A test case for living with pluralism in Karnataka

Contact Counsellor

A test case for living with pluralism in Karnataka

  • It is very unlikely that the debate will end on the issues raised by the hijab controversy in Karnataka and elsewhere in India through administrative and judicial initiatives now.
  • There has been some respite with the brief closure of academic institutions due to the demand by some young Muslim girls that they be allowed to wear a hijab to college that was countered by supporters of Hindutva outfits wearing saffron outfits.

Igniting the spark

  • The High Court of Karnataka, in an interim order, made it clear that “all students, regardless of their religion or faith, have been restrained from wearing saffron shawls (bhagwa), scarfs, hijab, religious flags or the like within classrooms until further orders” with regard to petitions “pending consideration” on the issue of the right to wear a hijab in classrooms.
  • This order has also been confined to institutions where a student dress code/uniform has been prescribed.
  • In addition, the police have held flag marches in some cities and towns that could witness a communal flare-up as a result of opposing stances.

Reason for deepening of controversy in Karnataka

  • Although this issue has been simmering in other parts of the State for a while, it could not have had a better social anchor than in the Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts of southern coastal Karnataka.
  • These two districts have been in the grip of the Sangh Parivar for over a dozen years through a phalanx of institutional interventions and initiatives aimed at consolidating the Hindu identity.
  • The Muslim minority is about 20% of the population in these two districts — 25% in Dakshina Kannada alone and much higher than the 13% in the State as a whole (2011 Census).
  • Most of them have been petty traders, merchants and informal labour, but there have been significant changes following large-scale migration to West Asia right from the early years of the oil boom.
  • There has been an unprecedented rise in terms of initiative in the community across various domains i.e. health, education, housing, merchandise including literary and cultural production in recent years.
  • This expansive social reach has gone along with religious consolidation as well.
  • The political marginality they have been subjected to following the ascendance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the region, makes such a craving all the more important.
  • They see education as a major resource not merely to access the world but also to find a fulfilling place in it.
  • Due to this, a reassertion of orthodoxy or a shallow imitation of what is perceived as the Arab way of life has been initiated.
  • The rise of new institutions: the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the student organisation, the Campus Front of India closely associated with the radical group, the Popular Front of India, has also caused significant advances in this region in the last few years.
  • They are clearly fringes of a wider aspirational striving.

Centrality of caste

  • There are some Muslim sections all over Karnataka where their living/social conditions are similar to those who are socially lowest.
  • However, they are more concentrated in the urban areas, and in some localities more than others.
  • Hindutva project confronts the challenge of centrality of caste as the principal anchor of electoral politics.
  • Several Lingayat seers hold on to the belief that they are a separate religion so they do not want to be a part of Hindutva Project.
  • Sangh Parivar has mounted campaigns against love jihad, cow slaughter, etc. but their impact has been limited.
  • Christians, mainly Roman Catholics — another religious minority in southern coastal Karnataka — who form about 8.5% of the population have also been targeted by Hindutva outfits — by renaming public places, attacking minor shrines, conducting assaults on fringe Christian gatherings, etc.
  • The Karnataka anti-conversion Bill or the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill introduced recently but yet to be passed into law in the State, is clearly directed against churches.
  • But the broad response of this community is confined to a withdrawal and reassertion of a formal secular constitutional project.

A choice not boundation

  • For a lot of young Muslim women in coastal Karnataka, the hijab is not an archaic and patriarchal imposition, but a choice through which they wish to make their presence in the world and define themselves.
  • Access to education is deeply bound with this search for self-definition.
  • In such a mode of striving, forbidding wearing of the hijab is not a progressive measure but an assault on their self-worth and dignity.
  • Binding them to the prescriptive dress code subjects them to a uniformity that not only submerges their difference but also reinforces prevailing political dominance.

Way forward

  • It is important to make a distinction between the burqa and the hijab.
  • The burqa is strongly associated with religious codes.
  • Most young Muslim students in the coastal region in Karnataka may wear the burqa outside educational institutions, but they keep it aside once they are on their premises, but would continue to wear the hijab. Hijab is, therefore, their choice.
  • Therefore, the matter must not be politicised. Instead, it should be kept under the ambit of ""Right to freedom of Choice"".
  • In a deeply diverse society such as India, the only way we can build our common futures is by inviting those who feel different into a conversation and continually forge the common through it.