Irrespective of the judiciary’s opinion, especially that of the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court possibly in near future, on the petition over the hijab issue, the controversy is certainly not fading away from the public discourse. Quite like the protracted legal dispute on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue, any decision of the courts regarding the constitutional tenability of the Karnataka government’s order on prohibiting the hijab in educational institutions, will be to the dissatisfaction of vocal sections in either of the two communities who are now locked in needless conflict.
Even though the hijab has not been an essential part of Muslim women’s attire across India, and even among all Muslims in any single region, the right to wear it without hindrance has the potential to emerge as the next symbol of Muslim identity and dignity. If this happens, the responsibility will lie squarely on the doors who have campaigned to ban the hijab in educational institutions.
The issue which has swiftly acquired the character of an inter-community fracture, is also worryingly no longer localised to the coastal Karnataka region, or even just the entire state. Contrarily, it has acquired a national dimension, a development that is always the objective of purveyors of divisive politics. The added problem is that these developments that have snowballed into a public issue within weeks have prevented people from evolving a reasoned position and instead their stand is based on prejudiced notions and knee-jerk responses.
This issue now has the potential to polarise society on religious lines in several parts of the country, most disconcertingly in Uttar Pradesh, where polling has so far been completed in barely one fourth of the 400-plus assembly seats. Although the BJP has made several efforts to rake up communal issues in the course of the electoral campaign, but in vain so far, the hijab issue has the potential to snowball into another extended bout of Hindu-Muslim conflict, especially given the past mastery of BJP and its allies in stoking communal embers. The issue, however, is multi-layered and has also emerged as a major challenge for the secular opposition parties and progressive elements of civil society.
Starting out as a localised dispute between girl students of a particular college in Udupi and its management over the wearing of hijab, the matter now spans issues that pertain to constitutional as well as religious rights of Muslim women. The issue has acquired greater sensitivity because various Hindu right-wing forces have upped their ante. Their decision, backed by local BJP lawmakers and leaders to not just support the questionable decision of college managements, but also respond to collective hijab-wearing by Muslim students by donning saffron headscarfs with the battle cry of ‘Jai Shree Ram’, has worsened the situation. This has led to obfuscation of what the hijab stood for and why it was worn by Muslim women.
Arguments have also been made that the head scarf essentially promotes retrograde beliefs and undermines the position of women in society. We have also seen the spontaneous response of a Muslim girl being heckled and she shouting back, Allahu Akbar, in this case, and unfortunately, the declaration of religious faith also being used as counter battle-cry, a development that will be welcomed only by those who draw strength from communal mobilisation.
Falling prey to the superficially Good Samaritan act of the BJP and its claim of being a party committed to protect Muslim women from patriarchal tentacles within the community, would be little but naivete. Not without significance, immediately after the hijab issue became part of the discourse across large parts of India and following sections of the secular voices in media and civil society viewing the hijab issue from a gender perspective, Modi asserted at an election rallies that people were finding “new ways to block the rights and development of Muslim women.” He also claimed to have “saved” thousands of Muslim women by enacting the law against triple talaq. Clearly, he suggested that Hijab is restrictive in it characteristics. Buying the Sangh Parivar line on the hijab issue would mean falling victim to the inherent double standards in the construction of the Hindutva narrative on cultural nationalism and distinguishing between culture and religion despite these being synonyms in their majoritarian vocabulary.
In the Hindutva discourse the idea of ‘culture’ is used in an all-embracing manner, distinguishing it from ‘religion’ and asking for adherence to the former from all who wish to stake claim of being Bharatiya or Indian. However, only elements or characteristics of Hinduism are included as part of Indian culture, but not those practices or traditions which are followed by people of other faiths despite these groups doing so for cultural reasons. Consequently, while the ‘ghunghat’, ‘pallu’ or ‘chunni’ are treated as cultural manifestations (and not retrograde from the gender standpoint), the donning of hijab is treated as a religious practice although the spirit is the same: women need to cover heads and the bosom. Efforts to constitutionalise the demand for unfettered right to wear the hijab, for it being an essential practice of Islamic faith, has the potential to be politically counter-productive by opening doors to assertions mirroring this claim from the side of Hindu opponents of the hijab.
Agreeing to, or raising demand for, uniformity from even a secular position has the capacity of opening the Pandora’s Box because uniformity in a diverse nation can only be majoritarian in character. This was accepted by Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter in January 1956. He wrote that responsibility “rests on the majority to not just do justice to the minority but, what is more important, to win over the goodwill and confidence of the minority group, whether it is linguistic, religious or other.”
It is the fear of being accused of ‘appeasing’ minorities that a few would argue on lines similar to Nehru’s. The Sangh Parivar narrative that argues that India has “one culture” to which every citizen should adhere to, although people of minority communities are within their right to follow their religion in the private domain and without causing public nuisance, has to be debunked.
The hijab issue requires wider and reason-based debate. But in a nation where contestations are no longer conducted democratically and debate is framed within binaries, this may be a tall order. The hijab issue has the potential to push the nation one step further into the abyss.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)