The senior BJP leadership is increasingly becoming edgy and uncomfortable over the way the hijab row in Karnataka is panning out.
Media reports have quoted sources saying that the feeling in Delhi is that the hijab row in Karnataka was “a spark” that could easily have been snuffed out instead of letting it fester. There is also growing concern in Delhi at how the Karnataka government and the state BJP unit had allowed protests by a “small group of students at some pre-university colleges” in Udupi to spread and morph into a national issue.
Even as many girl students in many parts of Karnataka on Saturday were denied entry into their respective educational institutions for wearing hijabs, despite a court order, the dispute over the hijab does not seem to be dying down. A section of girl students are refusing to budge over the issue and are even willing to be suspended from their colleges.
BJP legislators told the media that the high command has asked local leaders to exercise restraint and work to end the row without hurting the party’s image and electoral prospects.
Senior BJP leaders are brushing off the hijab controversy as a “local fight” and trying to delink the BJP from the raging hijab controversy. The party never wanted to make it an issue, they added. And the central BJP high command has asked its Karnataka unit to send out the message that the BJP is not against Muslim women and the enforcement of dress codes should be left to individual institutions.
There is clearly an attempt to smoothen ruffled feathers as the Karnataka government has now indicated that they plan to rework its contentious school uniform order. Also, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh did a quick U-turn on the statement issued by the education minister claiming that the state will impose a “uniform dress code.”
The BJP is worried that they will be seen as being against Muslim women, as images and videos of schoolgirls and teachers being turned away from school-gates for not removing their hijab were surfacing. As well as the video of the young woman being hounded by a group of saffron scarf wearing boys which went viral.
A Union minister told The Indian Express that this controversy is coming at a time when the BJP is trying to promote its Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao initiative and when the PM’s triple talaq ban was being viewed as a significant step in empowering Muslim women.
This ugly row was also playing out when more Muslim girls were going to schools and colleges than ever before. According to the National Sample Survey, in Karnataka, the Gross Attendance Ratio of Muslim women in higher education rose from a low of 1.1 per cent in 2007-08 to as high as 15.8 per cent in 2017-18.
Moreover, the way the wind was blowing was also evident from the way the BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha maintained a stoic silence on the hijab issue. Surprisingly, even Tejasvi Surya, who has always been ready to make incendiary remarks, did not utter a word. According to the Indian Express article, another BJP leader told them the party was anxious that the hijab issue may blow up and become like the anti-CAA protests. And, what’s worse is that this agitation unlike the CAA is more personal and involves faith and family.
There is another key difference, say sources. Unlike the CAA, which is about a law, this is seen as directly linked to faith and family.
The BJP leadership is now looking for ways to settle the Karnataka hijab dispute by adopting a middle path. However, the Delhi leadership is reluctant to step in and resolve a controversy clearly created by the state unit.
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who had wanted to please the Delhi bosses, now finds himself on a sticky wicket on the hijab issue. He seems to have let the situation out of control. However, since he has no hold over the party cadre in the state, his position in the faction-ridden state BJP unit itself is shaky.
Backtracking in Madhya Pradesh
In Madhya Pradesh too both Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and home minister Narottam Mishra too did not support education minister Inder Singh Parmar, when he rooted for a uniform dress code. Hi statement that the school education department is working at strictly enforcing dress code in all schools from next academic session, evoked a reprimand from the CM. The CM told ministers not to give statements without consulting the government.
Parmar later quietly backtracked and said there was no plan regarding a uniform code.
BJP state media in-charge Lokendra Parashar now says women should decide what they want to wear claiming “it is their issue.” Another party MP from Madhya Pradesh confirmed that they have been given instructions to stay away.