February 7, it was reported that in Kalaburgi, ‘activists of Sri Ram Sene staged a demonstration outside the district administrative complex demanding enforcement of the order making uniforms mandatory in colleges. Led by Siddalinga Swamy of Karuneshwar mutt at Andola, the activists raised slogans and asked the administration of colleges to deny entry to hijab-clad students.’ Notably, in the past Sri Ram Sene has been involved in creating communal tension and plotting riots, in the 2009 Mangalore pub attack and even in the murder of Gauri Lankesh.

Hence, the role of the HJV, ABVP, Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene in instigating the saffron shawl anti-hijab campaign is undeniable. As explained above, it is significant to note that the widespread hijab ban across institutions in Karnataka came after the saffron shawl agitation. Thus, it is inferred that the threats of right-wing organisations actually coerced schools and colleges into imposing a hijab ban. This refutes the assumption that the college authorities enforced the dress code in a secular, unbiased domain, with the sole motive of implementing the ‘uniformity’ of college rules.  

A recent report including video footage gives details about how the HJV and RSS co-ordinated the saffron shawl (and turban) campaign. ‘At the MGM College a PUC first-year student (standard 11) who did not wish to be named said he was a member of the RSS and a supporter of Hindu culture…Several of his friends had co-ordinated over WhatsApp messages that they would carry saffron shawls to the college— and if they saw Muslim students in hijab, they would also wear the scarves…Students present at the MGM college were wearing three types of similar scarves – those with Jai Shri Ram written on it, those which had a green border worn during religious functions or the plain saffron ones. The turbans, on the other hand, sported by the students were all the same – saffron with a gold leaf motif on it…In a video…the students can be seen returning the saffron turbans by dropping them off in a pile…In the video, Umesh Nayak, one of the unit chiefs of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, was heard directing the other members to stop putting the turbans into the gunny bag as journalists were present…Despite all the evidence that shows that the Hindu Jagarana Vedike was involved with supplying the saffron scarves and turbans, Nayak said, “We don’t come to know what is happening inside the college or what the students are deciding. How will we come to know the ongoings inside, how will we supply? See, there is nobody who doesn’t have the money to buy a shawl. The students have themselves arranged the same…”’
These details reveal the extent of planning done by Hindu right-wing groups to mobilise students for the saffron campaign while also maintaining plausible deniability of playing no role in influencing the students.

Besides the saffron shawl upsurge and the involvement of the Hindu right-wing groups, recent statements and actions of BJP leaders are also to be noted:

  • Udupi MLA K. Raghupati Bhat said, “The issue could have been resolved at PU college [in Udupi] but the girls kept protesting and escalating the issue.” He also said that Congress and SDPI along with Campus Front of India are ‘instigating’ Muslim girls for minority votes. Bhat is also the the President of the College Development Committee and he said that anyone who is ‘protesting and sitting outside’ the classroom is ‘free to leave’; a Transfer Certificate (TC) will be given to them.
  • Similarly, Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra alleged that the protesting hijabi students are being backed by vested interests who are trying to damage the unity of the country and there should be a police probe to investigate this conspiracy.
  • B. C. Nagesh, State Primary and High School Education Minister, said that everyone must follow the order of the state government passed on February 5, which bans the wearing of clothes that disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges. He too alleged that the controversy over hijab began when ‘religious organisations started sowing the seeds of poison by brainwashing young minds.
  • BJP OBC Morcha General Secretary and Udupi College Development Committee Vice-president, Yashpal Suvarna said, “They [Muslim students] aren’t interested in education, they can’t tolerate development of the country. They were against the New Education Policy. There are a lot of colleges, they can go there. Hindu Rashtra is our main agenda.”
  • Karnataka BJP Chief Nalin Kumar Kateel said, “There is no scope for such things (wearing Hijab in classrooms). Our government will take stringent action. People have to follow the rules and regulations of the school. We will not allow Talibanisation (of the education system).”
  • Vijayapura BJP MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal said, “This is India and our country is founded on the Indian culture. We have already given them Pakistan on the basis of religion for them to wear Hijab.”
  • In Government PU College, Kundapura, when College Principal Ramakrishna stopped hijab-wearing students from entering college, he said he was acting based on the direction of the College Development Committee President and Kundapura MLA Halady Srinivas Shetty.
  • In Shivamogga District, when the saffron shawl agitation turned violent, BJP MLA Haratalu Halappa ‘remained a mute spectator even as the violent mob attacked a student.’

In the statements cited above, a few common tropes can be observed. BJP leaders have asserted that the hijab-wearing girls demanding their right to enter classrooms are being instigated or brain-washed by forces which are intent on disrupting the unity of the country, and that the hijab cannot be considered a sartorial preference in Hindu Rashtra. Taking their motives of exclusion even further, BJP leaders have asked hijab-wearing students to leave the school/college. None of them have acknowledged the violent, disruptive effects of the saffron shawl agitation; nor has any condemnation been expressed against HJV and other right-wing organisations, despite evidence documenting their role in disturbing academic premises and causing havoc. The statements of BJP—paired with its silences—demonstrate that the ruling party, which has its members in the College Development Committees, accompanied by HJV, ABVP, and Sri Ram Sene who control sections of the student body, has created a climate of discrimination in which the basic rights of Muslim girls are being curtailed.

As Greeshma Kuthar has written in her series, ‘How Coastal Karnataka was Saffronised’, ‘all popular ‘programs’ of the Sangh, with the intent of garnering quick attention, are designed around women.’ Describing the role of right-wing Hindu groups in popularising the trope of love jihad and how anti-Muslim sentiments seep into local consciousness, Kuthar writes, ‘The policing of interaction between youths from different religious backgrounds are common. It happens within the family, at the university and in public spaces.’ The outbreak of hostility in academic communities, in which Muslim girls are being treated with mistrust and suspicion instead of support and solidarity, is symptomatic of a larger trend of anti-Muslim hatred which has entrenched itself in mainstream opinion.

Another aspect of these events which must be pointed out is that while the BJP government’s move to abolish triple talaq rested on the nationalist urge to ‘save Muslim women’, it also set the limits of what the ruling party considers ‘justice’ and ‘rights’ for Muslim women. These limits have been established by the self-projection of BJP as the guardian of what is good for Muslim women. Outside the purview of this paternalism, any demand made by Muslim women will lead to their immediate criminalization. Thus, the hijab-wearing Muslim girl/woman, fighting for her constitutional rights to equality, freedom of religion, education and equal opportunity is regarded as the dangerous, brain-washed, anti-national Other. As Muna Saleh writes, ‘‘Save the Muslim girl’ narratives that have long positioned Muslim girls and women as oppressed victims in need of rescue, have increasingly become wedded to ‘save us from the Muslim girl’ narratives whereby Muslim girls and women who choose to veil are simultaneously viewed as suspicious Others.’ ‘The Muslim woman’, Sara Ather writes, ‘[is] stripped of all her agency [and] reduced to the caricature of one of the three characters, the exotic and sexualized woman behind the veil or the oppressed and voiceless captive or the evil and fanatic terrorism sympathizer.’

The hope for judicial redress

            The above account is a description of the political climate against Muslims that forms the backdrop for the rule of law to be pronounced by the court. There is much ground for cynicism, especially in the light of latest developments: Muslim students were allowed to enter college but seated in different classrooms; phone numbers and home addresses of Aliya Assadi and her disbarred classmates were leaked online; nevertheless, Aliya Assadi, A.H. Almas, H. Shifa, and two minor students aged 17 filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court, seeking its intervention to allow them to attend classes in hijab. The petitioners approached the Court seeking a declaration that wearing a hijab is a Fundamental Right guaranteed under Articles 14 and 25 of the Constitution. Almas said, “I am hopeful that the judge in this case will give us a positive response. I have hope that he will uphold constitutional values and value our guaranteed right to wear a hijab. Constitution already assures equality and education to us. I don’t understand why the Karnataka government is not (doing so).”

            Arguing for the petitioners, Advocate Devadutt Kamat said, “The students were wearing uniform. They only wanted to wear the head scarf of the same colour. The State has issued a [Government Order] saying head scarf cannot be worn. This is part of their religious culture. This is an innocuous practice.” But the High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S. Dixit and Justice J. M. Khazi refused to grant interim relief in the petitions. Calling for the re-opening of educational institutions, the Court order read, ‘We restrain all the students regardless of their religion or faith from wearing saffron shawls (Bhagwa), and connected matters scarfs (sic), hijab, religious flags or the like within the classroom.” The Court has made a false equivalence between saffron shawls and hijab. It has neglected verified facts that the saffron shawl campaign was started in a premeditated manner by Hindu Jagarana Vedike and other groups merely to prevent Muslim girls from wearing hijab in the classroom. The Court, in its observations on the need to maintain ‘public peace & tranquility’ in ‘civilized society’, has failed to call out the disruption and animosity caused by the saffron shawl agitation in academic spaces and among classmates from different religious communities. As one legal commentator writes, ‘It is the duty of a Constitutional Court to harmonize rights. However, here, the Court has created a situation of “either/or” with respect to the right to faith and the right to education.’ A petition challenging the direction of the Karnataka High Court was made to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to list it.  

            The antagonism to the hijab has been expressed by the saffron shawl agitators, college authorities, the order of the Karnataka government, and also the High Court; it is pertinent to note that despite the difference in their vocabularies, there is a common thrust of Islamophobia in all. As Nabeela Jamil has observed, ‘India is deeply religious albeit it normalizes only those religions and practices considered as its own. Clearly, Islam and Christianity do not cut the mark.’

            On Friday, February 11, the Karnataka police held route marches in Udupi, Kaup, Karkala and Kundapura. More than 238 police personnel and about 50 police officers took part in the route march through various streets and strategic spots of Udupi. There are reports that higher officials of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) have also arrived in Udupi to monitor the situation. The overt reason of these marches is ‘to ensure that no commotion or face-off takes place on the hijab issue.’ But there is a deeper, subtler, grimmer purpose: to make Muslim students and their families submit to the state. The ruling dispensation would much rather exact absolute obedience, even from minor students, than let defenseless hijabi girls enter their classroom unhindered and read in safety. 

Heba Ahmed is a final year Ph.D. student at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Heba Ahmed
Heba Ahmed
Heba Ahmed is a final year Ph.D. student at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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