Listen to this article:
History is on the verge of repeating itself. Thirty-seven years ago, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court had given a unanimous judgment in favour of Shah Bano – a 62-year-old divorced Muslim woman – that she had the same right to alimony under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure as women of other faiths enjoyed.
This judgment upheld the opinion given earlier by two three-judge benches of the court, and pointed out that its verdict did not infringe upon the right of minorities to abide by their own personal laws because the Quran imposed an obligation on Muslim husbands “to make provision for or to provide maintenance to the divorced wife”, and Shah Bano was a Muslim. All it had done was to ensure that she got the same protection that women of other faiths were entitled to.
The judgment aroused a storm of protest from Muslim organisations. The Rajiv Gandhi government took fright and hurriedly enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, which limited the wife’s right to alimony to the capital sum agreed upon by both parties at the time of marriage and three months’ worth of sustenance. Although a succession of subsequent court judgments evened the balance somewhat, they could not repair the damage this did to the secular credentials of the Congress, and of Indian democracy. Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put him back together again.
The Shah Bano case gave the ‘Hindutva’ renaissance that had begun around the Babri Masjid issue the intellectual respectability that it had lacked till then. Today, the hijab controversy that has erupted in Karnataka is on the verge of doing the same thing for the Modi government – just when its unending succession of blunders and callous disregard for human rights and the constitution has brought public confidence in its capacity to govern India to an all-time low.
The controversy erupted nationally on January 1, 2022, when six girl students of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college in Udupi gave a press conference to protest the college authorities’ denial of permission to them to keep wearing their hijabs after they entered their classrooms. This had happened four days earlier. The students portrayed the ban as an attack on their religious rights as a minority and, given the Modi government’s record of fomenting communal animosity to consolidate the ‘Hindu’ vote, this interpretation has been readily accepted by civil society in India and abroad.
An article in The Wire by Arunima G. exemplifies this readiness. She writes: “…the present hijab vs uniform controversy … is a row engineered by the right-wing in the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka. With this, a non-issue becomes one that threatens the education of hijab Muslim students in the affected educational institutions in Udupi (and in time, elsewhere). Any number of logical rebuttals are of no value here as this has cleverly been turned into a question of upholding dress codes in schools, which with the legal turn is tied to a court judgment.” (emphasis added)
A report in the New York Times on February 11, also strikes the same tone: “In January, parents of five students petitioned the court to overturn the ban, arguing that it violated the girls’ right to an education and the free practice of their religion. Last week, the government of Karnataka issued an order in support of the school’s hijab ban. The Karnataka government is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose eight years in power have been marked by a rise in hate speech and religiously motivated violence.”
However, the genesis of the controversy suggests the hijab was turned into a major issue not by the BJP and its state government in Karnataka but by the students themselves, presumably at the instance of the organisers of the January 1 press conference where the story first broke.
Let us look at the story step by step. Rudre Gowda, the principal of the college, has said that wearing the hijab on the college campus was not banned, but the girls were required to take it off when they entered the classroom. “The institution,” he was quoted by PTI as saying, “did not have any rule on hijab-wearing as such, since no one used to wear it to the classroom in the last 35 years.”
The college has 60 female Muslim students, six of whom made the hijab an issue, and no one seems to have sought out any of the remaining 54 to ascertain the veracity of the principal’s assertion. At any rate, his claim has not been controverted by anyone so far.
Leefa Mahek, one of the six protestors at the press conference, whom the New York Times interviewed, confirmed that wearing a headscarf had not been mentioned as a problem by the administrators when she was admitted to the school a year ago. So, not only had wearing headscarfs on the campus not been banned, but she had not felt sufficiently uncomfortable with having to remove it in class to make an issue of it, for an entire year.
So what made her change her mind? The answer almost certainly lies in the answer to yet another question: who arranged the press conference on January 1? Press conferences have a purpose, so the nature and objectives of the organisers need to be examined too. The January 1 press conference was organised by an organisation called the Campus Front of India, which had decided to make the hijab an issue as part of its own assertion in Karnataka’s colleges. According to the News Minute, the CFI was particularly riled by the fact that some Muslim students had participated in a protest organised by the RSS’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
The CFI is an offshoot of a parent organisation called the Popular Front of India. The PFI, which has its headquarters in Delhi, has a long list of allegations of violence against it, levelled not by the National Investigation Agency or the CBI but by the Kerala police, and these allegations go back to 2010, when Modi raj was not even a cloud on the horizon. However, the organisation remains legal and has not been banned even though the Centre has the ability to proscribe it under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, if it has the evidence to back it up.
In September 2018, the Kerala police arrested 16 members of the CFI on the charge of having stabbed to death Abhimanyu, a popular student of the Maharaja’s College at Ernakulam. Abhimanyu was district president of the CPI(M)-affiliated Students’ Federation of India. The killing, which was almost certainly unintended, resulted from a fight between cadres of the CFI and the SFI, over which organisation would get to paint its slogans on a particular wall in the college campus.
Such politically inspired fracas are tragically common on college campuses in India, so it would be wrong to deduce, without further proof, that the CFI’s sponsorship of the six girls’ press conference is part of a ‘conspiracy’ to create communal tension. But, as the confrontation between immaculately saffron-clad boys and girls and hijab-clad girls at various locations in Karnataka showed, that is exactly what has resulted.
Like the Pulwama suicide bombing in 2019, the hijab controversy has come as an unsolicited gift to a BJP government that has been on its back feet since its mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis last year. With civil society leaders, Muslim organisations across India and a section of the media quickly concluding that the hijab ban is yet another exercise in Muslim baiting designed to advance the cause of Hindutva, this was just the excuse the Sangh parivar needed to shore up its support base.
All those who wish to preserve India’s pluralism and democracy therefore need to curb such knee-jerk reactions in the coming days, for they have, within them, the potential to unleash a vastly larger conflict than the one that was triggered by the Babri Masjid – one from which secularism and democracy will be the ultimate losers.
Fortunately, Karnataka is not Uttar Pradesh and Basavaraj Bommai is not Yogi Adityanath. The Karnataka government’s decision to leave it to the courts to decide the issue is both legally and morally the right thing to have done. The path to resolving this issue on the basis of law and the constitution is now open.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and former editor. He is the author of Dawn of the Solar Age: an End to Global Warming and Fear (Sage 2017) and is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Environment Studies, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University.