Vinod Mubayi

Karnataka, where the hijab ban controversy has erupted, is a state ruled by the BJP. Pre-university colleges in the coastal areas of Karnataka, where Hindutva groups are gaining prominence, stopped young Muslim girls wearing hijab from entering the classroom. The girls and their parents protested and the Hindutva right-wing constantly on the lookout for such conflicts urged its supporters among the youth to wear saffron colored shawls and other “Hindu” symbols in response; the controversy soon reached the Karnataka High Court which imposed an interim ban on any outward religious dress inside the classroom while it considers the issue.

The hijab ban like the Shah Bano divorce/alimony controversy in the 1980s thus enters the Indian legal system once again where the courts will now decide whether wearing hijab is an “essential practice” of Islam? Can modern courts of a secular country ever decide such issues? The Quran is a written text but it is subject to interpretation. There is fundamentalist Islam and reformist Islam. Islamist scholars like the late Asghar Ali Engineer opined that the Quran does not enjoin any particular dress code on women like burqa, niqab, or hijab, other than they should dress modestly. However, orthodox maulvis who embrace patriarchal values insist on the centrality of the hijab to Islam and in some countries like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan the burqa is mandated as essential. So, which interpretation will the Karnataka High Court rely on and should it even be considering such issues to begin with?

Meanwhile, it needs to be recognized that such issues involving the Muslim minority are constantly being manufactured; not only by the Hindutva crowd in the streets but also by legislation passed by governments in BJP ruled states as well as at the national level. These issues then begin to serve as markers of polarization and promote feelings of “otherness” that also serve to promote consolidation of majoritarianism. Thus, we have the issue of restrictions on the offering of namaz on vacant public land in Gurugram in BJP-ruled Haryana, the passing of “love jihad” laws that essentially criminalize inter-religious, particularly Hindu-Muslim, marriage, in BJP states like UP and MP, the passage of the discriminatory CAA/NRC act by the Modi regime and the harassment and arrests of the mainly Muslim women carrying out peaceful democratic protests against it at Shaheen Bagh and other places, and the continual assaults by police on Muslims in BJP-ruled Assam who are labelled “infiltrators” from Bangladesh and worse, among many other such acts elsewhere.

The vicious genocidal speeches against Muslims made by ostensibly Hindu religious figures at the “Dharam Sansad” in Haridwar in December 2021 were part and parcel of this constant “otherization” of minorities. It is hardly surprising that no one from the top BJP leadership, including Modi and Amit Shah, cared to comment on, let alone denounce, these blood-curdling speeches that called on Hindu youth to mobilize to kill two million Muslims. The legal system also let off these killer swamis with a proverbial slap on the wrist while dissenters against Modi’s regime who carry out peaceful protests guaranteed by the constitution are imprisoned under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) for years without the prospect of receiving bail or a speedy trial.

It seems based on experience that divisive issues like the hijab ban in Karnataka erupt whenever elections are going to occur in various parts of the country. At present, elections are ongoing in five states, including India’s largest state UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. In BJP-ruled UP, led by its Chief Minister the preacher of hate Yogi Adityanath, the government is bereft of any achievement that could be touted to the voters. The people of the state have been buffeted by record unemployment and the year-long farmers agitation has dented the BJP’s popularity in several regions of UP. These factors have caused the BJP to revert to a single-minded focus on the communal Hindu-Muslim angle, and the party seems to have decided to rake up any issues that could exacerbate religious polarization and lead to consolidation of majority community votes in its favor. Whether this approach will succeed will be known on March 10 when the results are declared.

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