A few days after Republic Day, where we celebrated our rights, we are seeing the sight of young Muslim women who are seeking a college education being turned away from institutions of learning – for the crime of wearing a hijab/burqa. In a blatantly discriminatory move, some colleges across coastal Karnataka are preventing their female Muslim students from attending college, because they are attired in hijabs and burqas.
The state BJP chief and MP for Dakshina Kannada, Nalin Kumar Kateel, is reported to have said, “There is a BJP government in the state and there is no scope for hijab. Schools are Saraswati mandirs. Learning is the only dharma to be practised in schools, and there is no place for any other dharma.” And with this statement, what he essentially is trying to do is impose his version of Hindu cultural and religious values on those who may or may not believe in them. Furthermore, these are not being done in private institutes funded by temple money, but by public institutes funded by the taxpayer. He further emphasised that they “will not allow” the ‘Talibanisation’ of education, ironically, ending up behaving just like the Taliban, preventing girls from accessing education.
At the top of our Constitution is the preamble, that makes a pledge to all citizens - Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. Somehow, it seems that all these promises to the Muslim female students in hijab are being broken. Justice is being denied, because their interests are not being considered. Liberty of expression – wearing clothes of their choice – is being denied. Equality is being denied by keeping them out of the class, when others are let in. And, of course, the dignity promised in fraternity lies tattered at the sight of young girls being denied an education.
On one end are the conservative elements in the Muslim community who prevent the girls from getting out of the house without being swaddled, and on the other, Hindu militant groups who impose their view of secularism when it suits them and their variant of Hinduism when it suits them. Backing the militant Hindu groups are militant young MPs, for whom communal polarisation is a way of consolidating their vote banks. And between the immovable elements of fundamentalists on both sides, the rights of the young women to get an education are being squashed.
For many right-wing commentators – India should follow the French form of secularism when it concerns minorities. The French, since their bloody and brutal revolution four centuries ago, have grappled long and hard with the separation of the state and the church. There are those in France, led by their President Emmanuel Macron, who believe fervently that religion (and all its symbols) should be completely absent from public life. This would include turbans for Sikhs, the Star of David pendants for Jews, bindis for Hindu women, and the hijab/naqab for Muslim women. This philosophy is known as laïcité.
In the main, laïcité is seen as a discriminatory act against the Muslim population in France, mostly made up of immigrants from the former French North African colonies, who maintain their separate socio-cultural identity. Those who support laïcité, believe it is the only way of saving ‘French culture’ from getting diluted.
There are similar strains of thought that are emerging vis-à-vis the hijab issue in coastal Karnataka. The question that arises is whether minorities have the rightto their own socio-cultural identity beyond the larger majority identity. Do they have the right to their faith and their cultural symbols? Do they have a rightto their linguistic identity? What if tomorrow a state like Maharashtra said, we won’t allow any students who cannot speak Marathi to class? What does this mean for the Republic of India?
Indian secularism has never been about relegating religion or culture to the background. It has always been a part of our cultural make-up, and we have revelled in the diversity. If we can have yogis taking oaths as chief ministers, and sadhvis taking oath as members of Parliament – we really should not have objections to girls in hijab attending class.What is happening in Karnataka is that fundamentalist groups are once again trying to control a woman’s body to prevent her from accessing her rights. They are interfering in her right to be. And that needs to be opposed.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker