A ban on religious clothing in schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka has sparked outrage and protests across the country.

On February 4, 16-year-old Aysha Nourin and her friends were going about their daily routine at college when the principal suddenly summoned them to a hall in the campus.

"We were asked to remove our hijab [headscarves], or else we won't be allowed to enter our classes. This was shocking. We had never heard of something like this before," said Nourin, who studies in a pre-university college in Kundapura in the South Indian state of Karnataka.

Karnataka has been simmering with tensions since January when a group of six Muslim students started protesting outside their school in Udupi city after being denied entry to the premises for wearing headscarves.

Soon, several other colleges in the state started denying entry to hijab-wearing students, due to pressure from Hindutva groups that have launched an anti-hijab campaign by wearing saffron shawls.

Since then, protests against the move have intensified across Karnataka. Students could be seen protesting, chanting slogans and holding placards outside various colleges which have banned entry to any students wearing a headscarf.

"Hijab is a part of our faith. I feel secure in it. I don't know how anybody is threatened by it," Nourin told TRT World.

Protests against the ban have also been reported from at least four more Indian states — West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and the capital New Delhi.

Indian Muslim women in the city of Hyderabad walk past paramilitary soldiers deployed as a precautionary measure during Friday prayers and ahead of a protest against banning Muslim girls wearing hijab from attending classes at some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Indian Muslim women in the city of Hyderabad walk past paramilitary soldiers deployed as a precautionary measure during Friday prayers and ahead of a protest against banning Muslim girls wearing hijab from attending classes at some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. (Mahesh Kumar / AP)

At various places, right-wing Hindu mobs, wearing saffron shawls and caps, have confronted protestors and clashed with police. On Tuesday, mobs comprised of mostly students and young activists from various far-right Hindu organisations carried out marches across Karnataka.

The same day, a viral video surfaced on social media in which Hindutva mobs could be seen heckling a Muslim student Muskan Khan, while she was entering her college in Mandya district of the state. Muskan confronted the mob and entered the campus, and was lauded both online and in the real world for her bravery.

“She had nobody but Allah to call,”Muskan’s father, Mohammad Hussain Khan, told TRT World.

Fearing a further escalation of tensions, the government announced the immediate closure of all schools and colleges in the state.

“I appeal to all the students, teachers and management of schools and colleges as well as people of Karnataka to maintain peace and harmony. I have ordered the closure of all high schools and colleges for the next three days. All concerned are requested to cooperate,” Chief Minister Basavaraj S Bommai wrote.

On Thursday, the province's high court - while hearing a plea to allow hijab-wearing students to be permitted to enter colleges - passed an interim order calling for the reopening of schools but insisted students should "not wear religious dresses" until a final decision is passed.

The order further enraged the protesting students and rights activists across the country.

"It is beyond our imagination that we are being harassed and ridiculed for draping a piece of cloth. How does it harm anyone?" asked Hazra Shifa, one of the students from a group of six who started the protests against the ban in Udupi.

Students have now challenged the high court and filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court of India.

"It was a small issue which should have been addressed by the [college] management. Girls went to every authority before protesting or putting their case ahead of the judiciary. We are hoping for justice," advocate Mohammad Tahir, representing the protesting students, told TRT World.

Hazra Shifa says they were even discriminated for speaking Urdu in the campus by some lecturers.
Hazra Shifa says they were even discriminated for speaking Urdu in the campus by some lecturers. "We were pushed to the limits," Shifa told TRT World. (Thoufeeq K / TRTWorld)

Religious apartheid? 

"It is an apartheid," says Afreen Fatima, a Muslim rights activist and national secretary of the Fraternity Movement, an independent student body with its presence on campuses across various states in the country.

"There is institutional segregation happening towards Muslims, especially practising Muslims. There are now reports of Muslim students wearing hijab being taught in separate classrooms," Fatima said, referring to the incident of a college in Karnataka allowing hijab-wearing students but in different classrooms.

"I am curious to know how is this not apartheid?" she asked.

Activists see the hijab ban in educational institutes as part of a larger plan by the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to make Muslims "second class citizens" in the country.

"BJP and RSS [the ideological fountainhead of BJP] take inspiration from Nazi Germany. We know how Jews were segregated, isolated and persecuted. We know how genocide was enabled then. They are playing it out in the same way here," Fatima added.

Meanwhile, more than 130 feminist and democratic groups across 15 Indian states have expressed solidarity with the students.

"We unequivocally stand in solidarity with Muslim women whether or not they wear hijabs, to be treated with respect and to enjoy the full gamut of rights. We affirm that the Karnataka Muslim women students wearing hijabs are doing so of their own agency, and this agency must be respected," a joint statement endorsed by these groups reads.

The signatories include prominent women's rights organisations, including the All India Democratic Women's Association, All India Progressive Women's Association and Forum Against Oppression of Women.

"Girls and women should be able to access education without being shamed or punished for their clothes. Educational institutions should pay attention to what is inside students’ heads not what’s on them," the statement added.

Any such ban clearly contradicts the whole idea of the [Indian] constitution,” says Supreme Court lawyer and All India Muslim Personal Law Board member, Nabeela Jamil.

“What is essential for a believer has to be left [alone], and hijab has been part of Islam since [the] begining,” she added.

BJP agenda

Critics of the Indian government feel that the hijab ban is part of the larger agenda of the ruling BJP, accusing it of "actively abetting and promoting" anti-Muslim hatred.

Various symbols associated with the Islamic faith have been attacked in the country recently. There have been petitions calling for the Azaan (call for prayer) to be banned, whereas the community has also been barred from offering Friday prayers at several designated places.

"All symbols and physical embodiments of Islamic faith are being attacked. This is to further push Muslims out of the public space, to push them into their ghettos, to deny them their rights," said Fatima.

Aakar Patel, the former head of Amnesty International in India believes the Indian state is "legitimising, encouraging and devolving" violence against Muslims in the country.

"[The] ban on hijab has to be seen from that perspective. BJP and [Prime Minister] Modi believe in the Hindutva ideology which expresses itself mainly in the form of hatred for Muslims," Aakar told TRT World.

However, the BJP has said there is a "hidden agenda" behind the entire controversy.

"They [the hijabi girls] have been trained, doctored, and conditioned to raise such issues in the name of freedom of choice and religion," Ganesh Karnik, Chief Spokesperson of BJP in Karnataka, told TRT World.

"There are certain norms and guidelines of schools which students will have to follow. During admission to these colleges, they have signed the document saying we will follow the rules," he added.

Source: TRT World