EducationInternationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 14

Indian hijab ban: Another attempt to marginalise Muslims

A veil ban on Muslim students in schools and colleges of Indian state of Karnataka aims to push the minorities to the wall. It indicates how minorities are being systematically deprived of their fundamental rights in the Hindu-supremacist vision of how the country is to be reconstituted with the active aid of state institutions.

It is another attempt to deprive minorities, especially Muslims, who are the biggest minority in India, of their basic and religious rights after they have been facing increased violence, killings, hate, threats and discriminatory laws in the BJP government. It is ironic that female Muslim students have been barred from wearing hijab to government schools and colleges in the Indian state after women linked to right-wing Hindu organisations sporting saffron shawls, a symbol used by Hindu extremist groups, started protesting against veiled students. If use of saffron shawls by Hindu women is right, why is it wrong for Muslim girls and women to wear a niqab? When Sikh students are allowed to wear turbans and metal bracelets as symbols of their faith to school, colleges and universities, why Muslims are being singled out?

The move has evoked criticism by international rights activists. According to world-renowned scholar, author and activist Noam Chomsky, Islamophobia has taken a most lethal form in India, turning some 250 million Indian Muslims into a persecuted minority. “The pathology of Islamophobia is growing throughout the West — it is taking its most lethal form in India,” Chomsky, who is also Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said in a video message to a webinar organised by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), a Washington-based advocacy organisation. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist regime has sharply escalated the crimes in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK). The crimes in Kashmir have a long history and the state is now a brutally occupied territory and its military control in some ways is similar to occupied Palestine. The situation in South Asia is painful in particular not because of what is happening but because of what is not happening. There is, however, hope and opportunities to solve South Asian torment but not for long,” he added.

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at the Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the greatest threat to the Indian constitution was the promotion of majority religion by the Indian government at the expense of minorities. “The BJP and its affiliates are making hateful remarks against Muslims to gain Hindu votes around elections. The BJP government has adopted laws and policies that systematically discriminate against religious minorities and other groups and it also stigmatises its critics. The government enacted the ‘Citizenship Act’ to target minorities, particularly Indian Muslims. Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Tiktok have failed to control hatred spread through their platforms,” he added.

Angana Chatterji, Indian anthropologist and scholar at Berkeley University, California, said prejudices embedded in the government of the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP had infiltrated independent institutions, such as police and courts, empowering nationalist groups to threaten, harass and attack religious minorities with impunity. “Hindu spiritual leaders are involved in the ethnic cleansing of Muslims,” she said, adding that BJP leaders and affiliated groups had long portrayed minority communities, especially Muslims, as a threat to national security and to the Hindu way of life. They raised the bogey of ‘love jihad’ claiming that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam, labelled Muslim immigrants as extremists and accused them of hurting Hindu sentiment over cow slaughter.

Since Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2017, the culture of violence and impunity has taken root, as police have carried out hundreds of extra-judicial killings of suspected criminals belonging to minorities, particularly Muslims. By the time protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill spilled out on the streets of UP in December 2019, police manhandled protestors, behaved in a vulgar manner with women, arrested whomsoever it wanted and framed prominent activists in criminal cases. As hundreds of thousands of farmers of various faiths began protesting against the government’s new farm laws in November 2020, senior BJP leaders, their supporters on social media, and pro-government media blamed the Sikhs as “Khalistani terrorists”. February 23 marks the two year anniversary of the communal violence in Delhi that killed 53 people, 40 of them Muslim.

A US official also voiced concerns about the banning of niqab at schools and colleges. Rashad Hussain, the US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, said the hijab ban would stigmatise and marginalise women and girls. “Religious freedom includes the ability to choose one’s religious attire. The Indian state of Karnataka should not determine permissibility of religious clothing. Hijab bans in schools violate religious freedom and stigmatize and marginalize women and girls,” he tweeted.

Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai urged Indian leaders to stop the marginalisation of Muslim women. “College is forcing us to choose between studies and the hijab,” she tweeted. Manchester United and French international Paul Pogba also expressed concern for Muslim women in Karnataka, sharing a video on Instagram with the caption “Hindutva mobs continue to harass Muslim girls wearing hijab to college in India”.

It is a fact that hate against Muslims has been institutionalised by the majoritarian, anti-Muslim agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an outfit of which the BJP is a part. India’s syncretic social fabric is being shredded and recent violence against Muslims is a chilling prelude to it. In the situation, Muslims will be forced to take up arms to defend themselves, which would have serious repercussions for the survival of India.