Hijab ya Kitab (Book)? Religious Intolerance and Education in India

Sharan Kaur, Kashyapi Ghosh - Gender (in) Equality Team

In the context of the recent controversy developing in various regions of Karnataka, the Home Minister, Araga Jnanendra, made a statement - “Religion should be kept away from education and students should neither come wearing hijab or saffron shawls to schools” - encouraging the ban over Muslim girls wearing hijab (headscarves) to educational facilities. The dispute is over the fact that recently Muslim students in Karnataka wearing a hijab have been barred from attending colleges and educational institutions on the basis of their dress which has been deemed inappropriate by authorities on the basis that it sanctifies religious propaganda.

In response to this, a Muslim student used a lawyer to file a writ petition with the Karnataka high court (HC) contesting the Government Pre-University College’s decision, in Udupi district, to ban six students from accessing lessons because they wore hijabs. The student contended in her appeal that adopting the hijab is a basic right granted under Articles 14 and 25 of the Indian Constitution due to its necessity for her to practice her faith. The petition was filed more than a month after the six students were prevented from attending classes due to a violation of the college's dress code. Advocates Shathabish Shivanna, Arnav A Bagalwadi, and Abhishek Janardhan filed a petition alleging that the college denied them entry and access because they were wearing a hijab, despite the fact that the Constitution secures freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice, and propagate religion (under Articles 25 and 26).

When the authorities consistently denied Muslim students in hijabs admission to college, several students and netizens resorted to social media to post using #HijabisourRight on Twitter - as one Twitter user puts it, “Students protesting outside their college in Karnataka. They are again denied their entry into the college for wearing #hijab… More courage and duas to you brave ladies. All apartheid walls shall fall #HijabisOurRight." Following this, Harun Khan, another social media user wrote "This is Karnataka. Not allowing Girls with #hijab to enter classrooms. Next level of communal hate, True face of the so-called biggest democracy of the world #HijabisOurRight". Bhandarkars’ Arts and Science College, Kundapura, Junior PU College, Kundapura, Government PU College, Udupi are some of the few colleges that have banned hijabs since January. The government of India has taken the decision to shut high schools and colleges for three days after protests by students over the hijab escalated into violence in the state of Karnataka and the protests spilled to other parts of the country - in Kolkata and Chennai, two of India's largest cities, and in Hyderabad. On Wednesday, a judge at the state's high court referred petitions challenging the ban to a larger panel. Senior advocate, Devadatt Kamat, has been targeted by right-wing commentators for reading out Islamic scriptures for defending students fighting for their right to wear hijabs in schools and colleges. In a first, Ramakrishna Ashram’s top priest Swami Bhaveshanand defended the advocate applauding him “as a devout follower of Shri Ramakrishna Vivekananda Philosophy” and dismissing the series of events as “unjustified and orchestrated baseless propaganda that is being perpetrated by some unscrupulous elements"

This case brings out two gaping crevices in the way that Constitutional clauses are interpreted by different groups. Firstly, the concept of the public and the private, as in the conventional understanding of the distinction between public and private spaces, and secondly, the interpretation of the constitutional article that states the freedom to practice one’s religion. What this case represents is the intersectionality linking the two - which leaves a space to discriminate against those simply carrying out a practice that is essential to their religion (such as the wearing of the hijab) on the basis that it interferes with public morality since it is supposedly in the public space. Home minister Jnanendra also asked police to keep a watch on religious organisations that are trying to “undermine the country's unity” over the issue, further adding that no one should come to school to practice their religion as this is where all students should learn together with a feeling of oneness. Since the right to practice religion is subject to certain reasonable restrictions - such as corrupting public morality - the use of which to discriminate against one religion is almost like treating it like a loophole to further political propaganda.

The instance, as functioning under the matrix of patriarchy, is not devoid of the involvement of gender discrimination as well. The fact that the brunt of the discrimination, on the basis of religion, is taken by women (here, young female students) who may choose to wear a hijab in practice of their faith, shows that the aspect of gender discriminiacation is not missing from the picture. While some boys wore saffron in order to exhibit their Hinduness and the home minister did not encourage them either, it is not their religious requirement to do so, unlike hijab wearing women’s. Therefore, asking them to remove their saffron scarves is nothing like asking the women to remove their hijabs, their common attire. This clearly highlights that religious discrimination, as bad as it is, is not without gender discrimination, which alerts one to the fact that discrimination is in itself a complicated entity including intersectionality of identities and the hierarchies that accompany them.

The global trends for violent hate and discrimination against people on the bases of their race, religion and gender have taken a rather sharp hike in the last few years with right wing, populist, and extremist leaders being elected in several parts of the world - such as Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Roa Duterte in Philippines, Joko Widodo in Indonesia and Narendra Modi in India, and several others in Europe and Asia. Their right wing regimes are famously and unapologetically characterised by Islamophobia, homophobia, gendered violence and discrimination and state sponsored vigilantism. Given this context, the current controversy in Karnataka fits the bill perfectly and even suggests that the recent instances of Islamophobia in India during the Modi regime might find their roots in the rising trends of islamophobia globally. Conventionally, political scientists have argued that the Hindutva ideology that the BJP champions, comes from a deep insecurity of unfair treatment of Hindus historically, by giving minority communities more state protection under the banner of secularism whenever it came to differences over religious practices. Hindu sentiments, thus, have been hurt over decades, especially after independence under the Congress regime which has resulted in anxieties over their majoritarian status in the Indian homeland. This postulation definitely has enough theoretical evidence to back it up, however, the rise in Islamophobia specifically, could also in a small part be attributed to the global trend of rising Islamophobia under right wing regimes, more generally. There are several other cases in the recent years, which shed light on similar discriminatory structures.

Bulli bai and Sulli deals, Indian app that listed Muslim women for auction (Picture Credit, India today).

In the recent past, there have been scattered incidents violating the interests of the minority community of India. Both the Bulli bai and Sulli deals are glaring examples of such a violation. Though the accused have been arrested, the frequency of these incidents hasn’t decreased. Earlier this year, there were two incidents of misconduct against Muslim women. One, the Github incident where a 21 year old engineering student from VIT Bhopal who created an app which hosted doctored videos of Muslim women. Two, in the Clubhouse application, a group of people made derogatory comments against Muslim women. It should be brought to notice that most of these cases are inked with gendered violence and gendered discrimination inflicted by the youth to young Muslim women. The youth that should think differently is caught in the undertows of an orthodox religious regime blinded by WhatsApp forwards and doctored videos reeking of propaganda.

These incidents beg the question - in a country with India’s history, from its colonial heritage to its reinstatement as an independent, secular nation, to what extent should these incidents be tolerated? Given modern day Indian political agendas such as caste, gender and religious activism, it is important to ask whether these are ethical practices, whether they are fair, not only to the various minority communities living within India, but also to what India stands for. Is this setting the stage for an India that is hate-ridden, intolerant towards cultural differences and seeped with religious strife?


Kashyapi Ghosh, is currently working as a PhD scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati. She is working in the interdisciplinary field of gender and culture. Her doctoral thesis is on the changing dynamics of the kitchen space in contemporary India.

Sharan Kaur is a third year undergraduate student at Ashoka University, studying Political Science, International Relations and Economics. Her research interests include Gender expression and experience among larger socio-political structures.

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