Hijab discrimination purely based on religion: Petitioner | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Hijab discrimination purely based on religion: Petitioner

BySharan Poovanna, Hindustan Times, Udupi
Feb 17, 2022 01:45 AM IST

The entrance to the college has now become a globally recognised spot after eight students of the college, all under 18, become the face of “resistance” against a diktat, first enforced by the college authorities and later by the state government, that barred them from wearing the hijab inside classrooms.

It is the first image that strikes the eye. At the entrance of the Government Girls Pre-University (PU) College in Udupi, 400 kilometres away from state capital Bengaluru, is a poster with the names of top performers. One of the names is Hiba Sheikh, identified until recently only by her name, her academic excellence, and the institution she made proud. And yet, in Udupi, and more broadly Karnataka, in recent weeks, there is another element in the poster that has come to define Sheikh: The hijab she is wearing.

Students on way to their school in Udupi on Wednesday.(PTI)
Students on way to their school in Udupi on Wednesday.(PTI)

The entrance to the college has now become a globally recognised spot after eight students of the college, all under 18, become the face of “resistance” against a diktat, first enforced by the college authorities and later by the state government, that barred them from wearing the hijab inside classrooms.

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The controversy

The PU College in Udupi has around 1,000 students. College authorities say the institution prescribed a uniform dress code since its inception and the guidelines only allow a headscarf, not a hijab. “We have always allowed students to come with the Hijab inside the college and even inside classes. The only rule is that during classes, they have to remove them,” Rudre Gowda, the principal of the college told HT.

On July 7, 2021, the college reiterated the guidelines without any mention of the hijab, according to a petition filed in the Karnataka high court.

Yashpal Suvarna, vice-chairman of the College Development Monitoring Committee (CDMC), said the hijab was not allowed inside the classes since the beginning. “Students were allowed to remove hijab in the changing room,” he said, adding that, as a result, the hijab was not mentioned in the dress code. Suvarna is a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has opposed the wearing of hijab inside classrooms.

But the girls and their parents say that generations of Muslim women students have worn the headscarf in classrooms without any objection or incident. AH Almas, one of the eight girls, said she had seen seniors wear the hijab in classes. “I have been wearing a hijab from when I was 3-4 years old. But now we are being denied our basic fundamental right,” she said.

In September 2021, the first signs of trouble began showing, when the girls said they faced discrimination when they came to the college wearing a hijab.

“They (teachers) used to talk to us badly, gave us lower grades and kept throwing us out of class. They used to pull off our headscarves in class,” said Aliya Assadi, one of the eight protesters and a second-year student.

However, there were no protests and the institutions closed due to the Omicron-driven third Covid wave in the first week of November.

There are around 70 Muslim girls in the college, of which only eight are protesting the rules, while the others have been attending classes.

College officials say that in the first week of December, parents of these girls met with college authorities.

Around this time, the girls’ parents and relatives, some of whom are active members of the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its affiliates, approached the Campus Front of India (CFI), a student organisation, for help, according to members of Muslim Okkutta, a local civil society organisation. The PFI calls itself an organisation which represents interests of marginalised sections, while the CFI is its student wing.

Muslim Okkutta members said that CFI told the parents to not agree to the ban on hijab inside classrooms as the uniform dress code did not prohibit the garment. But the college insisted that they would not allow hijab inside the school campus inside the classrooms.

The talks failed and when the institution reopened on December 27, some girls came to the college wearing a hijab.

On January 1, the College Development Council (CDC), the top decision making body, met and said that the hijab would not be allowed in the classrooms.

On January 13, eight girls started protesting by sitting outside the classrooms wearing the hijab. As news of the protest spread, it fuelled communal tension in the area. The protests also spread to at least five other colleges in Udupi.

The backlash from Hindu groups was swift.

On January 15, Hindu students in neighbouring Chikmagalur district started coming to schools wearing saffron shawls and by the end of January, the controversy has become a full-blown clash of religious identities.

The situation got more complicated on February 4, when the Karnataka government enforced the uniform dress code across educational institutions under sub-section (1) of section 145 of the Karnataka Education Act 1983 which allows every recognised educational institution to specify its own uniform. There is no mention of hijab in the law. “In the event of the administrative committee not selecting a uniform, clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn,” according to the order. It adds that the educational institution can change the uniform by issuing a notice to parents a year in advance.

The eight girls challenged the order in the Karnataka high court.

As a result of the order, more school and college managements restricted the Hijab within their campus even in places where it was an accepted and normal practice for years, resulting in more protests from other parts of the state.

Peaceful past, communal present

Udupi, a coastal temple town by the Arabian Sea, has long been known for its cuisine and its secular credentials. Unlike the neighbouring Dakshina Kannada district with Mangaluru as its headquarters, Udupi did not have a history of communal discord. The district has a 8.22% Muslim population as per the 2011 census.

The first signs of a major fracture in communal relations came in 1991, with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. LK Advani’s Rath Yatra sparked communal riots that led to the death of five people in Udupi and birthed simmering sectarian tensions that exist to this day.

The deteriorating interfaith relations affected everyday life as well. Before the Babri Masjid demolition, most people in the area used to speak Beary and Tulu, both local dialects. While the former was associated with Muslims, Tulu was a language of the Hindus, but both communities spoke in the tongues interchangeably. After the demolition, Muslims continued speaking Beary, but avoided speaking Tulu, creating a linguistic rift of sorts.

This also had political reverberations in what was once a Congress bastion. In the 2018 assembly elections, the BJP won 17 of the 19 assembly seats in the three coastal districts of Karnataka, and the Congress two – compared to 13 in the 2013 elections. In the December 2021 urban local body polls, Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political arm of PFI, won five seats for the first time.

Origin of Hijab row

According to members of the Muslim Okkutta, on October 29, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, held a protest against the alleged rape of a girl student in Manipal, and asked for a probe. Two Muslims girls participated in these protests which made the Campus Front of India approach them, and ask them not to be part of future events of right wing organisations, said a local official, who was not willing to be named.

The CFI denied these allegations. “We are not aware of any such incident and we got involved only when the families of these girls approached us,” Athaullah Punjalkatty, CFI state president said.

“If not for the CFI getting involved and fight with the college authorities, this issue could have been resolved within the premises itself,” said one minority leader from the district, requesting anonymity. The girls’ parents, however, refused to comment on the same.

“They (eight girls students) went to CFI after talking to us. They would come back with instructions from CFI and do their drama. These are the only eight girls who have a problem. But there are 90 Muslim students in the college who are attending classes,” said Suvarna.

Confronting views

Muslim community leaders claim that the hijab was always allowed inside classes. Some educational institutions also say that a uniform dress code was never enforced and students were allowed to enter the campus wearing hijab. Arnav Amin, an alumni of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) College, one of the most prestigious institutes in the district, said that the hijab was always allowed inside the classrooms. “I had a few hijab wearing girls in my class and they used to wear it freely,” said Amin,who graduated in 2014.

HT spoke to the administration of several colleges to ask when the rule banning the hijab became applicable. Most did not provide a specific time frame. “If students start wearing the hijab, what is the meaning of uniform dress code?” asked an administrator of one of the colleges, who was not willing to be named.

Ganesh Moghaveera, the principal of Sri Venkatarama college in Kundapura, where visuals showing him closing the college gates on burqa-clad girls went viral, said that his institute laid down rules from the beginning that no one could wear any religious attire inside classrooms.

Student anger

The controversy created a wedge among students, who earlier used to share lunches, and look forward to spending time together in the playground and on outstation trips. Now, confrontation has been reported between students in colleges such as MGM College (Udupi), Bandarkal College (Kundapura), Government college in Bagalkote and Chikmagalur at the very grounds they assembled for years every morning for prayers, applauding the achievements of their peers and sing the national anthem.

On February 4, close to 100 Hindu boys landed at the Government College in Kundapur, saying they were protesting against the girls wearing hijab on campus. “We just want everyone to follow the uniform dress code and there should be no exception for different castes and religion. We are not against the hijab outside the college,” said one of the students wearing a saffron shawl, Raghupat Venkat.

When asked whether girls used to attend classes wearing the hijab earlier, he agreed. “Yes, they would and we had protested then also,” he added.

But Muskan Khan, who hit the national headlines after countering Jai Shri Ram slogans of Hindu boys in a Mandya college, said she never faced any opposition to the hijab till the controversy erupted in Udupi. “I don’t go to college to fight. I go there to educate ourselves and build a career. If I want to wear the hijab, why it is a problem?”

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