Hijab row gains ground in a space vacated by Congress, party’s silence rings loud

What began as a protest by a few Muslim girls in a government pre-university college in Udupi for their right to wear hijab to class has spiralled into a clash of ideologies due to the hard stance taken by the local officials that are taking their cues from the BJP government, and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) that has lent the students’ demand a communal edge.

What is as stark is the near absence from the escalating debate of the Congress — the main opposition to the BJP in the communally polarised region.

BJP leaders like Udupi MLA Raghupathy Bhat, Education Minister B C Nagesh, Home Minister Araga Jnanendra and Culture Minister V Sunil Kumar have weighed in saying students cannot demand the right to wear hijab to class, even calling it part of efforts to “Talibanize Udupi”.

The Campus Front of India, the student wing of the SDPI and the Popular Front of India, has, in turn, accused the BJP government of failing “to meet the legitimate demands of the students for their rights”.

The Congress, which won a majority of the five Assembly seats in Udupi in 2013 (when the BJP had won only 1), did not say a word on the controversy for nearly three weeks. It was only on Friday that former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah slammed “the discrimination” against Muslim girls over hijab.

“The government has not said anywhere that there should be uniforms for pre-university students. A principal in a college has locked the gates and prevented Muslim girl students from entering with head scarves. It is a government college. It is a violation of their fundamental rights,” said the former CM.

Siddaramaiah incidentally does not belong to coastal Karnataka, where the row has now spread to other institutions. No local leaders of the Congress have spoken out yet.

Political observers say that the rise of the hijab issue in the region is a sign of the continuous ceding of political ground here by the Congress since 2013, leaving a void that the BJP and SDPI have filled.

In the 2018 Assembly polls, for example, the BJP swept all the five Udupi seats on the back of a highly polarised campaign, which blamed the Congress and SDPI for murders of multiple right-wing Hindutva group members while Siddaramaiah was CM. The hijab row now is being surreptitiously conflated by right-wing groups, ministers and MLAs in the BJP government with the “need” for a uniform civil code in the country.

Far from fighting this, the Congress, since it lost power in Karnataka, has practised ‘soft’ Hindutva. “Some Congress leaders in Udupi do not want to be identified with issues concerning Muslims. They fear this will affect their acceptability. This has resulted in Muslims turning to the less moderate SDPI,” said an observer.

The December 2021 urban local polls reflected the SDPI’s rise at the cost of the Congress, when it won the Kaup town council in Udupi, and the Vitla and Kotekar town panchayats, which were earlier Congress strongholds.

Abdul Azeez Udyavar, the organising secretary of the Udupi District Muslim Okkutta and the district president of the Welfare Party of India that has contested state and local polls in Karnataka without much success, said: “It all (the hijab issue) started after the results of the urban local bodies, and is being used to polarise votes. If hijab had been an issue, I am sure the parents would have brought it to our notice, and it could have been solved without much hype. The Campus Front of India has used these students for their benefit.”

Muslims form nearly 25% of Udupi’s population, while the backward class Billavas constitute around 30%. There is also a sizeable Christian population. Support of a combination of these communities earlier help the Congress win polls in the region. However, in recent years, the Billavas have been won over by the BJP.

Recently, the Congress had been making attempts to re-build a Muslim-Billava alliance, through joint conventions. This has taken a hit with the hijab row.

Another observer said: “The hijab issue has also occurred at a time when the rejection of a Republic Day tableau that had Narayana Guru (a spiritual leader held in reverence by backward communities) was gaining traction as an issue among the Billavas.”

In the absence of strong voices advocating a democratic, Constitutional approach on the issue, articulating the right of the girl students to wear hijab under Article 25 which guarantees freedom to practise one’s religion, it’s the communal forces that are speaking the loudest.

Muneer Kattipalla, the state president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, seeks calmer heads on both sides. “With education the priority, the government should allow the protesting students to attend class but also make the campus religion-free (to counter Muslim girls wearing hijabs, some boys have been turning up wearing saffron stoles). If the government refuses to allow the students to attend (with hijab), then the students should also not hold it against the college but follow the rules, as education is what is at stake.”

For now, the hijab issue is in the Karnataka High Court, with some of the protesting students filing a plea, calling it a violation of their fundamental right. The court is expected to take up the matter on February 8.

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