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HomeIndiaThe politics behind Karnataka's hijab row: Sliding Congress, rising SDPI, combative BJP

The politics behind Karnataka’s hijab row: Sliding Congress, rising SDPI, combative BJP

There's more to the Karnataka hijab row — centred on students' battle to wear religious headscarves to educational institutions — than meets the eye.

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Udupi: Scarves swish in a hypnotic duel, saffron against hijab, keeping the eyes of the nation fixated on them. It began this past December as a tiff among students, parents, and the management at an Udupi college. Now, far from being resolved at the local level, it’s the burning issue of the day — thanks to an underlying ferment of party politics, religion, and caste appeasement that’s keeping the flame alive.  

Politicians and analysts believe a host of factors have kept the row going, from a strategy deployed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win back disaffected foot soldiers from the Billava community, to the Congress’ virtual absence on communal matters, and to an emboldened Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) — the political wing of the Islamic organisation Popular Front of India (PFI) — which has made inroads into coastal Karnataka’s electoral politics.

BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members being in leadership positions on college development committees, and parents of three of the six protesting girls at the Udupi Government Women’s Pre-University (PU) College being active members of the SDPI, are yet more ingredients in the political cocktail, as noted by local leaders.

“The issue could have been resolved at the college level, but the influence the BJP and the Sangh had on the college clashed head on with the assertion the Muslim students were trying to make,” a former office-bearer and key leader of the Udupi District Muslim Okkuta, an umbrella organisation of local mosques, jamaats, and Islamic organisations, told ThePrint. 

He added that the students were backed by the PFI’s student wing, the Campus Front of India (CFI), “which had been feeling triumphant following the SDPI’s recent electoral victories”. “The parents of three of the protesting girls are members of the SDPI,” he said. 

His organisation had tried its best to resolve the matter, but the SDPI and the BJP both saw political opportunities in fanning it, he added.

Also read: ‘We are losing our friends’, say Udupi Hindu students about Muslim classmates in hijab row

SDPI’s growing footprint

The SDPI was registered with the Election Commission in 2010, and has been expanding its influence at the grassroots level and working towards electoral gains in the coastal Karnataka and old Mysuru regions ever since. It has won seats at the gram panchayat and zilla panchayat levels over the years. 

And — just like another Muslim-run party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) — the SDPI, too, has been accused by the Congress of having a tacit understanding with the BJP, especially as elections close in, to whip up polarisation.

The SDPI won six seats in Karnataka’s urban local body elections in December. Of the six, three were in Kaup in Udupi district, and one each in Vittla and Kotekar in Dakshina Kannada district — all coastal regions with a sizeable Muslim population. The remaining seat was won by a Dalit candidate fielded by the party in Chikkamagaluru. 

The Muslim leader from Udupi also pointed out that the protesting students at the PU College were from localities such as Kaup, Kidiyoor, and Malpe, where the SDPI has come to wield massive political influence among Muslim voters.

“When the Muslim students alleged that their college was ill-treating them for their hijabs, the SDPI seized the opportunity to gain more popularity among minorities — especially when Congress leaders in coastal Karnataka are on a weak wicket,” said a political analyst who is from the region and has served as political adviser to a chief minister of Karnataka.

“Leaders of the Congress in the region, such as Pramod Madhwaraj, Vinay Kumar Sorake, and Gopal Poojari, are worried about losing Hindu votes if they take up the causes of Muslims strongly,” he said.

He added that the “reluctance of the local Congress leadership” to publicly take on the Hindutva influence and vigilantism that surfaces over issues such as cattle slaughter, interfaith relationships, and the conversion bogey has helped the SDPI emerge as an alternative in the eyes of Muslims.

The three districts of coastal Karnataka — Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada, and Udupi — are often counted among the more communally sensitive regions in India. All three districts have a sizeable population of Muslims as well as Christians.

Social activists attribute the frequent communal flare-ups in the region, which is frequently described as a “Hindutva laboratory”, largely to incitement from radical Hindu and Muslim organisations.

Also read: Heckled over hijab, Mandya Muslim student says no need to fear, fighting for right to education

Congress’s fears of Hindu backlash

The Congress leaders’ worries are not unfounded. Over the years, when the party has attempted to woo Muslim voters in the coastal region, BJP leaders have responded by appealing — successfully — to emotions of ‘Hindu pride’. 

For instance, in January 2018, then Congress MLA Ramanath Rai credited the Muslim community and Allah for his successive election victories in the Bantwal constituency. Reacting to this in a speech, V. Sunil Kumar, then the BJP’s chief whip in the assembly and MLA from Karkala, now a state minister, asked people if they wanted to elect Allah or Ram.

“That one sentence won seats in both Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts in the assembly polls that came months later. All it takes is one such phrase to swing an election in this region, because of the anger Congress leaders create with their appeasement politics,” a senior Sangh leader who is now a state minister told ThePrint.

Of the six seats in Uttara Kannada district, the BJP won four in the 2018 assembly polls, and took its tally to five when Shivaram Hebbar joined the party from the Congress. In Udupi district, the BJP bagged all five seats, and in Dakshina Kannada, it won seven out of eight, leaving the Congress with just one. In 2013, the Congress had won three seats in Udupi, seven in Dakshina Kannada, and three in Uttara Kannada.

B.K. Hariprasad, leader of the Congress in the state legislative council, agreed that Congress leaders were in a sticky spot in coastal Karnataka.

“The NSUI (National Students’ Union of India, the Congress’s student wing) is weak in that region, I agree. Our leaders take a soft stand on many issues because of local electoral politics, but that does not mean that the Congress as a party peddles soft Hindutva,” he said.

The Congress’ reluctance to take a strong stand on communally sensitive issues has ceded space to the SDPI, which is finally making electoral gains.

Appealing to sentiments among Muslims has worked for the SDPI much as it does for the BJP among Hindus in the communally sensitive region. Lack of adequate representation has been a long-standing complaint against the Congress from the Muslim community — a concern the SDPI, as a Muslim-run party, has easily been able to address.

The SDPI fielded 23 candidates in the 2013 Karnataka assembly election. It failed to win any seats, but did receive a cumulative vote share of 3.2 per cent. In the 2018 election, the party fielded only three candidates, who all lost — but got a cumulative voteshare of 10.5 per cent. And its reach at grassroots levels has only increased further.

While the BJP insists that the Congress is fast losing its Muslim vote bank to the SDPI across the state, the latter’s ideological fountainhead, PFI, credits its success to its cadre, rather than to community-specific appeal. 

“It is a misconception that the SDPI is a Muslim-only party. Many of the SDPI’s candidates in various elections over the years have been from all marginalised communities,” Anis Ahmed, national general secretary of the PFI, told ThePrint.

Ahmed denied that the PFI’s political wing was fanning the hijab row. “This is the BJP’s playbook of blaming the PFI and building fake narratives. Everybody knows who stands to gain when voters are polarised,” he added.

Also read: Non-Hindus not allowed to trade: Banners in Mangaluru removed, cops say no action possible

Billava anger over Narayana Guru tableau

While the SDPI and the CFI were looking to build their popularity through the hijab controversy, the BJP also spotted an opportunity, said the former chief ministerial adviser.  

In January, the Ministry of Defence had rejected a Republic Day float proposed by Kerala that included a statue of Sree Narayana Guru — a social reformer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who is revered not just in his home state, but also by members of the Billava community of Karnataka, among whom the float’s rejection caused a major backlash. 

Billavas are a numerous community who make up a huge chunk of the population in some assembly constituencies in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, and form a major base for the BJP.

“The Union government’s decision to reject a tableau of Sree Narayana Guru saw a severe backlash from the Billava community. The numerically superior Billavas are the foot soldiers of the BJP. It made the BJP worried when even Sangh Parivar members joined a protest rally called by veteran Congress leader Janardhana Poojary on Republic Day,” said the senior analyst.

“The hijab row could not have come at a better time. It is almost too good to believe,” he added.

Historically an oppressed community who were denied entry into Brahmanical temples, and associated with the hereditary occupation of toddy tapping, Billavas were similar in many respects to the kindred Ezhava community in Kerala, into which Narayana Guru was born. The guru’s reform efforts greatly influenced the Billavas, and he consecrated the Gokarnanatheshwara temple that they built in Mangaluru in 1912. 

Narayana Guru thus has a substantial legacy in the region — with more than 300 mandirs dedicated to him by the Billava community along the coastline, from Kasaragod at the northern end of Kerala to Kundapura in Karnataka’s Udupi district, according to Billava leaders

Following the Union government’s rejection of the tableau, Congress leaders seized the opportunity to win back goodwill from the community by calling for a ‘Swabhimana Nadige’ — self-respect walk — that saw support even from the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.

A senior leader from the Sangh Parivar, who is now a minister in the Basavaraj Bommai cabinet, agreed that the anger had been palpable. “For the first two days, the Congress gained the upper hand in the matter, but we were quick to hold meetings with community leaders and calm tempers.” 

As a remedial measure, Mangaluru’s Lady Hill circle was wrapped in yellow — the colour associated with Narayana Guru’s followers, originating from the Sivagiri pilgrimage in Kerala — with a photo of the guru installed. It was unofficially renamed ‘Narayana Guru circle’ on 26 January. The Billava community has for years been demanding that the Mangaluru railway station be renamed after Narayana Guru and the airport after the legendary 16th-century heroes Koti-Chennayya

“Billavas make up for a large number of the Sangh’s foot soldiers. The conspiracy of the BJP has been to keep downtrodden communities ill-educated and unemployed so that they can keep fighting the Sangh’s fight for it. When the Billavas became agitated over the Narayana Guru issue, they needed an out. The Sangh and the BJP are fanning protests against the hijab to divert the attention of the Billavas from it,” alleged Congress leader Hariprasad.

However, BJP leader V. Sunil Kumar, Minister for Energy and MLA from Karkala in Udupi, put the blame on the Congress. “The Congress is worried that its vote bank is being disturbed with the rise of the SDPI. The party tried to manufacture an issue out of the Narayana Guru tableau but failed. Neither the BJP nor the Sangh has anything to do with the protests being witnessed in colleges.”

Videos of Hindutva outfit leaders purportedly distributing saffron scarves to college students have, however, been making the rounds in Karnataka. 

Kumar added that the SDPI was curtailing reform among Muslim youth by pushing the community to strictly adhere to Shariat. “They are fuelling the hijab row for this very purpose,” he said, questioning how students from poor Muslim families were able to afford legal fees for the case. However, he said he had no comments to offer when asked if communal polarisation helps the BJP electorally in the region.

PFI national general secretary Anis Ahmed alleged “such communal flare-ups only help the BJP”. “They have nothing to show to the people as elections are nearing. The BJP wants to give a communal flavour to the election. That is the reason they are fanning it,” he said. 

“They want to dehumanise the Muslim community and polarise the Hindu community,” he added. While acknowledging that the SDPI’s electoral gains at the urban local body level were a shot in the arm, Ahmed said the party had a long way to go before emerging as an alternative to the Congress. 

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Karnataka HC interim order bans ‘religious garments’ at educational institutions with dress code


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