Bengaluru: The tussle over hijab (headscarf) and saffron scarves continues to spread to more colleges in Karnataka. Even as the high court is set to hear a petition filed by Muslim students of Udupi Women’s PU College — which sparked off the row in December 2021 — politics has taken centre stage in the issue.
As protest spreads to more institutions with saffron scarves-sporting Hindu students demanding ban on Hijab-clad Muslim students, more colleges are shutting the gates on its “dress-code violating” students.
Labeling it “Talibanisation” and “go to Pakistan”, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have lashed out at students demanding that hijab be allowed. Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) leaders have come in support of the Muslim students, urging the state government to not infringe on their fundamental right to education.
Under immense pressure from protesting students, the Karnataka government Saturday banned clothes that “disturb equality, integrity and public law and order” in educational institutions.
A timeline of events
December 2021: While the ‘hijab vs saffron scarf’ row is not new to Karnataka, the latest wave of communal flare up began in December 2021. Six students of Udupi Women’s PU College staged a protest for weeks after college authorities allegedly refused to let them sit in classrooms wearing hijab. After approaching district commissioner, education department officials, the girls have now petitioned the Karnataka High Court seeking relief.
3 January: Hindu students of the Government First Grade College in Koppa, Chikmagalur, which also has an uniform and a dress code, staged a sit-in protest sporting saffron scarves Monday. Their demand was also to allow them to wear saffron scarves if Muslim girl students were allowed to wear hijabs.
6 January: Similar scenes were witnessed in Pompei college of Mangaluru. Speaking to ThePrint then, Karnataka Primary and Secondary Education Minister B.C. Nagesh had said the state was mulling a uniform dress code.
31 January: The issue flared up after students of Udupi Women’s PU college approached the HC seeking interim relief to attend classes wearing hijab.
The Karnataka government meanwhile asked all government colleges and schools to maintain status quo until the government committee comes up with a recommendation on dress code.
2 February: Kundapur Government PU college shut its gates on students wearing hijab after Hindu students wore saffron scarves. Videos of the girl students pleading with the principal to let them attend classes went viral.
On the same day, similar scenes were witnessed at Sir M Vishweshwaraiah Government Arts and Commerce College in Bhadravati of Shivamogga district.
3 February: The protests spread to another college in Kundapur. Bhandarkars’ Arts and Science College forcing the college management to shut the gates on students sporting hijab as well as saffron scarves.
More protests were witnessed at Byndoor Government PU college where more than 300 Hindu students backed by Hindutva organisatons wore saffron scarves to college. Protests were also seen in Belagavi Government PU college.
Politics over row
Leaders of the ruling BJP have vehemently opposed Muslim students seeking to wear hijab in colleges accusing the community of trying to ‘Talibanise’ educational institutions.
“BJP is in power in the state. There is no space for hijab or such things. School is a (Goddess) Saraswati temple. It is everyone’s duty to study within rules framed by the school. Talibanisation will not be allowed,” Karnataka BJP President Nalin Kumar Kateel told reporters Saturday.
Other leaders of the party too have taken similarly strong stand against the Muslim community.
Today, THEY will ask permission to attend school wearing Hijab.
Tomorrow, THEY will demand Sharia Law.
ONE SCHOOL, ONE UNIFORM.
If you are not following the school rules, stop going to school.
Schools are not your personal space that you can wear whatever you want.
— C T Ravi 🇮🇳 ಸಿ ಟಿ ರವಿ (@CTRavi_BJP) February 4, 2022
“If you ask me, Madrasas should be banned too, Urdu schools as well. Learn in Kannada, else go to Pakistan. What work do you have here? You want hijab, you want Urdu and all Islamic practises then go to Pakistan,” former Union minister Basanagouda Patil Yatnal told reporters Saturday.
Opposition parties Congress and JD(S), going after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (save the girl child, educate the girl child), have urged the government to ensure protesting students get access to education.
“Constitution has given the right to practice any religion which means one can wear any clothes according to their religion. Prohibiting hijab-wearing students from entering school is a violation of fundamental rights. The main agenda of the Sangh Parivar is to deny education to Muslim girls in the name of hijab,” Siddaramaiah, Leader of the Opposition in Karnataka legislature, told reporters Sunday.
Siddaramaiah was the first senior leader of the Congress to speak about the row.
Former party president and senior leader Rahul Gandhi too raised the matter via his social media page.
By letting students’ hijab come in the way of their education, we are robbing the future of the daughters of India.
Ma Saraswati gives knowledge to all. She doesn’t differentiate. #SaraswatiPuja
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) February 5, 2022
“The Union government brought in ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ scheme but the BJP government in the state is using hijab as an excuse to implement ‘Beti Hatao’ (remove the girl child),” H.D. Kumaraswamy, former chief minister and JD(S) legislative party leader, told reporters Saturday.
What legal experts say
The Karnataka government has referred to observations of the Supreme Court in the case of Asha Ranjan vs State Of Bihar And Ors on 15 February 2017 and Bombay High Court judgment in Fathema Hussain Syed vs Bharat Education Society, among others, to justify its decision to impose a dress code.
Legal experts from Karnataka believe that the state has an undisputed right to impose a dress code. However, they also highlight that the concern in this case is whether the decision was notified clearly.
“As far as the dress code within school/college premises is concerned, colleges can enforce their own norms. Outside the school is a different matter. This is not as wide an issue as it has been created. It falls within the discipline issue of the school. Among young minds, it is always better to install a sense of uniformity and equality. Distinction on the basis of caste is, personally, not a good thing. Religion is a matter of personal practice,” said Ashok Haranahalli, former advocate general of Karnataka and senior counsel.
“Secondly, what is to be done in schools is an issue of discipline. Fundamental right is to practice your religion in your homes or places of worship but education is a matter not relating to religion. There is no infringement of the fundamental right to ask to come in prescribed uniform,” added Haranahalli.
Supreme Court Senior Advocate Sajjan Poovaiah said the problem is today “the issue is being looked at from either political or ideological perspective — both are wrong”.
“This is a is a matter of constitutional and individual autonomy. These are public instruction units that impart secular education and the state has every authority under the constitution to impose a set of reasonable restrictions to make public institutions uniform. Conspicuous symbols of religious character cannot be carried to a place where public instructions are being imparted — whether it is a saffron scarf or a hijab,” said Poovaiah.
“In the current case the state is on feeble ground on the issue of notice. You need to make sure that you have communicated to people partaking in public instruction that reasonable certainty and well in advance that these are the rules. So either follow it or don’t participate. That I think is a bit of a problem,” he added.