Hate speeches and Hindutva heroes: The making of a saffron shawl protester

TNM met the Hindu college students in Karnataka who organised the saffron-shawl ‘counter-protests’ against their hijab-wearing classmates. Honed by Hindutva organisations for years, this is the first time they’ve publicly taken up a cause.
Students wear saffron shawl in college campus, Kundapur
Students wear saffron shawl in college campus, Kundapur
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It has been eight years since Sharan (name changed) began attending Sangh Parivar events in his village on the outskirts of Kundapura in Karnataka’s Udupi district. Until this month, the association was mostly limited to regular bhajans held at Ram and Hanuman temples in his village. On occasion, it extended to volunteering at events organised by the Yuva Brigade — a Sangh-affiliated body. But in the last few weeks, Sharan, a 19-year-old degree student at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) College in Udupi, has been actively organising towards a cause that would go on to make national headlines. A ‘Hindu activist’, as he likes to be called, Sharan has been seeking out like-minded people to rally in protest against Muslims students wearing the hijab on campus.

He was among the 100 saffron-clad students who organised a ‘counter-protest’ on February 8, demanding that their hijab-wearing classmates be denied entry to college. Sharan says: “We know how to show our culture if they bring their religion to college.”

Two days before the standoff in MGM College, a saffron-shawl protest was held in Bhandarkar’s Arts and Sciences College in Kundapura. Naveen (name changed), a 19-year-old commerce student at the college, was one of the organisers. A regular at Sangh Parivar events near Baindur since his high school days, he claims he has tipped off Hindutva leaders about Muslim men “transporting cows” over the last two years. This month, Naveen helped mobilise hundreds of students in his college, to protest against their hijab-wearing classmates. “We were told (by Hindu Jagarane Vedike people) that if there is any trouble for Hindu students, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike people will enter,” says Naveen.

Sharan and Naveen, like many others in their colleges, have been actively honed by Hindutva organisations for several years. They have been the audience to several inflammatory speeches by Hindutva leaders who often spew hate against Muslims and Christians in the region. Many of these students have been doing volunteer work with various Sangh-affiliated organisations like Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Yuva Brigade, and the Bajrang Dal. The anti-hijab protests were seemingly an opportunity for these next-generation grassroot workers of the Hindutva movement to prove their mettle. This is the first time that many of them have publicly taken up a cause that is loudly — and in some cases, violently — in opposition to their Muslim classmates.

Saffron shawl protest outside MGM College, Udupi on February 8

The initiation

Many of the students TNM spoke to started attending Sangh Parivar events at a young age, as early as primary school. Some started because their parents were active members, a few others were bhajan singers in Ram temples in their villages.

Both Sharan and Naveen grew up in villages outside Kundapura. Naveen, and his friends who played cricket in the local grounds, were encouraged by Sangh Parivar members, who played with them, to attend events. "Initially, I went to see what it is about as there was a craze in our village about the bhajans...Then there were meetings where there were discussions about what 'the others' were doing outside," says Naveen. By 'others', Naveen is referring to the Muslim community.

Sharan’s involvement with Hindutva groups began in high school when he started attending Bajrang Dal meetings in his village. In fact, Sharan, who studies in Udupi, helped the students in Kundapur colleges organise anti-hijab protests. The students from Kundapur say that since Sharan stays nearby, he plays volleyball and cricket in the neighbourhood ground where he has made a lot of friends from different colleges. Sharan is something of a leader to these students who look up to him— if they are unsure of what to do, they ask Sharan.

The students admit that until this month they did not regularly wear saffron shawls, either at home or outside. “We have the shawls because we go to bhajans on Saturdays at Ram and Hanuman temples. We recently attended a cultural programme about (Maratha ruler) Chhatrapati Shivaji where religious leaders and speakers came,” says Sharan. 

The event commemorating Shivaji is held annually in February in Basrur, a small port town on the Varahi River, near Kundapura. Hindutva supporters in Basrur have been celebrating ‘independence day’ for the last five years to honour the Maratha ruler and his naval expedition to the village in the 17th century. Many of the students who support the saffron shawl agitation, including Sharan and Naveen, say that they are admirers of Shivaji.

Influenced by hate speeches

This year, the ‘Basrur Independence Day’ celebrating Shivaji was held on February 13 and one of the speakers at the programme was Chaitra Kundapura, 26, an hardline Hindutva speaker, controversial for her anti-Muslim speeches. The saffron-supporting students count her among their inspirations.

'Independence Day' programme in Basrur on February 13

Many of the students interviewed were quick to recall a speech delivered by Chaitra in Surathkal, a town close to Mangaluru, during a Durga Vahini programme in October 2021. In the speech, she warned that Hindu groups could convert Muslims and make them wear the kumkum (vermilion). 

“Being just 23%, if you are showing this much arrogance, how much (arrogance) should 70% Hindus show? This is the final warning for you. If you can stop doing ‘love jihad’, you will live. If 70% Hindus decide to convert 23% Muslims, and decide to love them, only two days are enough and you won’t see a single burqa in the houses of Muslims. We will put a kumkum on each Muslim girl’s forehead,” Chaitra had said in her speech to raucous cheers from the crowd.

Videos of the speech have since been widely shared on social media among students in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada. The fact that Chaitra was booked for hate speech by the police soon after made little difference to the students. The damage had been done. Their social media profiles show that they regularly listen to similar inflammatory speeches.

In many ways, Chaitra’s speech exemplifies the high-pitch and hateful rhetoric students in this region are regularly exposed to. For Chaitra, being an inspiration for the saffron-shawl protests in Kundapura is a source of pride. “I saw girls wearing saffron shawls in Kundapura after many years. I had worn a shawl when I was in ABVP but it is good to see so many girls wearing saffron shawls now. It feels like a result of the work we put in,” Chaitra says.

A former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) member and now a frequent speaker in events organised by the Bajrang Dal, Chaitra says that she is often speaking to crowds of students while wearing a saffron shawl or saffron turban. “When we are creating awareness about the Hindu cause, we should reach young people below the age of 30 because then, the ideology will be fixed in their mind for a long time,” Chaitra says.

Chaitra Kundapura

While Chaitra’s presence is limited to events organised by Hindutva groups, others like Chakravarty Sulibele, 41, a popular orator and right-wing ideologue, have been invited to speak on college campuses in Kundapura in the last few years. He addressed the students of Bhandarkar’s College of Arts and Sciences in February 2019 to offer tribute to soldiers martyred in the Pulwama attack. In the speech, Chakravarthy made wide-ranging comments, mainly denouncing Pakistan.

Chakravarty delivered the address amid opposition from college alumni and activists in Kundapura as he was seen as an instrumental force in pushing the Hindutva agenda in Karnataka. For instance, Yuva Brigade, the volunteer organisation founded by him, has previously organised the events celebrating Shivaji in Basrur.

Hatred has been building for years

Vasantha Bannadi, a Kannada poet and the former principal of Bhandarkar’s College, says that the decision to invite Chakravarty was fiercely opposed. “Though he (Chakravarty) had spoken in other colleges before that, this was the first time he spoke at Bhandarkar’s College. In the speech, he popularised several myths. But the college did not heed the opposition from alumni and civil society organisations over inviting him to speak,” Vasantha Bannadi says.

For many like Vasantha, it is little surprise that the saffron shawl protests caught the imagination of these students. In Udupi and Kundapur, incidents of moral policing by religious groups make the headlines every few months even though they occur more frequently. Even newspapers and television channels often describe the Muslim community as ‘others’.

Outside their college, students sympathetic to the Hindutva cause partake in discussions organised by such groups where harmful stereotypes about Muslims are reinforced. “In Bajrang Dal meetings, we used to have discussions about Muslims taking away cows. These meetings used to happen every six months in a temple in our village. The senior Bajrang Dal leaders used to give us guidance on how we should act to stop this from happening,” says Naveen. “It was common among some of the Hindu students to view (their) Muslim classmates with suspicion. The boys, especially, used to call Muslims cattle killers and love jihad terrorists,” says a former student of MGM College.

The polarisation, which has been building for years, appears to have reached fever pitch in the last month, compelling even students who did not identify with Hindutva organisations to join the saffron shawl protests in droves. This includes girls like Mayuri (name changed), 21, a student in a Udupi college who was chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ aggressively during the protest in her college. “Till they end it, we won’t end it…We are not opposing our friends but we are requesting them, we are again ordering them, that there is no permission to wear the hijab,” Mayuri had said during the protest.

However, her hostility towards Muslims during the protests is seemingly at odds with her reputation in her college. A week earlier, she had played a major role in a play on communal harmony in the college. In the play, Mayuri portrayed a Hindu girl taken in by a Muslim family in Kashmir. Her character followed Hindu customs at her new home but wore the burqa outside her home for her protection. Though Mayuri won praise for her role in the play, she was at the forefront of the opposition against her Muslim classmates.

Protests at MGM College, Udupi on February 8.

Classmates turning protesters

Sana (name changed), a Muslim degree student in MGM College, remembers being taken aback by the aggression of her saffron-clad classmates on the day of the protest. “We used to gossip with them, exchange notes with them and eat with them. But on that day, one of them was shouting slogans at me,” Sana says. “Others, who are in support of our right to wear the hijab, have been silent. Most of my friends say that they support me but their parents won’t support them if they talk about Hindus and Muslims. They just want to study in college and go back, they do not want to talk about the injustice,” she adds.

A person in MGM College who has been observing the hostilities explains the contrasting emotions among the Hindu and Muslim students. “I saw the boys would take off the saffron shawls in an instant and walk into their classes. But the girls broke down and cried when they were told to take off their hijab. What is equality? Do the Hindu students know what the Muslim students are facing to ensure their education continues?” they ask.

Most students opposed to the hijab admit that they don’t have any Muslim friends. Among them is Akshay (name changed), a 17-year-old pre-university student from the Government Pre-University College in Kundapura, who is quick to cite notions of ‘equality’ and ‘revenge’ to explain his opposition to the hijab but finds it difficult to empathise with his Muslim classmates. “My locality has a lot of Muslims but we don’t form friendships with them. There is one Muslim boy in my class and he keeps to himself,” Akshay says.

Police presence outside MGM College, Udupi on February 24

Seniors like Sharan convinced him to join the protests. “Even though I am not part of any Hindutva groups, I have joined the protests. There are many in my college like me who have come forward only now,” Akshay explains. “Except for a few students, everyone else is Hindu and yet we try to maintain peace,” he claims.

The son of a construction worker, Akshay comes from a low income family, like many of his counterparts. Of the five saffron-clad students we interviewed, two of them were children of construction workers, while others were children of a fisherman, a caterer and a tailor. Four of the five students came from OBC communities — Devadiga, Billava, and Mogaveera — and one from the Brahmin community.

The Devadigas, an OBC community, are traditionally involved in work related to temples, which partly explains their large presence in Hindutva organisations. “Our boys clean, get the flowers for the puja, fix banners when there are events in temples. I am also called up sometimes for catering work whenever I have holidays,” says an 18-year-old pre-university student from Kundapura’s Bhandarkar’s College who is from the Devadiga community.

All the students professed a love for Hindutva organisations and their causes and said that they frequently went to bhajans at Ram temples. They also respond with a sense of righteousness when asked why they chose to take up the saffron shawls in protest. “We saw the six girls protesting there (in Udupi) and so, we decided to do our protest here,” Sharan says. “We consider the nation first. If they were not respecting it, then it was a sign for us to do our religious activities,” Sharan says. “They (Hindutva organisations) don’t teach us to hate Muslims or Christians. But if there is a threat to our culture, won’t we be enraged?” he asks.

Today, weeks after the sloganeering in their college campus, Hindu students are attending classes and writing their exams even as their Muslim counterparts are staying home, wondering what the future holds for them. “We are not carrying our saffron shawls with us to classes anymore,” says Sharan. But a look at their social media profiles suggests that they are adopting the same rhetoric as the inflammatory speakers and right wing commentators they follow, waiting to lead in future. “Hijab ka jawaab (The answer to hijab). Jai Shri Ram,” reads a social media post by one of the students this week, an indication that even though the protests may have died down for now, the divide among students laid bare by this conflict is here to stay in Udupi.

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