A controversy that began with a group of Indian schoolgirls asserting their right to wear the hijab has ballooned into a national row pitting students into protests and counterprotests along religious lines.
Tensions are high in the southern state of Karnataka where the issue first arose, and on Tuesday afternoon the state’s chief minister ordered all schools and colleges to close for three days while urging students “to maintain peace and harmony”.
Protests reached a peak on Tuesday as the Karnataka High Court began hearing pleas to overturn a ban on the hijab in government-run schools. The state government, which is run by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has urged pupils not to wear clothing that “disturbs... public order” until the court gives its ruling, taken as a reference to the hijab.
The standoff began on 28 December last year when the authorities barred students at the Pre-University College in Udupi from attending college wearing the traditional Muslim headscarves, forcing them to turn to the state’s top court to seek relief.
Chilling videos emerged on Tuesday showing confrontations between students of different religions in class, including one from a college in Mandya where a burqa-clad student is heckled by a large group of boys wearing saffron scarves — a colour that can be seen as symbolic of Hindu nationalism.
The video, shot by regional outlet Digvijaya News, showed that after the young woman parked her scooter near the college compound a group of boys chased her shouting the slogan Jai Shri Ram (Glory to Lord Rama, a Hindu deity), and waved their saffron scarves at her.
"Allah hu Akbar!" the student retorted, as the college administration intervened to stop the boys.
In a separate but similar incident, a massive crowd of saffron scarf-wearing students chanted cries of Jai Shri Ram outside the gates of Udupi’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college as they protested against hijab wearing students trying to enter the institution, reported NDTV.
"Why are we not being allowed inside? They are wearing saffron scarves only now. We have been wearing the hijab since childhood. They pushed us out of the college gates," a young woman in hijab told the outlet, after students from both groups were denied entry to the college.
These scenes of protest between those in the hijab and those in saffron scarves have taken hold of many college campuses, with reports of students getting injured during demonstrations that involved a stone being thrown in the Bagalkot district in Karnataka.
There are also those who have come out in support of Muslim students’ right to wear the hijab. Donning blue scarves, symbolising the lower castes, a group of nearly 30 students began chanting the slogan Jai Bhim (a cry of support for India’s founding father and social reformer BR Ambedkar) as they protested against an equal number of saffron-clad boys on Monday at the IDSG Government First Grade College in Chikkamagaluru, reported the Deccan Herald. Fearing an untoward incident, the college was forced to declare a holiday.
While in the Haveri district of the state, pupils backed by the left-leaning Student Federation of India carried the national flag to the Government First-Grade College to call for communal unity. “We were observing whatever was happening for a month now. The controversy over attire is spoiling the fabric of the society. Students are being provoked for political gains by some outfits,” SFI president Amaresh Kadagada told The Indian Express.
Chief minister Basavaraj S Bommai declared the closure of schools after members of the opposition in the state demanded a lockdown “in the interest of [the] safety of students”. “All concerned are requested to cooperate.” he added.
“What we are witnessing is a form of religious apartheid,” AH Almas, an 18-year-old student who has been part of the weeks-long protests at the institution where the row began in Udupi, told the Associated Press. “The [government] decree is discriminatory and it disproportionately affects Muslim women."
On Monday, while the college yielded partially, allowing students wearing hijabs to enter the campus, they sat in separate classrooms and were not allowed to attend classes.
“It is humiliating," said Almas. “How long are we going to accept that citizens can be stigmatised because of their religion?”
Calling the pushback as an “attempt to invisibilise Muslim women and push them out of public space,” Afreen Fatima, a Delhi-based student activist, said that the ban is a culmination of the growing climate of hate against Muslims “which has now manifested itself in the physical realm”.
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