Udupi, Karnataka: Sixteen-year-old Varshini is angry because some of her Muslim classmates came in to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college in Udipi, 400 kms away from Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, wearing the hijab. "If they try to spread their religion by wearing the burqa, we will also wear saffron and spread Hinduism," she said.
The college, founded in 1949, named after Mahatma Gandhi- who was known for his ideas and movements on non-violence- have turned into a hotbed of violence - dividing young students on the basis of their religion - Hindus and Muslims.
On Thursday last week, days after some Muslim girls demanded to wear the hijab in their classrooms, Varshini wore a saffron scarf and turban to join her classmates to protest.
A raging Varshini told BOOM, when asked why she was donning saffron, "It was decided. If they wear the hijab to college, we will wear saffron." "The government has prescribed rules to wear uniforms, so why do they want to wear their religious clothing to college?" she asked.
The words "us" and "them" have become a constant in the vocabulary of the students- both Hindus and Muslims- appearing to be an invisible wall dividing those who once sat in class together and shared their meals and homework.
Lying between the Western ghats and the Arabian sea, Udupi in Karnataka is scenic. But one only needs to look closely behind the tree lined beaches and it reveals how it has become a tinderbox for communal and divisive politics. Very aptly nicknamed the "research lab for divisive politics", any fight in Udupi has the potential to turn communal with parties from both sides - Hindus and Muslims - sparring words and rarely hesitating to jump into violence.
In the backdrop of this, hundreds of students donning saffron and chanting Jai Shri Ram to protest against their fellow classmates insisting for wearing the hijab is not surprising to many.
How Did It Begin?
The right to the choice of wearing the hijab while attending classes started from one college in Udupi, when six female students from the Government Pre University college of the district, claimed that they were being discriminated against by their teachers because of their attire. The girls say that the college while allowing them to wear the hijab in the premises - the corridors, grounds etc - does not allow them to enter class wearing it. They add that they checked the rules and found that the hijab was not specifically banned in classrooms and hence decided to take the issue forward.
The issue picked up heat in December after the girls with their parents approached the college authorities to reach a solution. When they were ignored, they approached the Deputy Director of the Pre University College - they were met with silence there as well. In January, the college shut the gates to the students saying they would be allowed inside the premises only if they removed the hijab. Photos and videos of the students at the Government PU college arguing and pleading with the college authorities to allow them in started going viral.
Soon the issue made headlines with many other colleges in the district including government colleges in Kundapur not allowing those wearing the hijab into the premises.
As those wearing the hijab held protests outside colleges in Udupi, Kundapur, Shivamogga and other districts, other students started wearing saffron scarves and attending classes.
On Thursday, as the protests grew larger with scores of students in saffron attire and louder with slogans and chants of 'Jai Shri Ram', 'Hindustan Hindustan', a bunch of Muslim women, in hijab and burkhas, protested, demanding their rights.
Vinyasa, a third year Bsc student from the MGM college also joined the protest by wearing an orange scarf and turban. When asked if any of her friends were in the group wearing the hijab, she asked, "Does it even matter?" She said that they had asked the girls wearing the hijab to not to, but they didn't listen. The 21-year-old year old, donning a saffron scarf and turban said, "They need to know our religion is also important to us. This is namma desha (our country)."
Her thoughts are met with with huge cheers by her classmates who then started chanting in unison, "Zor se bolo, pyaar se bolo…Hindustan Hamara hai!"
BOOM asked several students in colleges in Karnataka why they wear the saffron colour — what does it signify?
"Saffron is the colour of Shri Ram," said Tejaswini, a 19-year-old student at MGM college. "We are Shri Ram's believers, so we wore saffron," she said, joined by a chorus of voices chanting, "Jai Shri Ram".
Mahesh, a student from Bhandarkars' Arts & Science College is a college in Kundapur, Udupi district, said, "It is the colour of the Sanatana dharma. Sanatana dharma is what Hinduism is and we are fighting for it like they are fighting for their right to wear hijab."
Some other students said they wore saffron because it was the colour of Chhatrapati Shivaji. At the protest on Thursday, they chanted slogans of "Jai Shivaji".
Responding to the question, Ravi S, a PUC second year student first asked, "Are you asking them what is the significance of Hijab or why they wear black?" He then added, "Kesari is the colour of Hindus and we are all Hindus here trying to protect our country from them who are trying to take over by wearing the hijab."
According to college officials, the rules prescribe that the students can wear the hijab in the premises but not inside the classroom.
However, Aliya Assadi, a PUC first-year student (standard 11) of the Government PU College is one of the six students who first protested about the issue. Having become the face of the protests, Assadi claims her college professors had questioned them about their religion and faith, often, for a while now. "They would ask us disgusting questions about our hijab and sometimes even yank at our scarves. We faced a lot of humiliation from them and while many girls got scared, I think it strengthened my resolve to fight against this discrimination," said the 17-year-old.
She claimed that the professors purposely gave low grades to her and her classmates who donned the hijab.
Aliya, who has been wearing the hijab, said that nowhere does the written rules say that they can't wear the hijab inside their classrooms."We know our seniors used to wear the hijab. How does it even make any difference that we can wear hijab outside the class but not inside it? Our hijabs do not stop us from receiving education."
Aliya Assadi, Shifa and AH Almaas have become the faces of the protests demanding their right to wear the hijab in class after filing a petition in the High Court.
The Karnataka High court in an order passed on Friday asked students to not wear any religious attire to colleges till a decision has been made. Following widespread protests in Udupi, Shivamogga, Madikeri and other regions, the Karnataka government then announced a holiday to colleges.
Almaas told BOOM that they had never planned to protest. But when it came to that, they were not expecting the protests to turn violent.
"We went via the normal route first. We spoke to the college, then the deputy commissioner, deputy director of the college and even approached the local politicians to resolve the issue. But nobody even considered it," she said.
The right to wear the hijab is a facet of the right to privacy recognised by the Supreme Court, and is protected by right to freedom of expression under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, the Karnataka High Court was told by a Muslim petitioner on Tuesday.
"The Constitution gives us the right to wear the hijab and we live in a secular country. A secular country would imply that I should not have to choose between my studies and my faith," Almaas said.
When asked about those wearing saffron scarves and leading a counter protest against the hijab, Aliya said, "We do not have a problem with a saffron shawl and we are not even opposing or saying anything against it. Why should we oppose it if it is a part of the religion?"
"I have had many Hindu friends since I was in school but I have never seen anyone wear a saffron scarf before," she added. However, she said, if their religion supports their decision to wear saffron, they should.
"Nobody should be stopped from professing their religion in our country," she said.
The same sentiment was professed by a another student who was protesting at MGM college.
Meher Zabeen, third year Bachelor of Sciences student, said, "All we want is justice. How is wearing the hijab in the class a hindrance to the teachers imparting education? Why should anyone have a problem with our religious attire in an educational institution?"
Her friend, not wishing to be named, asked, "Tomorrow if a 50-year-old woman decides to resume studies and wears any kind of religious symbol in class, will she not be allowed to study? We are fighting to be able to receive education despite them discriminating against us because our religion. What they are doing is unjust and unfair and yet they tell us we are obstructing classes."
The Political Groups Behind The Students' Protests
Several right wing groups including the Hindu Jagarana Vedike and Bajrang Dal have made allegations that the students protesting to wear the hijab are not doing so independently. They claim that the brains behind the protest is the Campus Front of India (CFI).
"All of this started after some female Muslim students participated in a protest organised by the ABVP. Once the CFI realised this, they approached these students and brainwashed them and organised this whole protest," said a senior leader of the Bajrang Dal speaking to BOOM on the condition of anonymity. "Why will young girls who were completely fine following the rule of removing the hijab before entering the class suddenly start protesting against it? It is a political move by CFI," the Bajrang Dal leader said.
The CFI is a youth led organisation backed by the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) which in turn is linked to the Popular Front of India (PFI). PFI, has had a chequered history and several cases booked against it by investigating agencies including the National Investigation Agency and the Karnataka and Kerala state police departments. The organisation has in the past been accused of terror activities with individual members in several states charged for various violent acts including murder.
When asked about CFI being the brains behind the protest for hijab, Athavullah Punjalkatte, State President, CFI said, "We have not denied that we are supporting the students or that we have met and spoken to them. In fact, we also met college authorities with the students and their parents to discuss the issue. But the decision to protest was taken by the girls. We are supporting them in any decision they make."
He said that the CFI's support to the Muslim girls is unlike the "background conspiracy" that the right wing organisations like Hindu Jagaran Vedike or even the ruling party BJP are doing. "They are the ones who have made this political and given it a communal nature by asking Hindu students to protest and supplying them with saffron scarves and turbans," he said.
Punjalkatte was referring to the two videos shot by BOOM which showed students dropping off the saffron turbans after the protest at MGM college and minutes later, the same being collected and put in a gunny bag by members of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike who were waiting at a cafe outside the college.
The HJV and the Bajrang Dal have denied any role in the protests while simultaneously holding press conferences hailing the students who wore orange scarves and turbans.
"Hinduism is a religion which asks for unity and these students are just following their religion. We don't train our students to do anti national activities unlike the Muslim organisations. They train their students in their masjids to go against the country. And that is what is happening even now," Prashant Nayak, district president of the Hindu Jagrana Vedike told BOOM.
Ashraf Kadakkal, the Director of West Asian Studies, Kerala University told BOOM in an interview that it is important to understand what the Muslim girls are fighting for. "They are fighting to wear the hijab which is nothing but a head scarf. It is not the niqab or the purdah which, I am of the view, should not be allowed. But if you look at the social media posts, there is so much misinformation and disinformation being spread that the girls are fighting to wear the burqa which is leading to the protest being termed as being for a regressive practice," Kadakkal says.
The professor said that understanding this distinction will make people realise that the hijab is an essential practice in Islam, thereby making it a part of the fundamental right to profess one's religion as provided under the Constitution of India.
"For centuries, female Muslims students have been wearing the headscarf (hijab) in India in government run educational institutes. Now, for the Karnataka government having banned it, is against the Constitutional right of person. Additionally, if the government bans the hijab, and students stop attending colleges, it is against their fundamental right to education," he said.
The priority of the government, he said, needs to be education. "Is it banning an essential practice of a minority community's religion or letting them wear the hijab so they can get access to education? What is more important for this government? Is it obscuring the presence of Muslims and their cultural identities or giving these girls education?"
"The government and the courts have a choice to make and this choice will speak volumes about what how they view the minority in a secular country," Kadakkal said.
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