Communal tension over how students are supposed to dress is now a major challenge for the political, academic, and legal institutions of Karnataka.
The hijab row became a major political controversy in Karnataka after six students of Udupi Women’s PU College were prevented from attending classes because of their hijab (headscarves). The girls staged protests demanding that the college authorities let them sit in classes and were adamant on not giving up on donning the hijab.
Responding to the same, Hindu community students from the First Grade College in Chikmagalur conducted a sit-in protest wearing saffron scarves. They demanded that the college authorities allow them to wear saffron scarves if Muslim women are allowed to violate the college’s uniform dress code and wear hijabs.
The controversy picked up steam in the beginning of January as videos of the protests started doing the rounds on various social media platforms. On January 6, similar scenes were witnessed in the Pompei College of Mangalore. Gradually, it spread to another college in Kundapur, which led the college management of the Bhandarkar’s Arts & Science College to shut the gates on students wearing hijabs and saffron scarves.
The protests outside the college campuses took an ugly turn as students on each side took a confrontational position. At one point, the tussle at one of the government college campuses forced the state police forces to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Speaking to the media, PU College principal Rudra Gowda said that the students are allowed to wear hijabs on the college premises but not in the classrooms. In an interview with news agency PTI, he said, “The rule is being followed to ensure uniformity in classrooms.”
A petition was filed in the Karnataka High Court by a Muslim girl student seeking a declaration that wearing hijab is a fundamental right under Article 14 and 25 of the Indian constitution.
The Campus Front of India (CFI), which is the student wing of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), held seminars and accused the BJP government of quashing the constitutional right of Muslim girls by not allowing them to wear the hijab. However, the students have denied their association with the organisation.
Karnataka is expected to go to polls in 2023. Keeping the sensitivity of the issue in mind, the BJP administration has taken cautious steps. CM Basavaraj Bommai urged students to maintain peace while the Karnataka HC is hearing the issue.
Some Hindu groups have stepped in, arguing that if Muslim girls attend classes wearing a hijab, then Hindu students will attend them wearing saffron shawls.
Sri Ram Sena founder Pramod Muthalik urged the state government to expel students who insist on wearing headscarves to college, which further exacerbated the issue, giving it a communal colour.
As the movement started spreading across various colleges of the state, BJP leaders started dismissing the appeal of Muslim girls asking to wear the hijab while attending classes. According to Karnataka BJP president Nalin Kumar Kateel, seeking to wear hijabs on campuses is like asking for ‘Talibanisation’ of educational institutions.
Opposition parties such as the Congress and JD(S) have pointed towards PM Narendra Modi’s slogan – ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ – and have pressed the government to ensure that the right to education of protesting students stays protected. Former CM Siddaramaiah also voiced his support for the Muslim girls and accused the BJP and the RSS of trying to politicise the hijab issue to create communal tension in the state.
After similar incidents were witnessed in various colleges of Udupi, Mangalore, and Chikmagalur, on February 5, the state government issued an order, asking all government and private colleges in the state to follow a uniform dress code. “In the event of the administrative committee not selecting a uniform, clothes which disturb equality, integrity, and public law and order should not be worn,” stated the order.
Sadia Khan, an assistant lecturer at the OP Jindal Global University, who has extensively studied English Diasporic Literature and Islamic Feminism, sheds some light on the ongoing issue.
Q: You’ve been in the academic sphere for a long time, do you think that wearing hijabs on college campuses is problematic? Does it disturb public order?
No, why would it be problematic? In workplaces, we are defined by our work and performance. People can judge you if you are dressed a certain way, but I don’t think it disturbs public order.
Q: Is it mandatory for Muslim girls to wear a hijab?
Our Holy Book, the Qur’an, contains verses that clearly mention that both males and females should dress modestly. A lot of people say it’s mandatory while others believe we can choose to wear it. Honestly, I’m not sure about the fact that it’s mandatory though.
Q: How important do you think the co-existence of saffron shawls and hijabs is for the country?
I mean, why not? As it was recently pointed out that the chief minister of a state can roam around in saffron robes, but suddenly hijab seems to threaten everyone! If the country is secular and democracy is our very foundation, then inclusiveness is absolutely important.
Q: Was Karnataka’s hijab row blown out of proportion?
Well, what the management did was just not acceptable. Barring students from attending classes because of their hijabs is also a kind of discrimination. We need to understand that what students are doing is only a response to the wrong that was done to them.
Q: What are some steps that educational institutions can take to build a strong ecosystem and prevent such incidents?
Firstly, educational institutions need to have people who respect religious differences and accept them for what they are. I mean it’s not enough to be educated. It is equally important to be aware. Educational institutions are supposed to be safe spaces. Secondly, the curriculum should be inclusive in a sense and should teach students about diverse cultures.
The issue has gained international attention as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai has called on Indian leaders to take action with regards to this and prevent the “marginalization of Muslim women in the country”.
Legal experts of Karnataka believe that the institution has an undisputed right to impose a dress code. However, in this case, the question is whether the instructions of the ‘existing dress code’ were communicated properly or not.
While the issue was supposed to be heard on February 8, the Karnataka High Court’s single bench of Justice Krishna Dixit referred the petition challenging the ban on hijab to a larger bench.
On February 10, after hearing the matter, the Karnataka High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S Dixit, and Justice JM Khazi said that students should not be wearing religious dresses to educational institutions – whether it’s a saffron shawl, a hijab, or religious flags, until further orders. The matter will now be heard on February 14. No interim relief has been granted to the petitioner in the meantime.
In an interview with The Sparrow, Aman Ahmad, who’s a legal practitioner in the Delhi High Court, shared some thoughts on the legal aspects regarding the ongoing issue.
Q: Is wearing a hijab a fundamental right?
The constitution of India has never explicitly provided any such rights. It is the Supreme Court and the High Courts of our nation who have time and again interpreted the constitution and have given a dictum and ascertained whether a certain thing which we do comes or does not come under the purview of fundamental rights. Wearing a hijab (doing purdah) has not been explicitly mentioned to be a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a), Article 21, or under Article 25 of our Constitution. Therefore, we should wait for the dicta of the Hon’ble Supreme Court to get into the question and finally decide upon the issue
Q: According to the legal framework of India, can the state interfere in prescribing uniforms to its citizens?
The state has an obligation to balance the fundamental rights of each of its citizens while maintaining public order, morality, and health. Recently, the Government of Karnataka has invoked Section 133(2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, stating that all students in government educational institutions shall follow the prescribed dress code. The state cannot do so as it is in utter violation of the rights guaranteed to us under Article 21 of our Constitution. Therefore, the Courts should strike down the said provision of the Act as being violative of fundamental rights provided to us by the Constitution.
Q: What do Articles 14 and 25 of the constitution say?
Article 14 of our Constitution provides for equality before the law by prohibiting the state from treating any citizen of our nation unequally in any manner, and also provides equal protection of laws, which means that everybody who resides in India should be treated equally and will get equal protection under the law.
Article 25 of our Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion to everyone subject to public order, morality, and health.
Q: Can private institutions impose their own policy on students? (with regards to the hijab case)
Education is a part of the concurrent list of the Constitution, which means that both the central as well as state governments can enact laws on education. Private educational institutions derive their power from the said enactments, therefore, they have to work within the four walls provided by these enactments to them. In my opinion, private institutions do not have the authority to impose their own policies on the students.