Politics over dress code blights students' lives

In a week’s time several colleges across the state saw Hindu students confronting their hijab-wearing Muslim college mates by sporting saffron stoles
Last Updated : 18 February 2022, 12:34 IST
Last Updated : 18 February 2022, 12:34 IST
Last Updated : 18 February 2022, 12:34 IST
Last Updated : 18 February 2022, 12:34 IST
Last Updated : 18 February 2022, 12:34 IST
Last Updated : 18 February 2022, 12:34 IST

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Over the past week, the notion of college has changed for Shanmukha (name changed) and his friends. What once was a place of learning has become a divided house.

He says of the 105 students in his class, 50 started sporting saffron stoles from February 4, protesting against the hijab-wearing Muslim students. By February 7, all five Muslim classmates (both male and female) stopped attending college. Those students who were neutral were also offered stoles and asked to join the march against the hijab.

“I accepted the stole as I didn't want to hurt my friends, but I slipped it into the bag and went straight into the classroom as wearing it would mean opposing the rights of my Muslim friends," says this final year degree student in Mandya Government College.

But what bewilders Shanmukha is the sudden transformation of his friends, who turned aggressive campaigners overnight. "In all these years, we haven't even demanded improving infrastructure in the college, forget campaigns," he says.

Like some other educational institutions in Karnataka, this college has seen a sudden burst of ‘student activism’ in the last ten days centred around the hijab issue.

Shanmukha’s classmate Rajesh (name changed), who wore the saffron robe, justifies his action: “Our classmates never wore the hijab before. They started only after the Udupi incident and I feel it affects the harmony in college.”

He refers to the six students of Government Women's PU College in Udupi, who have been fighting to attend classes wearing the hijab since last December.

“Most Muslim women will remain illiterate if the Court or government makes it mandatory to remove hijab in classrooms,” says A H Almas, a science student and one of the six girls protesting from Udupi.

“We are asked to choose between faith and studies. When the constitution allows us to practise both, why are we being told to choose one?” she asked.

More than a month after the Udupi incident, on February 2, the Government PU College, Kundapur witnessed a group of students wearing saffron stoles to oppose hijab-wearing Muslim students in the name of competing rights.

In a week’s time several colleges across the state saw Hindu students confronting their hijab-wearing Muslim college mates by sporting saffron stoles.

“There was a build up to what started in Udupi, where a Muslim party is coming into prominence as a response to the communal tension spread by the right-wing politics. The Udupi incident is driven by local politics. Those who sensed an electoral opportunity perpetuated it. Now it has become a religious symbol vs a political symbol,” says A Narayana, professor, Azim Premji University.

“It is difficult to see a pattern in its spread to other places but its escalation was expected given the aggressive Hindutva politics that the ruling BJP in Karnataka is increasingly relying on,” he says.

Reports of saffron stoles being distributed in different colleges only substantiates this view. For instance, reports indicate that leaders of a Hindu fringe group are responsible for the demonstration at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College in Udupi, where saffron petas were used to protest against hijab.

Opposition parties have alleged that in Shivamogga and Sagara, the son of a minister distributed stoles to the students.

Many students who wore the stoles have no clarity about their fight or what would be the outcome of these protests.

The Campus Front of India (CFI), the student outfit of Social Democratic Party of India, has been vocal on providing legal and moral support to the protesting girls in Udupi. “We are a student body and what’s wrong in supporting students?” CFI state president Athaulla Punjalkatte asks. “Students wearing saffron stoles in protest against hijab was a game played by pro-BJP outfits to mislead the court and build a false narrative,” he says.

The campaign against hijab-wearing Muslim girls took a vicious turn on February 8 in Shivamogga, Bagalkot and Mandya. Saffron-clad male students heckled a hijab-wearing student at PES degree college in Mandya, while confrontations in the other two districts turned violent. On February 9, the state government announced holidays for colleges and Classes 9 and 10.

The first victims of the dress code row and the hate campaign are government and aided colleges.

The principal of a college where the protest unfolded is in despair when he says they are forced to tabulate the number of students from each community after the incident.

Some colleges have taken certain steps. “The incident came as a rude shock to us. Ours is a truly democratic institution and we can’t allow such incidents to happen at any cost. The first step we took was to counsel 15-20 students who were instigated by outsiders,” says K S Vijay Anand, chairman of the PES Degree college.

Young minds

DH spoke to 30 students from different communities in Mandya, including those from colleges which witnessed this communal politics — which is largely alien to the district.

While a majority of them are confused and just want to return to a normal college life, irrespective of who wears what, some Hindu students — both girls and boys — do have a new-found resentment for hijab.

Muslim students — both female and male — say they are not able to comprehend the situation and do not know how to respond to the development.

M Veena, principal of Sahyadri Commerce College & Management, Shivamogga is of the view that students of the college are influenced by protests that broke out in Udupi district against the hijab.

Most of the students who protested were first year students and they sought permission to wear saffron stoles in classrooms, as Muslim girls are allowed to attend classes wearing hijab.

“I tried to convince them that the government issued an order banning both. Later, I also asked Muslim girls not to wear burqa or hijab in classrooms. But they were determined to wear hijab citing it is their fundamental right. One of the parents of a Muslim student arrived at the college and promised that their children would abide by the college rule,” she says.

The Muslim students have been wearing hijab in classrooms for the past several years. There was no objection then, she says.

Murthy Bheemarao, State coordinator of Bharathiya Vidyarthi Sangha, argues that the protests of the magnitude witnessed in the state against hijab is impossible to be organised by the students alone.

“This definitely has larger political backing. What is unfortunate is that the students are being divided in the name of religion. Will they be able to go back to classrooms and face their friends after this clash?” he asks.

Bengaluru-based lawyer Vinay Sreenivasa says, “There are several issues here; the first being a certain kind of majoritarianism. This will have a deep impact. Earlier, they were just students and classmates. Now they will start seeing with a communal lens. The government must answer why they let the situation reach this stage.”

Yashpal Suvarna, vice-president of Government Women’s PU College, Udupi, argues that wearing the hijab is not a religious practice. “Muslim men are forcing Muslim women to wear it. Muslim women want to be free like women from other communities but they are put in the cage with many restrictions. Many educated Muslims support the BJP as they are happy with the Centre’s stand against triple talaq,” he says.

Suvarna, who is eyeing a BJP ticket from neighbouring Kaup in the upcoming Assembly election, says he never tried to make it a political issue. Some communal forces, including CFI, made it a big issue. “This is being done to portray India as anti-Muslim and get international funding for their activities,” he says.

Political analyst Muzzaffar Assadi says that the issue has now garnered international attention. “We should read it from an international perspective. This will be used to project India as a country where the rights of women and the minorities are hindered,” he says.

Political awareness

Reactionary protests have coloured the lives of these students. Without clarity or a strong democratic foundation, the youth wings of larger political parties only serve to provoke students to serve a larger political agenda.

“This is making us hollow ideologically, as there is no awareness of the democratic set up, diversity and the struggles for a just society. Without proper awareness and knowledge dissemination, we fail to understand the importance of discussions and discourses, and are provoked by the slightest trigger,” says Rudresh Mourya, a Bangalore University student who is associated with Students’ Federation of India.

The current protests have shown the volatile nature of students’ engagement with politics. Social media has only aggravated the situation. “The parties which have successfully played politics by creating a sense of insecurity and a narrative of injustice are now employing this strategy to politicise educational institutions. The society as a whole has failed to create constitutional and political awareness in young minds,” says A Narayana.

While the parents of Muslim students are hoping that the current situation will not keep the girl children away from schools, parents of the Hindu students are perplexed to see the sudden aggressiveness in their children and wish that this will not have adverse effects on their future.

As the controversy continues with politics at its core, students are waiting for the court judgment. And their parents feel the need for a social solution.

(With inputs from Akram Mohammad, Shruthi H M Sastry in Bengaluru and Nrupathunga S K in Shivamogga)

Published 12 February 2022, 19:12 IST

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