Indian American group decries hijab ban in Karnataka; schools and colleges shut as violence erupts


The Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, has condemned the discriminatory treatment and denial of educational opportunities to Muslim girl students wearing the hijab at various colleges in Karnataka state. “The discrimination faced by these students is severe, humiliating and dehumanizing,” the IAMC said.

The controversy was triggered in Dec 2021 when six students of the state-run Udupi Women’s Pre-University College were not allowed to enter the classroom wearing the hijab or traditional scarf covering the head and neck. The issue has continued to escalate since.

In recent weeks, students have been removed from classes, threatened by teachers and marked absent for choosing to wear the hijab. At one college, students were reportedly pressured to write an apology letter to the faculty for their “lack of discipline”. At another, girls pleaded with a faculty member as he closed the school gates in their faces; later, a group of extremists threatened them with a knife. When the students were admitted back to the campus, they were segregated from peers in a separate classroom.

More disturbing, the council said, is that Hindu extremist politicians have used the students to further their sectarian agendas. Karnataka’s state government is dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose officials have been quick to criticize the Muslim students. One BJP official accused them of an “international conspiracy” while state BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel claimed that hijab in schools was a sign of “Talibanization”, Pramod Muthalik, chief of the extremist Sri Ram Sene, claimed the students had a “terrorist mindset” and told them to “go to Pakistan”.

Some Hindu students have been provoked into turning on their classmates, marching in protest against the hijab wearing saffron scarves. The indoctrination of young minds that believes the expression of another faith is somehow a threat to their own augurs ill for the country, the council said.

Incidentally, Feb 1 was observed as the first annual World Hijab Day, to raise awareness about the reality of hijab, that, according to Islam, cannot be forced upon anyone. Hijab is also more than just a scarf. For millions of Muslim women, it is a marker of their faith, without in any way being an impediment to their personal empowerment or self-confidence.

As of now, the Karnataka high court has held a preliminary hearing on a writ petition filed by the initial six victims and asked people to keep the peace and refrain from demonstrations and protests. The state government has ordered all closed educational institutions shut for three days. They will resume either Friday or Monday.

The IAMC said the show of solidarity for the students by people across faiths was heartening and showed that the core humanism of India’s traditionally diverse society continues to push back against majoritarianism. Celebrities and media personalities have taken to social media to protest the treatment of students wearing the hijab. Dalit students, who face discrimination daily, held a march in support of Muslim women, wearing blue and chanting ‘Jai Bhim’ to show solidarity.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was among the leading voices opposing the issue, engaging in a highly public Twitter debate with Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal University. Tharoor’s fundamental point – which was received well by the twitterverse – was that it is common practice for Indians to wear religious symbols – a turban, a crucifix, the teeka on the forehead – and it is not banned in Indian schools as it is in France. He therefore raised questions about equal application of law.

IAMC called upon college officials who are attempting to ban the hijab to abandon their discriminatory and Islamophobic policies and urged civil society institutions to take up the cause of protecting the right to education and right to dignity for all students.

Meanwhile, shocking details are emerging from the widespread incidents of violence from across Karnataka Tuesday in the backdrop of the row. IANS reported that miscreants attacked a teacher with iron rods, causing severe head injuries, in Bagalkot district while in Shimoga district a BJP MLA stood by as a mob beat up a student.

Manjunath Naik (30), a school teacher, was attacked by miscreants in Banahatti town of Bagalkot district after violence erupted following a student protest. “I was crossing the road when a group of people attacked me with rods,” the bleeding teacher told reporters. ”I couldn’t realize what was happening.” The situation is still tense in Banahatti.

The incident involving Haratala Halappa happened when the legislator visited Sagar District Hospital to inquire about students injured in stone pelting and a police baton charge. A large number of students were waiting outside and tried to pour out their complaints to Halappa. Hindu as well Muslim students raised slogans and condemned each other. The incident took a violent turn when some saffron shawl-clad students attacked one who was raising slogans in support of the hijab. Halappa made no move to calm tempers.

In another incident in Mandya district, a hijab-wearing college student had to bear the brunt of the anger of a group of students at PES College. The students started raising ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans as soon as they spotted her. Provoked, the young woman shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’. This angered the mob which started following her with louder sloganeering.

CB Ryshyanth, superintendent of police of Davanagere district where prohibitory orders are in force till Wednesday evening, said the force had registered a complaint of the violence that took place in Davanagere and Harihara. “CCTV footage is available. Whoever is involved will not be spared. We don’t make any arrests unnecessarily. I request people not to come out of their houses,” the police chief said.

Siddaramaiah, leader of the opposition in the state assembly, slammed the BJP government for the situation. He said provocative statements by the home and education ministers were responsible for the crisis. The issue could have been solved at the local level in the initial stages. Now the government is helpless, he said.

KS Eshwarappa, minister for rural development and panchayati raj, charged the Congress with vote-bank politics.