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Hijab Vs Saffron Scarf || Midweek Matters 46

02-03-2022published_dt 2022-03-02T09:08:04.150Z02-03-2022 14:38:04 IST
2022-03-02T09:08:04.150Z02-03-2022 2022-03-02T09:08:04.150Z - - 04-10-2022

Hello and 

Welcome to 

Midweek Matters.

It is hard not to be deeply troubled by what is going on in Karnataka. Several schools and colleges in the state have seen very ugly scenes. They were closed by a government order for a few days. When some of them reopened, they did so with the condition imposed by the High Court that students will enter class rooms only if they do not wear attire that has marks of religion. That was the court's interim order before a full bench passes a final one later. Today I want to examine the hijab controversy, understand what is being played out in Karnataka, and reflect on the sub text these unfolding events contain. 

Today we will not go into the larger and more fundamental questions about the contentious question of desirability or otherwise of the practice of wearing a hijab or burqua. Do burqua and hijab constitute essential parts of Islamic practice? Are they or are they not ordained as compulsory parts of Muslim women's attire? Are they or are they not regressive symbols of patriarchy, designed to confine women to homes? Do those practices limit or exclude women  from full participation in collective life or push them to subordinate roles in public life of a society?  We don’t go into these questions because, let’s be clear about it, the present controversy and unrest are completely unconcerned and unrelated to those larger questions. In fact, the present controversy has vitiated the atmosphere so badly that any civilised debate on these questions would be impossible for some time to come. 

Let us also bear in mind that the consequences and repercussions of what is happening in Karnataka will not be limited to a few schools and colleges in the Karnataka. Whatever may be the final decision of the Karnataka High Court and later of the Supreme Court, the issue is unlikely to fade away from the political and social discourse of the country. It is certain to further sharpen the polarisation of Hindu and Muslim identities, a project that is in the interests of extreme elements in both the religions. 

Let us begin by quickly looking at the way the issue has snowballed. 

What started small in Udupi, soon spread to Shivamogga, Mandya, Bagalkot, and Chikmagaluru. Processions were taken out. Incidents of stone throwing and bullying were reported. Schools and colleges were closed for a few days. Police held flag marches in a few towns. Section 144 was imposed to prevent violence in several towns. When educational institutions reopened this Monday, tension and unease prevailed. 

On 1st January, Government Pre University College in Udupi disallowed Muslim girls wearing hijab in the classrooms saying it violated the uniform dress code. Neighbouring Kundapur Government PU College followed suit. Many Muslims girls complied with the college norm of barring hijab, but six students resisted. Local BJP MLA wrote to the college administration that action should be taken against those girls. As the controversy persisted, by the end of January the girls moved the Karnataka High Court praying that they be allowed to attend classes wearing hijab. Until then the issue was largely limited to one point: whether there is merit in the college managements' decision to treat wearing hijab as violation of uniform dress code in an educational institution. 

But the issue did not rest there for more than a few days. Hindu students were mobilised to protest against Muslim girls wearing hijab. Processions of Hindu boys and girls wearing saffron scarves were taken out in several towns to protest against Muslim girls wearing hijab. Video footage of these processions showed young students shouting Jai Sriram slogans. Many videos circulated on social media platforms that showed activists of organisations like the Bajrangdal moving around in vehicles in different towns distributing saffron scarves. In places like Chikkamagaluru, Dalit students wore blue scarves and shouted Jai Bhim slogans to show their  solidarity with Muslim girls.


In Mandya a Muslim girl who came to the college wearing hijab was bullied by a large group of Hindu boys. The girl shouted Allahu Akbar in retort. The video went viral on social media platforms. Some boys wearing saffron scarves hoisted a saffron flag on the government college post in Shivamogga.

Karnataka hijab row evoked responses from across India as well as from abroad. Rallies were organised in Hyderabad, Delhi, Kolkata, Allahabad, Srinagar and other places to protest against the ban on Hijab in Karnataka's educational institutions. Nobel laureate Malala described barring students wearing hijab from classrooms as "horrifying." An official body in the United States that monitors religious freedom in the world said that hijab bans in schools and colleges violate religious freedom and stigmatise and marginalise women and girls.

Let’s now try to understand the discriminatory sub script in the Hijab row. The government order barring girls who wear hijab from the class rooms is contentious. Uniform dress code does not proscribe men's headgear even in the uniformed serves like the armed forces, paramilitary forces and the police. For example Sikh men wear turban in all these services. They’re exempted from wearing a helmet when they drive two wheelers. Sikh boys are not compelled to give up their headgear in any schools that prescribe uniform dress code. All this is in deference to their religious practice of wearing headgear. When male headgear of one religion is exempt from uniform dress code, can female headgear of practitioners of another religion be proscribed? This brings into the discourse questions about parity among genders and religions. These questions need to be satisfactorily dealt with in order to show that hijab ban is in some way justified in schools. Otherwise, apprehensions that male headgear and female headgear of religious significance are not treated on a par will remain. In addition, charge that Sikh religious practices are honoured and those of Muslims are not in the same domains of public spaces remains unanswered. These apprehensions rankle in the mind of Muslim minority, especially Muslim women for a long time to come.

The hijab row is only the latest addition to a long train of events and developments that have been alienating the Muslim minority in our society and instilling deep sense of fear in its mind. These events are of two kinds. One is attacks on Muslim minority, the other one is assertion of Hindu majoritarian identity. Beef vigilantism, lynchings, vandalising small shops and attacks on petty businesses owned by them, roughing up of traders such as bangle sellers, calls for physical elimination of Muslims by Dharma Sansad, Sulli deals and bulli bai apps that put up Muslim women for auction, assertions that elections in UP are a fight between 80% and 20%, abba jaan sort of remarks by leaders holding constitutional positions, insinuations of love jihad and thuk jihad, population control legislations aimed specifically at Muslim population, notwithstanding the steep fall in the community's total fertility rate, anti conversion legislations, euphemistically named Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion — the list of such attacks can be much longer. I have not even mentioned the long list of attacks on the Christian community.

Now to the Hindu majoritarian assertion. The Prime Minister and other constitutional functionaries belonging to his party openly display marks of Hindu religious identity on their person. Massive publicity is given to their participation in functions that mark the beginning of construction of temples, restoration of temple complexes, inauguration of religious events, unveiling of massive statues Hindu saints. In addition, we also have rhetorical assertions like saffron flag flying on the Red Fort by elected representatives belonging to BJP. 

Today, attacks on minorities and assertion of Hindu majoritarianism have almost become normalised and mainstreamed. These attacks and the assertion are not questioned.


On the contrary, it is the resistance to them that is questioned. What is most disturbing is, it is children in their early teens are who are now co-opted into this assertion and attack as well as for resistance. Extremists in both the communities are having a field day. Children are their foot soldiers. I have seen posts on microblogging sites by some Hindutva activists. They say that the hijab row has yielded dividends to the Hindu community. It consolidated Hindus in Karnataka. I have not come across any writings or posts. But I am sure the extreme elements among Muslims may also be gloating over the developments. Owaisi's assertion that one day a Muslim woman donning hijab will be the Prime Minister of the country can only help stoke the fires.

We await the decision of the courts. First, the High Court's. And then perhaps the Supreme Court's. It will be sad if the courts decide to hand down a sham compromise. To say that no one wears any clothing that has religious connotation. That Muslim girls will not wear hijab and Hindu students will not wear saffron scarfs. But that in essence deprives the girls of their custom and make it look like it is done in exchange for the Hindu children giving up on saffron scarf that is not their custom or practice. At any rate, the decision of the courts is unlikely to put an end to this ugly contest between hijab and saffron scarf. 

That’s all for this week

Will be back again next week

Wednesday afternoon, lunch time at 1:00 

Stay safe and do take good care of yourselves and all your loved ones. 

Until then, Bye.