Hijab row forces closure of state colleges, schools

All high schools and colleges in India’s southern state of Karnataka were closed for three days after violent clashes on 8 February sparked by the barring of female students wearing the hijab at almost a dozen colleges around the state.

The controversy began last month after female Muslim students at Udupi Government Pre-University (PU) College for women arrived at the college gates wearing the hijab but were not permitted by the college principal to enter class.

After being turned away, the hijab-wearing students stood outside the college gates protesting their exclusion and claiming to having been denied their rights to education and freedom of religion.

Aggrieved students have since petitioned the Karnataka High Court, arguing that wearing the hijab is a constitutional right, while other petitions have been submitted to the Supreme Court of India, moves that could open the way to landmark judgments on the scope of religious freedom in the country.

The Indian Constitution gives every citizen the right to practise, profess and propagate religion. However, on grounds of public order, morality and health, such rights can be curtailed.

Initially limited to Udupi and Chikmagalur districts in Karnataka, disputes between students and administrations over the hijab have since spilled over to at least a dozen Karnataka colleges, intensifying in early February, and spreading to other parts of the country, including Puducherry (Pondicherry) bordering on Tamil Nadu state. Students have also protested against the hijab ban in Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata.

On 5 February, the Karnataka state government confirmed that uniforms were compulsory in schools and colleges. On 8 February, the state government ordered the closure of all educational institutions in the state for three days as protests turned violent and the police resorted to batons and teargas to control an unruly mob in the Davangere district.

Political mileage

Political parties have made mileage out of what has become a snowballing issue: while opposition Congress politicians support the hijab, the state government of Karnataka, ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2019, has backed the college heads who said they are enforcing a dress code that applies to all students, and does not include the hijab.

Karnataka BJP President Nalin Kumar Kateel said the state government would not permit ‘Talibanisation’ – a term used to refer to strict Islamic practices by the Taliban – of colleges.

In a video that went viral, a hijab-clad woman, Muskan Khan, was seen shouting “Allah-hu-Akbar” (God is great) on the college campus in Mandya, a town in Karnataka, on Tuesday, after she was heckled by a crowd on the college premises for wearing the headscarf.

Hindu students allegedly stopped her from entering the campus, holding up Hindu religious slogans. Young Hindu men wore saffron scarves – a colour associated with Hinduism but also associated with the ruling BJP.

Khan, a student of PES College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Mandya district, said on Wednesday she had been to the college to submit an assignment.

While Khan said she would abide by the court order regarding the wearing of the hijab, she also said: “I have been wearing a hijab since the first time I went to pre-university. There was no problem in the college. No one opposed [it]. We were attending classes wearing hijabs,” she told University World News.

“We cover our hair and go inside the classroom. But these people were not even allowing me to enter the campus. There were many outsiders. There were only a few college students. But most of them were outsiders,” she added.

Constitutional rights

Requesting anonymity, an assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), a centrally funded university in New Delhi, said every community in India had religious freedom.

“The Constitution gives fundamental rights in this regard. What to wear and what not to wear should not be a state subject.

“Overall, educational institutions should keep their full focus on education. Political leaders should also avoid rhetoric in this regard. Wearing the hijab is a personal matter; it is not right to spoil the harmony of the country by giving it a political colour,” she added.

Many Muslim students in Karnataka and elsewhere noted that it is their constitutional right to wear the hijab. “Every religion has freedom to follow their culture. We will follow our culture,” said a local student, requesting anonymity.

Yasmin Khan, another Muslim student in the Belagavi district of Karnataka, told University World News the issue was “a pointless dispute”.

“It is futile and well-planned political propaganda. Wearing the hijab is our fundamental right under the Constitution.

“In view of the upcoming elections in five states, this issue has been deliberately raised, so that polarisation of voters could be done by inciting hatred against Muslims.”

Another student, Aqsa Khan, said it was unfortunate that Muslim girls were being prevented from attending colleges. “The government wants more students, particularly women students, to pursue higher studies. But the hijab row would lead to marginalisation of Muslim girls,” she said.

“The government should empower them and encourage them to study instead of stopping them. They should not be told to choose between hijab and education. It’s an attack on our faith, enshrined in our Constitution,” Khan said.

Others are concerned about an anti-Muslim backlash.

“If they really want to study, they could have avoided this controversy very easily. Why did they insist on wearing hijab in the classrooms?” said Irum Dasnavi, a student who did not want her institution to be identified. “They should have taken a stand which would not harm them,” she said.

Court petitions

Congress leader and senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, a former minister of human resource development, has listed a plea in the Supreme Court on behalf of Fathima Bushra, a student at PU College, requesting the transfer of petitions filed in the Karnataka High Court to the top court.

Bushra asked in her petition why “something as innocuous as wearing of a hijab by a Muslim girl student has been turned into a communal issue of such magnitude that the state government had to shut down schools and colleges across the state of Karnataka till the weekend”.

She challenged the Karnataka government order of 5 February directing students to wear only those uniforms prescribed by their educational institutions.

“A Muslim girl pursuing her education wearing a hijab or headscarf offends no right of any person and militates against no state interest… Petitioner does not wear the hijab as a form of any political symbolism or to intimidate, heckle or belittle her fellow classmates or any other person,” she argued, saying restrictions were “bound to have an impact on the rights of Muslim women across the country”.

The Supreme Court said it would intervene in the matter after the decision of the Karnataka High Court. In a hearing on 8 February the Karnataka High Court referred the case to a larger bench. The court on Thursday asked students not to insist on wearing any cloth, whether the hijab or saffron scarves, on campuses of educational institutions which could “instigate” conflict until the matter is resolved.