The Politics of Hijab in India

The Indian state of Karnataka has been one of the more progressive regions in the country and the whole of south Asia. However, for the past few days, a couple of towns in the state including Udupi has witnessed some unusual protests that have hogged the limelight and headlines. The issue came into prominence when some social media users shared the controversy of eight Muslim girls being denied entry into the college on account of their dress. The girls have been demanding entry into their classes, wearing hijab while college authorities been pleading with them that they should follow the common uniform that all students have been wearing while entering the college and attending classes.

The stalemate continued and college ultimately refused them entry into classroom. The girls then started sitting outside the classroom while listening to the lecture of faculties. The controversy, as is common in India, was stoked further by some vested interests, including the politicians, from the opposition parties, Congress, leftists and some self-proclaimed intellectuals who keep on firing the state and central governments, both being run by the Modi-led BJP.

To make an objective assessment of the ongoing hijab controversy, some pertinent observations are needed. The said government college in Udupi (Karnataka) is a government college with more than 100 Muslim students, both boys and girls. Out of them, the eight girls who started the hijab issue started wearing it only since 31st December. Before that day, they used to come and attend classes in usual college uniform.

The issue of Freedom of Religion (Article 25) and Right to Equality (Article 14) guaranteed to all Indian citizens and protected by the Indian Constitution, clearly stipulates that all fundamental rights are subject to reasonable restrictions, subject to public morality, law and order. While supporters of right of girls to wear hijab, harp on this argument, conveniently omitting the fact that a government educational institution is autonomous, makes its own rules regarding uniform, fees, timings and the like.

Neither the state nor the central government can interfere and impose its will on them, unless that turns into a law and order issue. And even there, the authority to deal with local situations rests, entirely with the local authorities. The politics of giving it a twist to the alleged anti-Muslim bias of BJP and connecting it with the ongoing state elections in five Indian states, therefore, is simply political, unreal and motivated.

Another important point that some of the supporters of hijab have come up with is that it is an integral part of Islam. The fact is that nowhere in sacred Koran, hijab has been mentioned as an integral tenet of the religion and that girls/women necessarily have to follow it. If that is the case then how come, thousands of Muslim women do not wear hijab in France, UK, Australia, Canada, US and other western countries and that does not hurt their religious feelings. Even in the Arab world including Saudi Arabia, UAE, scores of Muslim women do not use hijab. Hundreds of women visiting Mecca and Medina for Haj, do not use hijab. Moreover, many Islamic countries like Azerbaijan, Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Syria have banned hijab. So much so that nations like France, Germany, Norway, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium (supposedly the freest countries in the world, according to World Freedom Index) have banned all sorts of hijab or wearing of veils, to protect gender equity and empowerment of women.

Further, it is interesting that only places where hijab is officially promoted and encouraged are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The world is aware of the status of women in these countries. In fact, one of the reasons the world is not helping out the Taliban is regarding their position on the issues of women and controlling of their freedom, forcing them in veils and burqa.

The domestic politics of hijab is evident since one of the eight protesting girls, accidently spoke to someone that later became viral in media, regarding they being forced to wear hijab and making it an issue in the college by members of Campus Front of India (CFI), an offshoot of Muslim-leftists militant radical organisation, PFI. The leftists who are almost completely marginalised in India, as is the case around the world, except China, are furious since the Modi government is getting into cosy politico-strategic relationship with the US, the evolving QUAD and facing China militarily on the borders, getting involved into conflict in south China Sea, all that are anathema to ones who live in India or west but are part of the implicit Chinese propaganda machinery.

There are politicians of many hues, mostly regional parties who have their respective agendas. Most of them are fearful of the BJP’s unparalleled political reach and Modi’s popularity, in spite of tough and unpopular decisions and are scared of own political fortunes. Hence, they are using it to promote a new narrative of Muslim victimisation and confrontation. Some self-acclaimed intellectuals, including one Indian-origin British ex-WSJ journo even uses Twitter to encourage secession and balkanisation of India. One specific TV Channel whose owner himself is facing money laundering charges and has one of the top CPI(M) leaders as a close relative, keep showing motivated news, post and debates, suggesting that hijab indeed is being supported by the majority of Muslim women that certainly does not seem the case. One of the recent addition to this leftist bandwagon has been one academician from Switzerland (living there for past 15 years) and using fully prejudiced, anti-government propaganda.

Finally, neighbouring Pakistan itself in a mess, politically, economically and militarily, has the audacity to get into the politics and use undiplomatic language against India (that as usual, simply ignored it…as the world has been ignoring Pakistan for long). However, India’ western neighbour refuses to learn, its PM Imran Khan, widely seen as international beggar does not have the wherewithal to even protest, forget about questioning, China who shamelessly, keep exploiting Uighur Muslims, killing and detaining them in internment camps, banning all sorts of veils and even keeping beards and following religious practices. The Taliban (in Afghanistan) praising the motivated hijab support, only indicates the level of politicisation of this non-issue that does not have any religious or cultural sanction, except politics that a careful administrative or judicial handling will sort out soon.

Rajesh Kumar Sinha
Rajesh Kumar Sinha
Rajesh Kumar Sinha, MA, MLISc, MPhil, PG Diploma in Journalism is a serving Librarian with the Indian Railways, INDIA. He has worked in print and web media for seven years and writes for Foreign Policy News (US), South Asia Journal (US), Indian Railways (India), OPEN Journal and Rail Journal (India).