The Indian state of Karnataka has shut its schools for three days after the regional government backed schools imposing a ban on hijabs, leading to widespread protests and violence.
The issue began in January, when six female Muslim students staged a weeks-long protest after they were told to either remove their headscarves or stop attending class at a government college in the district of Udupi.
Last week, other colleges in the state began to enforce bans after some Hindu students, backed by rightwing Hindu groups, protested that if hijabs were allowed in classrooms, they should be allowed to wear saffron shawls. Saffron is the colour that has become commonly associated with Hindu nationalism.
On Saturday, in an apparent backing of schools’ right to impose a ban, the Karnataka state government directed colleges to ensure that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn”.
Muslim students have argued that their right to freedom of religion is being violated, and have taken the issue to state high court. The students have argued that “religious apartheid” is being imposed in some colleges where women in a hijabs are being allowed to enter but are being kept in separate classrooms.
The issue has proved highly inflammatory. At some colleges, Muslim students have been aggressively heckled, while in others the protests between students turned violent, prompting police to charge at crowds and fire into the air.
On Tuesday, the state chief minister Basavaraj S Bommai suspended schools and colleges for three days and urged students and teachers to “maintain peace and harmony”.
Karnataka is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which governs at a national level too. Under its watch there has been a rising tide of anti-Muslim violence and sentiment across India, where 12% of the population is Muslim. The BJP state chief in Karnataka, Nalin Kumar Kateel, has said banning the hijab would ensure that classrooms did not become “Taliban-like”.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Indian National Congress party, was highly critical. “By letting students’ hijab come in the way of their education, we are robbing the future of the daughters of India,” he said. “Prohibiting hijab-wearing students from entering school is a violation of fundamental rights.”
The situation also drew condemnation from the Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who said the situation was “horrifying” and called on Indian leaders to stop the “marginalisation of Indian women”.
Muslim students at Dr BB Hegde College in Udupi described how they had turned up to classes last Thursday and found they were barred entry by a large group of men, including fellow students, who were wearing saffron shawls. The group had demanded the Muslim students remove their hijabs.
By Friday, the nine Muslim female students – out of more than 1,000 enrolled in the college – had been banned from entering through the school gates in a veil. The principal informed the women that it was a government order and that they must go to the bathroom to remove their hijabs or they could not attend class.
After the girls refused to remove their headscarves, the gates of the school were locked to prevent them entering and several police officers were called.
Rabiya Khan, a student at the college, said the school’s leadership had come under pressure from rightwing Hindu groups. “The Hindutva [hardline Hindu nationalism] elements don’t have a problem with the hijab, they have problem with our whole religious and cultural identity,” she said.
Even though many Hindu students in their classes had privately voiced support for their right to wear a hijab, they were keeping quiet because they were fearful of the actions of vigilante groups, said Khan.
As the row erupted and she was sent home from school, Khan’s parents told her to remove the hijab so at least she could still continue getting an education, with her crucial exams just two months away.
“But I told them that if we give up, it will boost the morale of communal elements and create problems for the Muslim students in the future,” Khan said. “We have to make sacrifices and stay strong.” Khan emphasised that the Muslim students had never voiced any objection to Hindu students wearing saffron shawls.
Saniya Parveen, 20, another Muslim student at the college, said she had worn a hijab to college for three years with no objections, and that Muslims and Hindus had always studied together side-by-side peacefully. Parveen said she and her fellow Muslim students were anxiously waiting for the outcome of the court order to find out whether they would be able to return to their studies.
“I hope we will be allowed to attend classes in hijab,” she said. “It is our religious compulsion and a constitutional right; we are not going to surrender.”
In Bhandarkars’ Arts and Science College in Udupi district, where a hijab ban was also enforced, one student spoke of her despair at Muslim students being made to feel like “beggars at the college gates”.
“It is humiliating,” she said. “We used to feel so safe inside the campus and never felt we were in any way different from our Hindu classmates. Suddenly we are being made to feel like outsiders. For the first time we were made to realise that we were Muslims and they are Hindus.”
In a statement, the national spokesperson for Vishva Hindu Parishad, one of the rightwing groups at the forefront of the anti-hijab protests, termed the hijab row “a conspiracy to propagate jihadi terrorism” and said that Muslim students were attempting “hijab jihad” in college campuses.
Apoorvanand, a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi, said the controversy was part of a larger project whereby “Muslim identity markers are being declared as sectarian and undesirable in public spaces”.
“It is telling Muslims and non-Hindus that the state will dictate their appearance and their practices,” he said.
On Monday, some students in hijabs were allowed into the government pre-university college in Udupi but were forced to sit in segregated classrooms. “We were made to sit in a separate room and no teacher came to teach us,” said one student. “We were just sitting there like criminals.”