New Delhi: The BJP is treading cautiously on the hijab row in Karnataka. Its primary concern — as reports and visuals of students protesting the ban on the headscarf in classrooms in state educational institutions make waves across India and abroad — is how the controversy could impact Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s global image.
A senior BJP leader admitted as much, saying that the “main concern is not of electoral setback but of the matter blowing up like the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in which Muslim women were at the forefront”. “It had damaged the PM’s image globally,” the leader added.
As Basavaraj Bommai faces his biggest test as Karnataka Chief Minister in the hijab row, senior BJP leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s words of support towards the state government, which has been justifying its hijab ban in court, have come as a shot in the arm.
Shah said in an interview to Network 18 Monday that “ultimately it has to be decided whether the country will function on the basis of the Constitution or whims”, and that “it is my personal belief that people of all religions should accept a school’s dress code”.
On Tuesday, the eighth day of the Karnataka High Court hearing petitions challenging the ban by Muslim girls from the state’s Udupi district, Karnataka Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi argued that the right to wear the headscarf does not fall under Article 25 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion.
On the petitioner suggesting that students be allowed to wear the hijab like a dupatta having the same colour as the school uniform, Navadgi told the HC: “We have not prescribed anything… and the stand of the state is that anything which introduces a religious aspect should not be there.”
A second BJP source said “the party has no different view on the stand taken by the Karnataka government”. However, sources in the party admitted that, the potential electoral gains for the BJP notwithstanding, the hijab row “should have been handled at the local level”.
Also read: If declared essential to Islam, hijab will become compulsory for Muslim women: Karnataka to HC
Problems Bommai is facing
Bommai has been in a patch of bad weather over the past few months. On 30 October last year, the BJP lost the bypoll in Hangal, which falls in the Karnataka CM’s home district of Haveri.
Then, last December, the state failed to table the controversial anti-conversion bill, seen as part of the Sangh Parivar agenda, in the Karnataka legislative council.
Sources in the BJP pointed to Bommai’s desire to portray himself as committed to the party’s ideology in order to stay relevant among rivals. However, they added, there is a belief that the CM is trapped between competing “Hindutva forces” like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, with whom he is not known to court much support.
A senior central leader of the BJP said: “There is no denying the fact that Bommai is not (former state CM) Yediyurappa, who had tremendous goodwill and command not just in the parivar but across all communities.”
He added that the hijab row was initially between an educational institute and Muslim students but “once he (the CM) got embroiled in the matter, he couldn’t choose the timing of his intervention. The problem arises when you can’t command support in the frontal organisation and can’t be seen as anti-Hindu as well”.
The leader, however, insisted that “this doesn’t mean that Bommai has mishandled the issue”.
Another Karnataka BJP leader, referring to the state’s failure to pass the anti-conversion bill, pointed out that Bommai “shed his liberal avatar to please the frontal organisations and satisfy the majority community, as he knows he can’t win assembly elections on Yediyurappa’s legacy”.
A Karnataka BJP leader pointed out that “Bommai has no option but to become a Hindutva leader, and this compulsion is the defining point of his chief-ministership”. “There are many hardline Hindutva competitors in the party like (Nalin Kumar) Kateel, (C.T.) Ravi and (Murugesh) Nirani — all aspiring to become chief minister,” the leader added.
Sources close to the CM said it was “unfair to blame him” for the hijab controversy as the “state had to take a stand when the matter flared up and central BJP leaders were kept in the loop”.
‘Party never wanted this’
As the hijab controversy rages amid assembly elections in five other states, the BJP is not worried about losing popularity in the only southern state it holds. A section of party leaders is pleased over the religious polarisation the issue is causing, saying it will benefit the BJP.
The worry is different altogether. A party leader, who is a national office-bearer, said the impulse in the BJP is to put a lid on the hijab row instead of keeping it on the boil, because it can create a law and order problem in the state and across India in the long run.
“So leaders have been advised against making contentious statements that can flare up the situation,” the leader said.
The other concern pertains to how the controversy could affect PM Modi’s image in the international community.
Last week, the External Affairs Ministry reminded the US to keep away from India’s internal affairs after the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom commented that Karnataka’s “hijab ban in schools violates religious freedom and stigmatises and marginalises women and girls”.
Prior to that, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai tweeted that “refusing to let girls go to school in their hijabs is horrifying”, while scholar and author Professor Noam Chomsky said “Islamophabia has taken a most lethal form in India”, turning some “250 million Indian Muslims into a persecuted minority”.
One BJP leader gave the example of the CAA to make the point, and said “we did not march ahead (with it) because of global backlash and fear of international criticism despite several reiterations about framing the rules”.
Sources in the party privately admitted that the hijab issue “could have been resolved at the college level”.
“The RSS and Bajrang Dal have influence in the management body of the college (where the hijab row broke out) and in the coastal region, but the CM has a limited hold over these competing outfits and this made his work difficult,” a party source said, adding that the “Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI, the political wing of the Islamic organisation Popular Front of India) seized the opportunity to counter the Bajrang Dal in this area”.
Sources in the BJP also said Bommai is seen as someone who is unable to keep a check on his own cabinet ministers.
Some leaders cited the example of four-time Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who they said “has more control on the party and his cabinet, and more legroom among Hindutva outfits compared to Bommai” to handle controversial issues.
“When his school education minister Inder Singh Parmar proposed a uniform dress code, Chouhan hauled him up for making the comment without consulting the government,” a leader said, adding that even (MP home minister) Narottam Mishra did not support Parmar and made evident his displeasure over the heckling of hijab-clad women on a college campus.
Compared to this, the source added, Bommai’s lack of control over the Karnataka leaders was evident when state minister K.S. Eshwarappa told reporters that “sometime in the future, after 100 or 200 or 500 years, the bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag) may become the national flag”. His statement caused an uproar in the assembly.
Another BJP leader said: “There is a difference between the other ideological issues raised by the Sangh Parivar and this hijab controversy. This row was not initiated by the party or the RSS unlike ‘love jihad’ or ‘religious conversion’. The party never wanted this.”
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
Also read: ‘Uniforms in institutions fine as long as these are religion-neutral,’ says Muslim body