The bluff and bluster only shows that their real problem is not with a garment but with the presence of people in their classrooms who are culturally different.

Three women wearing hijab and facemask holding up placards during a protest
Voices Hijab Row Sunday, February 13, 2022 - 11:20

The Hindu students and their backers in Hindutva organisations who have threatened to disrupt law and order in the state over the hijab issue are not the focus of police investigations. The heat is instead on the leaders of the Campus Front of India (CFI) because they rallied support for the Muslim girls in Udupi who refused to remove their hijab inside the classroom. Intelligence officers have painted a frightening picture of the CFI in their off-record briefings to journalists, describing its leaders as ‘radicals’ and ‘fundamentalists’ who have plotted to disrupt the peace of the state. Not as much as a squeak about those who brought Karnataka to the brink of communal riots over a piece of clothing on a Muslim woman’s body.

The attitude of the law enforcement agencies toward any sort of political organising within the Muslim community is not surprising. But there is also a great deal of discomfort in the Hindu left and liberal circles about the unabashed Islamist assertions of organisations such as the CFI and its parent body the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). They believe that the organisation, which Hindutva groups want banned, is playing with fire and endangering an already persecuted community by creating situations of direct conflict with saffron forces. 

Just like the Hindu fundamentalists who want the hijab banned, the so-called left and progressive Hindus also want Muslims to be somehow less Muslim in their struggle for political relevance in the times of Hindutva. This sentiment in the Hindu intelligentsia is a part of their unease over any sort of political mobilisation by socially excluded communities around their cultural symbols and identity.

By politicising the issue, the CFI seems to have unwittingly conducted a social experiment that has exposed the true nature of our public spaces. Whatever doubts there may have been, thanks to this experiment, we now know for sure that it is okay to have Hindu prayers and festivals in public funded educational institutions. It is okay to have Hindu shrines inside court complexes, police stations and government offices. But Hindus will rise spontaneously, with or without help from Hindutva organisations, if any other community tries to take up a speck of public space to display their religious symbols. This is not just the case with Karnataka but should hold true in all those Hindu-majority states of the country, which are led by so-called secular parties, where the BJP is nowhere close to power.

The CFI’s experiment with the hijab exposes those Hindus who have positioned themselves as secular and claim that the Sangh Parivar and the BJP have suddenly poisoned a beautifully diverse nation. It lays bare how little they have done to challenge the Hindu majoritarian stranglehold on public institutions during the decades preceding the BJP’s rise to power. 

Critics have pointed out that this agitation triggered by the CFI-SDPI cannot be seen in isolation and that the organisation has a record of pushing polarising narratives for political gain. This is not an endorsement of everything that the SDPI or the CFI does but this one act of defiance over the hijab ranks among the most significant struggles for civil rights we have seen. 

The refusal of Muslims girls to take off the garment under duress is as symbolically powerful as the resistance of Rosa Parks, the African American leader who sparked the civil rights movement in 1955 by refusing to let threats dislodge her from a bus seat designated for white passengers. It is no less revolutionary than the Mahad Satyagraha of Dalits led by B R Ambedkar in 1927 for access to a waterbody. 

Civil rights activists across the segregated parts of the world have always been seen by the establishment as provocateurs; as radicals who disrupt public order and challenge authority. It’s only in hindsight that they are hailed as social activists who tried to defy the status quo and empower a community to break out of their designated place in society. Through the assertion of their right to share public resources equally with everybody, civil rights activists provoke their oppressors to expose their true nature.

See what the current row shows us about the protesting Hindu students. In all their interviews, not one has provided a proper reason for opposing the hijab. When pushed to explain, they talk vaguely about the garment being a distraction inside a classroom or say that they want everybody to be equal and adhere to a uniform. They know as well as we do that the ‘distraction in class’ part needs further explanation. They know that we know that they do not really believe in equality. That all hell will break loose if a Hindu student is asked to remove a religious symbol from their body to maintain uniformity. Or, if Hindu prayers and festivals are stopped in public funded educational institutions.

Their complete lack of innocence and their enthusiastic participation in a cynical campaign at such a young age has shocked many observers. The teenaged Hindu girl who threatened to start wearing a sari and flowers to college if the hijab is allowed, knows that nobody expects her to actually carry out her threat. They are not going to start wearing those ridiculous long-tailed saffron turbans to school to counter the hijab. They know that their actual message, the implicit threat in their seemingly benign statements, has registered. It is probably because they lie to our face so easily that we are often too shocked to respond adequately and in time. 

The bluff and bluster only shows that their real problem is not with a garment but with the presence of people in their classrooms who are culturally different. The saving grace is that some decency prevents them from being honest about their hatred.

This unreasonable hostility toward Muslims can be better understood through the experience of Dalits and lowered castes in Hindu society. Has anybody found a good enough reason in the scriptures for untouchability and Varnashram besides the claim that it is divinely ordained? There is now enough scientific evidence showing that untouchability was a political instrument meant to torture the people of those nations that fell to the expansion of the Vedic Aryans. 

The reasons have long been lost to time but the system has been practised almost reflexively through the centuries. Dalits are not harassed by their upper caste classmates because they are relics of a defeated nation. The descendants of their oppressors are no longer quoting from the shastras to keep them from accessing education. They are harassed because they broke the social order by entering educational institutions through affirmative action. The harassment stems from an ancient instinct to maintain the old order at all costs even if new reasons have to be invented for maintaining it.

Muslims live side-by-side with Dalits in India under constant threat of violence.  There is little to choose between the communities in terms of social and economic indices. There is a tendency to view the social exclusion of Muslims as a recent phenomenon brought about by the partition and the rise of Hindutva in India. The fact however is that Muslims have endured social segregation in the subcontinent for as long as Dalits and other lowered castes have. That’s because they converted to Islam from the same communities in the hope of breaking out of the caste system. They are not descendants of Arab invaders as Hindutva WhatsApp groups would have you believe. 

There was a sizable Muslim population in South Asia several centuries before Mahmud of Ghazni established the first Muslim Empire in 1021. It’s such an irony that India’s homegrown Muslims are accused of being descendants of foreign invaders considering the Arab rulers maintained a strict social distance from these lowered caste or pasmanda Muslims of the subcontinent. The Arabs had better relations with upper caste Hindus than lowered caste Pasmandas.

The Arab-Aryan relationship has alternated between cooperation and conflict across millennia. But their treatment of the lowered castes in the subcontinent will always remain a symbol of their shared orthodoxies. 

Seen from this perspective the actions of the Muslim students is an assault on a system of exclusion that was outlawed with the passage of the Indian Constitution in 1950. The Hindu backlash against their movement should be seen as part of the larger violence unleashed against Dalits and Muslims in post-independent India. This violence is different from all the other forms of oppression these communities have faced in history. It is a direct response to the disruptions Muslims and Dalits are causing in the old order with the help of democracy.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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