'The only reason is to humiliate Muslims as much as possible': India lurches to the right with school hijab ban
In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, a Muslim girl was recently told by Hindu nationalists they would prevent her from attending school should she continue wearing her hijab, an incidence further provoked by some government schools endorsing the policy in recent months.
Despite attempts by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement to intimidate her, Muskan Khan nonetheless made her way into school, unfazed.
As she would later explain to the Indian television channel NDTV, "I was just there to submit an assignment; that’s why I entered the college. They were not allowing me to go inside just because I was [wearing] the burqa. We will continue (our protests) because it (wearing a hijab) is a part of being a Muslim girl; they (friends from other communities) even supported us.”
"The only reason is to humiliate minority Muslims as much as possible. This is part of the ruling regime’s larger agenda of creating a Hindu state. It polarizes the society, helps them to get the majority in the elections, and with it getting an electoral legitimacy to enforce Hindu majoritarianism"
Muskan's refusal to be cowered by mob rule has since gone viral online and has led to widespread protests, starting in Karnataka's Udupi district, spreading nationwide. Notably, Karnataka's Udupi district is a BJP stronghold, previously described as a “laboratory for majoritarian Hindu politics” in the past.
In an attempt to end the crisis, the Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Mommai closed all the educational institutions in the state for three days. According to the state government, the clothes were banned as they disturbed “equality, integrity and public order.” But BC Nagesh, the state's education minister, refused to lift the ban, saying that, “those unwilling to follow uniform dress code can explore other options”.
Negotiations between government representatives and the protesting students have thus achieved little breakthrough. For a while, one of the schools did allow girls in hijab to attend school, but they were made to sit in separate classrooms. So in response, one of the students filed a case in the Karnataka High Court in the state capital of Bengaluru, stating that wearing the hijab was a fundamental right accorded by Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 of the Indian constitution, which provides the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion.
Though no final order has been passed by the judge, hearings continue.
Currently, a stand-off prevails in Karnataka with minority groups fearing that their persecution may continue to spiral out of control, a phenomenon lay at the feet of Narendra Modi's exclusionary policies. In this case, as has happened in so many others, ruling BJP members have made matters worse by issuing statements that defend the hijab ban.
Discussing why religious intolerance is growing in India, Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Uppsala University in Sweden, told The New Arab, “The only reason is to humiliate minority Muslims as much as possible. This is part of the ruling regime’s larger agenda of creating a Hindu state. It polarizes the society, helps them to get the majority in the elections, and with it getting an electoral legitimacy to enforce Hindu majoritarianism.”
Modi’s 2014 election victory has strengthened hard-line Hindu supremacist lobbies, and in doing so undermined the country’s secular traditions. Since then, the ruling Bharatiya Jannata Party (BJP) has implemented a number of policies designed to appease the 79.8 percent Hindu majority in India. PM Modi has always maintained that his economic and social policies are beneficial for all Indians.
"Karnataka's Udupi district is a BJP stronghold, previously described as a “laboratory for majoritarian Hindu politics” in the past"
Sadly, the space for religious minorities is constantly shrinking in India, despite its ostensibly democratic character. Even as right-wing parties get more popularity and guarantee large electoral gains, deepening religious fault-lines threaten national unity. If not given urgent attention, there may be long-term damage.
Discussing the phenomena of right-wing politics in India, Lakshmi Sreenivasan, a psychologist and D&I consultant from Mumbai explained to The New Arab, “This is a politically motivated issue. We have seen how Right-Wing (RW) students marched in hordes with saffron colour coordinated shawls and ‘safaa’. To call this harassment would be trivializing the current plight of Muslim communities in India. The right-wing politics, abetted by the media and funded IT cells on social media have consistently targeted Muslim women for their religious identity, as well as vocal women from other communities for their opinion.”
In Sreenivasan’s opinion, “Minority persecution is foundational to India's right-wing policies. The hijab is just an excuse, this is entirely about a woman’s choice. The constitution gives the right to practice one’s religion and hence more than a practice of faith, it is about constitutional rights.”
There are fears that the matter may not end with the Muslim religious community, with the same right-wing lobbies now legislatively able to victimize Sikhs, Christian minorities and even lower castes Hindus in the days ahead.
As Sreenivasan has aptly summed it up, “segregation and exclusion only breed hatred, and that is precisely what India's right-wing is aiming for, so it is both critical and urgent that every citizen who believes in secularism, equal rights, and inclusion must stand in solidarity to protect Muslim communities’ constitutional rights.”
Over the last two decades, the use of the hijab has come under debate even in Western countries. The practice was banned in public schools in France in 2004 but India happens to have a much larger Muslim population at around 14 percent. Moreover, the use of the scarf was never criticized previously.
As Zakia Soman, founder of a Muslim women’s group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan says, “singling out hijab for criticism is unfair and discriminatory. Those opposing it are on record decrying secularism and for openly espousing majoritarianism.”
This matter requires urgent attention from Indian politicians and policymakers before it is too late. Considering the ban “a culmination of a growing climate of hate against Muslims,” Afreen Fatima, a student activist in New Delhi has said, “What we are seeing is an attempt to make Muslim women invisible and push them out of public spaces."
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi