Interpreting Karnataka’s Hijab Row – OpEd


n Karnataka, there have been incidents of Muslim girls being banned from attending college for wearing hijab; when they insisted on exercising their right to do so, Hindu students donned saffron scarves to intimidate them, raising slogans of “Jai Shri Ram (praise Lord Ram)” while going to college. In response to these events, the state’s Education Department said, “In some education institutions, the boys and girls have started behaving according to their religion, which hurts equality and unity…clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn”. Earlier, the state’s Education Minister BC Nagesh had remarked that the practice of wearing hijab amounted to “indiscipline” and that schools and colleges were “not a place to practice dharma”. 

There is a contradiction here. Karnataka is ruled by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its ideology of Hindutva. Why, then, is it advocating the separation of religion from the public sphere? The roots of this political paradox lie in the post-colonial reality of India. When the country got freedom in 1947, there occurred simultaneous religious civil wars that resulted in the bloody partition of the subcontinent. According to Tanika Sarkar, the partition legitimized “communal assertions” as “a self-fulfilling prophecy”. “The country was physically partitioned between warring communities even before the formal territorial division came through…the RSS…benefit[ed] enormously from it. The violence seemed to confirm its assertions about a unified Hindu community pitted against Muslims.” 

The communal faultiness that ran deep through the nation – and which nurtured an incipient sense of Hindu chauvinism – could be bridged if the Congress party was willing to advance a radical programme that subverted the structural foundation of obscurantism, namely feudal production relations. However, the Indian state, controlled by the big bourgeoisie and the landlords, chose to preserve the economic hierarchies that the British had bequeathed to them. Thus, land concentration remained high and neo-feudal exploitation of the small peasantry and landless agricultural workers, mainly from the oppressed castes, continued. These feudal realities were overlaid with public sector-led capitalism, creating a kind of neo-traditionalism that combined aspirational consumerism with cultural narrow-mindedness. 

Insofar that the material basis of communalism was maintained, the post-partition civil society was marked by latent feelings of Hindu supremacy. These sentiments, nonetheless, were offset by the influence exercised by political society. It was only during the tenure of Jawaharlal Nehru that the Indian state actively performed an educational and ethical function, trying to spread modern and progressive values, evident in the new textbooks of the period. But this could not continue for long. While the Nehruvian state envisaged equality and freedom as the ends that could be achieved by the universalism of rights, the inequalities of civil society upon which the state was founded meant the concrete absence of the means to achieve those ends. 

So, while the Nehruvian state required citizens to participate in the public sphere as abstract, universal and secular individuals, it did not, however, provide them with the tools, in the form of economic, social and cultural rights, by means of which they could achieve such participation. This had a negative impact upon Muslims since they were the ones significantly weakened by partition. By ignoring this inequality, the state expected them to enter the political society as already abstract and universal subjects. But this supposedly abstract individual also reflected the realities of civil society. Since the secular subject emerged not through the revolutionization of religiosity but through its uncritical acceptance in the form of a backward capitalism – one which carried the full weight of inter-community power imbalances – the abstract universal posited by Indian secularism actually embodied the universalization of particularity. And this particularity was the one which remained dominant in civil society, namely Hinduism. 

In other words, Indian secularism presumed a determined anthropological type (Hinduism) which excluded those who did not already possess the traits of this universality. As a result, the emergent collective consciousness of the nation exhibited a patronizing attitude toward Muslims: the Indian nation-state expected that modernization and education would lead Muslims to shed their separatist mentality and become assimilated into the national body; the yardstick of secularism in this case was the Hindu population which was assumed to possess unique virtues of tolerance. This contradiction between political society and civil society was temporarily sutured by post-Nehruvian Congress elites in a regressive way through the jettisoning of any attempt to advance secular values. 

Secularism was redefined as the maintenance of an equipoise between concessions given to fundamentalist groups of different religious communities. The paradigmatic example is that of Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-1980s, who balanced his capitulation to Muslim orthodoxy in the Shah Bano case with the opening of locks to the Babri Masjid, thus paving the way for the agitation that led to the destruction of the mosque. The tensions inherent in this tactic were exploited by BJP in an adroit manner. Building on the conservative common sense left untouched by successive Congress governments, it argued that Hinduism was the essence of Indian secularism, and that minority rights were symptomatic of “pseudo-secularism”. The conclusion: uniformity is necessary for national integration and Muslims, by not integrating, are weakening the country; this uniformity, as we have seen, is actually an embodiment of Hindu standards. 

A case in point is the issue of Uniform Civil Code (UCC). BJP’s pursuit of a UCC is a way of highlighting the differential treatment of Muslims, which is ostensibly “unfair” to Hindus. In this narrative, it is believed that it is only the Hindu community that has reformed its law, thus setting a standard for others. This is far from true. Achin Vanaik comments: “Political Hindutva has no commitment to a genuinely gender-just UCC. In fact, a UCC would necessitate the abandonment of many current Hindu laws and practices regarding marriage and divorce, succession, matrimonial property and adoption rights…The kind of common civil code acceptable to it would be based on Hindu codes interpreted in a loosely Brahminical fashion. In such a situation, not surprisingly, the very idea of a common civil code is seen by large sections of the Muslim population as motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.”

In the present-day hijab row, too, one can see the deployment of a language of uniformity that is incapable of properly mediating its relationship with the surrounding cultural landscape and thus, ends up concentrating unmediated content that surreptitiously strives for universalization. This dangerous mismatch of form and content results in the emergence of a universal filled with an obstinate particularity that strives to affirm its absolute claim to be universal despite all contrary evidence. The struggles of the young Muslim women of Karnataka are revealing the abstract universal for what it is, a barely veiled particularism that seeks to normalize Hinduism as a dominant religion. As Apoorvanand notes, “It is not difficult to see that Muslim-ness is being criminalized and outlawed using the arguments of uniformity, a national way of life, public order, secularism and the like.”

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]. He has published more than 250 articles on social, political, economic, and cultural issues. He is the author of the book "Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia".

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *