How the Karnataka anti-hijab protests were part of a calculated plot across the state

TNM spoke to dozens of people involved in the saffron protests — including those who are pulling the strings in the background.
How the Karnataka anti-hijab protests were part of a calculated plot across the state
How the Karnataka anti-hijab protests were part of a calculated plot across the state
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Visuals of students in saffron scarves and turbans protesting, chanting ‘Jai Sri Ram’, and in some cases heckling their classmates in hijab have consumed our screens in the past week. What started as a voice of assertion of their Muslim identity by one group of girls in a government pre-university college in Udupi has now spread across the state, with a legal battle raging in the Karnataka High Court, that will dictate a lot in terms of religious and person freedoms for not just Karnataka, but the rest of the country as well. So how did this saffron movement against the hijab start spreading, and who were the driving forces? 

TNM has pieced together the timeline of events leading up to the widespread protests that the state saw on Tuesday, February 8. And what emerges is not the story of a spontaneous student movement, but a calculated Hindutva plot that has built on years of communal polarisation in Karnataka to mobilise students. In over 25 colleges, the protests by those opposing hijab were conspicuously similar – identical saffron scarfs, ‘Jai Sri Ram’ chants, and the use of similar language in their opposition to hijab in classrooms. While some Hindutva organisations like the Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV), Bajrang Dal and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti asked students affiliated to them to organise the protests, they have also managed to bring students who have so far not been part of any such movements, into their fold. 

A timeline of saffron protests

For many high school and pre-university (PUC) students in Karnataka, physical classes started in July 2021, after over a year of educational institutions being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2021, a group of students at the Government PU College for girls in Udupi, petitioned the college authorities to wear the hijab inside their classrooms, and when the college refused, it led to a string of events. 

By January 6, two saffron protests happened — at a college in Aikala in Mangaluru and another in Chikamagalur, where a group of students wore saffron scarves and said they will wear the Hindutva symbol to classes if Muslim girls are allowed to wear the hijab. 

At the Chikamagalur college, protests have happened on and off since then, but the issue did not become bigger till the girls from the Government PU College for girls in Udupi went to court demanding their rights. The petition was filed by the students on January 31. 

In less than a week after the HC started hearing the case, anti-hijab protests spread across Karnataka. As of February 9, saffron-clad students have protested in at least 12 districts in the state, including Chikmagalur, Hassan, Tumakuru, Mandya, Kalaburagi, Bagalkot, Haveri, Belagavi and Vijayapura. 

As the hijab wearing girls in Udupi PU college were not allowed to enter classes and girls in hijab were barred from another college in Kundapur, Kalaburagi saw a protest on February 6 organised by Congress MLA of Kalaburgi North Kaneez Fathima demanding that the hijab wearing students in Udupi should be allowed to attend classes. 

How Hindutva groups organised students

In response, the Government PU College in Afzalpur taluk saw students wearing saffron shawls, protesting against seven students who wore hijab. This protest was organised by Sri Rama Sene and students.

Siddalinga Swamy of the Sri Rama Sene said that they wanted to counter the narrative of allowing hijab in classes. “Our student wing also took part, we managed to gather a total of 150 students for the protest,” he says. “We are running a campaign, urging students to put pressure on the education department and college authorities to enforce strict uniform in which hijab will not be allowed. To educate the students on this, we had called for a meeting on Sunday and gave instructions. We will continue the rest using social media,” he added. 

After the protest, the college authorities convinced five of the seven students to remove their hijab and attend classes. 

While Sri Rama Sene took the lead in Kalaburagi, it was the Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV) that led protests at Vijayapura district’s GRB Degree College. Like elsewhere in the state, saffron shawls were used to oppose Muslim students wearing hijab in classes. Mahantesh, who was one of the students who wore a saffron shawl, said that the students of the college went to the Hindu Jagarana Vedike for ‘guidance to counter the conspiracy’ by those who were insisting on wearing hijabs in classrooms. 

“A group of around 25 students wanted to show our solidarity with what is happening across the state. So we called the local HJV activist to ask how we can help. He was our senior from college so we met him,” he tells TNM. “He told us to follow the same model that others are following: insist on wearing saffron shawls in classrooms till they stop wearing hijabs. He also invited us to a sabhe (meeting) of HJV over the weekend so we can get more involved with such causes,” Mahantesh said. 

In colleges in Hassan, the protesting students say they ‘drew inspiration’ from ABVP members. Praveen who studies in the Hassan Government Science College says that they had been following the developments in colleges in Udupi closely. And when the issue refused to die down, ‘some ABVP friends’ suggested that they too should join the protest. “They (ABVP members) are our friends and brothers. They showed us how, if we come together, we can fight for equality. Why should only Muslim girls be allowed to deviate from the uniform?” Praveen asked.  

In the neighbouring district of Chikmagalur, too, organisations like the ABVP and HJV have been at the forefront of these protests, but on record, no one wants to take credit. While Shashi Aldur, district coordinator of ABVP, said that the organisation was not involved, he was simultaneously adamant that protests would continue irrespective of the High Court verdict. “No matter what the verdict is, even if one student wears a hijab we will continue with the protests. This will spread to every district in Karnataka,” he said.

In Mandya, from where the video of a lone Muslim student in burqa being heckled by a group of male students donning saffron shawls and chanting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ has now gone viral, student Whatsapp groups were used to mobilise the crowd. TNM spoke to Umesh, a final year B.Com student who was one among protesters who targeted Muskan, a student in Mandya’s PES College of Arts, Science and Commerce. Umesh said that they were not allowed to wear saffron shawls in college on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanthi in April last year. “We used the WhatsApp groups that were already formed for classes, to coordinate the protests. We did crowd-sourcing and pooled in money to buy saffron shawls. People gave money ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 1,000, as per their capacity, and we used this,” he added. 

Anti-hijab sentiment as a flashpoint for further Hindutva recruitment

While Bajrang Dal, VHP and Hindu Jagarana Vedike members have been seen openly encouraging students to protest, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — has chosen to distance itself from the protests. On February 9, the ABVP said students are using both saffron shawls and hijab as weapons against each other and appealed to students to stop wearing both. The ABVP asked students to wear their uniforms and focus on education. 

Aishwarya Shetty, ABVP’s Karnataka state joint secretary said that they were not behind any of the protests. However, on further prodding, she said that WhatsApp groups were used to ‘create awareness’ among students and they were asked to organise themselves.

“The students wearing saffron shawls are not just ABVP members but all Hindu students. When students wear the saffron shawl, they are reminded of great personalities like Swami Vivekananda, Pejawar Sri and others,” she told TNM. 

There is an element of truth to Aishwarya’s assertion. Across the three districts that this reporter travelled in, many students — both Hindu and Muslim — who had joined the protests, had no affiliation to any student groups.

“We are not members of any Hindu organisations so far, but what is wrong with them supporting us?” asked Chandra, a student of IDSG Government College, Chikmagalur. “Many students who are protesting with us are members of ABVP, HJV and Bajrang Dal. They are helping us (Hindus) fight back,” he added. 

Santhosh (name changed) was a part of the saffron protest in Koppa in Chikmagalur. “Saffron shawls are a part of our religion. All these organisations (Hindu organisations) have been working towards Hindu pride so they just point us in the right direction. They showed us how, if we keep getting oppressed, we will never get our rights,” he added. He however admitted that the protests were primarily organised by Vinay Shivapura, a student of the Government First Grade College who is a prominent member of the ABVP. 

As the Hindu students were being organised, protests by Muslim organisations and communities were also sporadically seen across the state. Protests were held by Muslims, particularly women from the community, against the hijab ban in colleges in districts like Bengaluru, Mangaluru, Mysuru, Chikmagalur, Chamarajanagar, Hubbali, Mandya, Belagavi, Chitradurga, Vijayapura and Kalaburagi. Some of the protests were attended and organised by members of political outfits like the Students' Federation of India (SFI) and Campus Front of India (CFI).

An SFI leader in the region said that ABVP has been polarising students in Karnataka for many years now. “Routinely, they share hate messages against Muslims and even Christians on student WhatsApp groups,” he said. “It is laughable if ABVP says they are not organising protests. They have been tutoring students on how to oppose other faiths. They give instructions about what to say when the media speaks to them, how to handle when lecturers don’t allow them in classes. They clearly assure them of support if students get into trouble because of these protests.”

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