Hijab controversy: A Political power play ahead of Karnataka assembly polls
The controversy surrounding the bar on Muslim students wearing the hijab in at least five educational institutions in Udupi district of Karnataka is set for a legal test with a hearing in the high court scheduled on Tuesday against the move.
One of the students who was not allowed to attend classes has filed a petition in the court arguing that wearing a headscarf is a fundamental right guaranteed under Articles 14 and 25 of the Constitution of India and is essential for practising her religion.
Behind the protests and debates, those familiar with the politics in coastal Karnataka said it is political power play over the hijab issue, with an eye on the assembly elections due next year.
Since the first such incident was reported from the Udupi government PU college for girls on December 28, 2021, a total of five education institutes – three government-run colleges and two private institutes – have denied entry to women students wearing the hijab.
Political parties in the state’s coastal region, where communal politics are prevalent, are trying to consolidate vote banks using the issue. The Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Campus Front of India (on behalf of the Social Democratic Party of India) have accused each other of politicising the matter.
With the issue snowballing into a major controversy, chief minister Basavaraj Bommai held a meeting with education minister B C Nagesh and top government officials on Friday.
To understand the political implications, it is important to understand the sequence of events.
In October 2021, pictures of a few Muslim students at the government PU college in Udupi with a CFI banner were shared widely on social media. A message with the photos read, “These students had participated in a protest without knowing that it is a protest by the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad). After Campus Front of India leaders counselled them today, they joined the Campus Front of India of their own volition.”
Some of the students counselled by the CFI are part of the current protest. They insist their protest is not political, but a fight for their fundamental rights.
However, the issue that was limited to one college snowballed into a matter of concern across the district and subsequently the state, after the CFI came into the picture. Political observers say the controversy is a chance for the CFI to take away the Muslim vote bank from the Congress.
The ruling BJP also stepped into the melee. In the case of the three government colleges where the students were denied entry, ruling party MLAs played spokespersons for these institutions, and not the officials. While Udupi MLA K Raghupati Bhat spoke on behalf of the PU college, BJP MLA Haladi Srinivas Shetty spoke on behalf of the two colleges in Kundapur.
A local BJP from Udupi who is familiar with the issue said it is not abnormal for MLAs to talk on behalf of the institutions since they are part of the college development management committee. He, however, agreed that the hijab controversy is a political issue for the party.
“People look up to the party. Our leaders are resisting an attempt by a community to bring religion into the classrooms. These leaders are resisting these attempts because the people also feel that religion should be out of the classroom,” said the BJP leader, requesting anonymity.
Political observers say Bhat’s involvment in the issue has deeper significance. He did not get a BJP ticket to contest the 2013 assembly elections after allegations of his involvement in a scam. The announcement for his ticket in 2018 was also delayed. The BJP leader quoted above said the party was trying to find another suitable candidate but could not. “He was eventually given the ticket as the attempts to get another good candidate didn’t work out,” the leader said.
For Bhat, the political issue raised by CFI is a strong opportunity. After winning only five out of 24 seats in coastal Karnataka in 2013, the saffron party bounced back in 2018 riding on a Hindutva wave.
Bhat is aware that polarisation would help him retain the seat, say political analysts in the region. At the same time, by taking on opposition leader Siddaramaiah and others on the hijab issue, he is projecting himself as a strong candidate for the upcoming elections, they added.
The Congress meanwhile, waded into the controversy after more colleges started barring students from entering premises. A leader working in the coastal region admitted that the party was confused over its response. “Initially, the decision was to let the controversy play out and move on,” the leader said, requesting anonymity.
With more colleges reporting such incidents, former chief minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiah spoke out, saying that wearing the hijab is a fundamental right. “We will wait and see how this will impact the Hindu vote bank of the party. It is very hard to predict the outcome now, but the party has a taken a definite stand now,” the leader quoted above said.
Unlike the SDPI and BJP, this controversy has affected Congress’ chances in the region. While in the other regions of the state, caste plays a major role, coastal Karnataka is dominated by communal politics.
Former Union minister and Congress leader B Janardhana Poojary had called a procession on January 26 in Mangaluru to condemn the central government’s rejection of the Kerala government’s tableau of social reformer Sree Narayana Guru from the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.
In the twin districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, people from Poojary’s Billava community are outraged at the exclusion of the tableau. The saffron party has a strong presence in these districts.
“With the move, the Congress was trying to change the religious politics of the region to vote on the basis of caste. They knew that if the Billva and Mogaveera (a large vote bank in the region) voted on the basis of caste instead of coming together under the banner of Hindutva, it would help the chances of the Congress. But the hijab controversy has changed the situation towards Hindu versus Muslim,” pointed out a professor at Mangalore University, who didn’t want to be named.
Regardless of the high court’s decision in Tuesday’s appeal , the hijab controversy that started with Muslim girls, seems like it will have a big impact in the assembly elections.