The impact of Karnataka’s hijab ban
Six students challenging the ban in court have faced intimidation, harassment, and assault.
In Karnataka, a legal battle seemingly centred around school uniforms has been unfolding at the Supreme Court level, in the process revealing enduring discrimination. The six students behind the legal petition have faced threats, intimidation and assault, with a few saying they are afraid to leave their homes. The result of this legal battle will have ramifications beyond the state.
This story begins on 3 March, 2022, when 19-year-old Hiba Sheik, a student from the P Satisha Pai Government First Grade College, was preparing to sit for her final exams when a group of young men sporting saffron shawls barged in. The group, who were members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliated student organisation Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), went up to Hiba and called her a 'terrorist.' They said they would not allow Muslim female students wearing hijab to sit for their exams, insisting that it contravened a Karnataka High Court order that disallowed religious clothing on campus.
Initially, the principal permitted the students to attend exams, asking Muslim students not to pin their shawls as a compromise. But the next day, the students were stopped at the college gates by campus officials. In the coming days, the harassment continued. "People did not even allow us to stop and drink water in the canteen," Hiba recalled. Hiba's experience is just one of many similar accounts related by young Muslim women who wear the hijab in Karnataka. That schools and colleges often accommodated hijab was a point of contention from time to time, but it escalated into a rights issue ahead of Karnataka's State Assembly elections.
Twelve days later, the Karnataka High Court (KHC) formally ruled that hijab was not an essential religious practice in Islam and was not protected by Article 25 of India's Constitution, which deals with freedom of conscience and the free profession, practise and propagation of religious beliefs. A full bench dismissed a batch of petitions by Muslim female students asking for a concession to wear the hijab with their prescribed uniforms. "We are of the considered opinion that the prescription of school uniform is a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to," said the three-judge bench comprising KHC Chief Justice (CJ) Ritu Raj Awasthi and Justices Krishna S Dixit and J M Khazi. (The Muslim students subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, which returned a split verdict on 13 October, meaning the case would be heard before a larger bench).
"The [KHC] court's order was clear: where a uniform is prescribed, the educational institution had a choice to allow Muslim women to wear a hijab or not," explained Supreme Court lawyer Shahrukh Alam. Within days, most Karnataka schools and colleges that had once accommodated the hijab with their uniforms changed their policy. The institutions, said Alam, reacted to the subtext of KHC's judgment, which created a "visual image of a model Indian," and confirmed that "to wear a hijab is not the sign of a model citizen."
Early warning signs
Acts of violence against religious minorities, Adivasis, and Dalits have been on the rise since 2013. Between 2014 and 2017, the Home Ministry recorded 2,920 communal or caste-based incidents. According to the Indian Home Ministry's data, 389 people have been killed and 8,890 injured in these incidents.
On 19 January, in an interview with news anchor Karan Thapar, Gregory Stanton, founder of the non-profit Genocide Watch (GW), said, "the early warning signs of (genocide) are present in India." Stanton referred to Genocide Watch's own '10 stages of genocide'. While the international Genocide Convention strictly defines genocide as a crime committed with the intent to wholly or partially destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, Genocide Watch notes that genocide is a process. Some of these processes that create the possibility for genocide include classification and dehumanisation. Be it through political figures and religious groups calling Muslims 'terrorists' or 'foreigners', singling out Muslims for their choice of clothing or facial hair, or through discriminatory laws – it is undeniable that Muslims in India face discrimination and violence.
Since 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians and Hindu faith leaders have made speeches recounting 'Muslim plunderers of India' and 'Muslim terrorism'. At times, these speeches include explicit calls to violence. In 2020, then Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs (and current Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting) Anurag Thakur was seen in a viral video calling on a crowd of BJP supporters to 'shoot the traitors' (goli maaro saalon ko).
Cow protection has also been a rallying cry against minority communities traditionally linked to trades involving cow slaughter – whether for food or leather. In August 2022, a former BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Rajasthan was seen in a viral video boasting that he would get bail and eventually, an acquittal for any person who killed or hurt another over cow protection. "We have so far lynched five people, be it in Lawandi or Behror… I have given free hand to workers to kill. We will get them acquitted and secure bail," the MLA is seen saying in the video. The video of Gyan Dev Ahuja surfaced after he visited the family of a 45-year-old man Chiranjilal Saini, who was lynched by members of the Meo Muslim community on suspicion of tractor theft, the week before. Saini died during treatment at Jaipur's state-run Sawai Man Singh (SMS) Hospital on 15 August.
Alwar police registered the complaint against Ahuja under section IPC 153-A for promoting hatred and enmity on the grounds of religion. No further progress has been made on the case so far. Between May 2015 and December 2018, 44 people, including 36 Muslims (the rest being primarily Dalits and members of the Adivasi community) had been killed, and over 280 people were injured in over a hundred violent incidents by vigilante cow-protection groups, the Human Rights Watch detailed in a 2019 report. The report, which followed the proceedings of 11 of the attacks, noted the role of the police in ensuring investigations into vigilante attacks remained at a standstill, with police at times turning a blind eye to procedure or even being complicit in violence or cover-ups.
Beyond fostering impunity, some states have also introduced legislation that impacts personal relationships. Recently, the idea that Muslim men are 'trapping' Hindu women into converting to Islam through inter-religious marriage was given state sanction, with 'love jihad' as it is known, declared a criminal offence in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and, most recently, Karnataka, which is a BJP-majority state.
Women's bodies as battlegrounds
A 2018 Amnesty International report on online harassment recorded a positive correlation between harassment of women and how vocal women were online. The report also noted that women from ethnic or religious minority communities were more vulnerable to harassment. Since 2021, there have been two incidents where websites have been set up to 'auction' Muslim women. In July 2021, pictures, personal details and names of over 100 Muslim women were found on a GitHub app called 'Sulli Deals' ('Sulli' is a derogatory term for Muslim women). There was no sale of any kind – the sole purpose of the app was to target Muslim women, including activists, journalists and others who were vocal advocates for civil liberties and religious equality. The app was live for 20 days before women discovered their names and photos. Then, they raised the alarm using social media and filed complaints with the police. In March 2022, a Delhi court granted bail to Aumkareshwar Thakur, alleged to be the mobile app creator. "Prolonged incarceration could be detrimental to his overall well-being," reasoned the court.
On 1 January, 2022, another app hosted on GitHub popped up with the same modus operandi; this time called 'Bulli Bai'. Many of the same women were included in the 'auction' list'. The police investigation led to six accused linked to a Hindu group on Twitter called 'Trad Mahasabha' (trad being shortened form for traditionalists) who promoted genocide against minorities. In March, the Delhi police filed its chargesheets against Thakur and another accused in the Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals cases, Neeraj Bishnoi. All accused were subsequently released on bail.
Given the lack of consequences, it is perhaps unsurprising that young women who have voiced opposition to the Karanataka high court ruling on hijab have found themselves targets. On 14 February, 2022, BJP's Karnataka unit doxxed the names of the petitioners who had filed cases against the hijab ban. The six young women told the Karnataka High Court that they had since received threatening calls, and that their companions had been assaulted.
On 23 February, 2022, a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the RSS-affiliated group which intervened to prevent Hiba from sitting for her exams, called for violence against women wearing hijab. "Let the government give us just one hour…not just these six girls in hijab, we'll cut 60,000 in hijab into pieces," said Pooja Veerashetty, a leader of ABVP.
The calls for violence grew stronger after the Karnataka High Court verdict. On 16 March, a video of a teacher from an Urdu school in Raichur beating a Muslim boy for wearing a skull cap to class surfaced online, with the teacher stopping him from entering class. News reports on 20 March featured a YouTuber – who covered his face with a saffron scarf – questioning why the petitioners and other Muslim women wanted to cover their faces. The owner of the now-suspended account called for rape and genocide of Muslims, including children, lest they "retaliate."
"This is the frontline"
Karnataka will hold its state assembly elections in 2023. After the political party's resounding win in Uttar Pradesh, BJP leaders began preparing for the 2023 polls. Ahead of the elections, Karnataka BJP has called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses, and made further commentary on the hijab ban.
An offshoot of the Islamic group Popular Front of India (PFI), the national Muslim student body Campus Front India (CFI) has also come under attack by the government. Both PFI and CFI have been accused of instigating hijab-wearing students to make the ban an issue by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). On 22 September, the NIA raided 93 PFI houses and offices across Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Maharashtra and other states. The NIA arrested 247 PFI members over alleged involvement in terrorist funding and running training camps for terrorists, as news sites reported. On 27 September, the government banned PFI and its associates (including CFI) for five years. Members of both groups are currently in hiding, fearing arrest. Legal representatives for the Karnataka government have claimed that the outcry against the banning of hijab resulted from a social media campaign spearheaded by PFI (a charge that the students deny), adding that the link was being made to prejudice their case.
Speaking to Himal Southasian shortly before the ban, Fathima Usman, a committee member of the Karnataka wing of CFI, said Muslim women had braced themselves for "the fight of their lives". Usman pointed to the increasingly pervasive Islamophobia in India. "We cannot concede the [issue of wearing] hijab in schools and colleges. Their [Hindutva supporters and the BJP's] next step will be to ban hijab in public places. Ultimately they want to take us out of all public spheres of life in India altogether," said Usman.
Udupi's Muslim Okkoota (partnership) head and social activist Hussain Kodibengre said young Muslim women were being attacked to discourage them from participating in society. "They know Karnataka's Muslim women are educated and at the front of all civil protests. That is why they don't want them to study," he said. Kodibengre added that he had advised students to take their exams with or without the hijab. "We have organised online classes for those preparing for exams," he said.
Hiba Sheikh wasn't the only one impacted by the hijab ban. In January 2022, Niba Naaz and her friends were halfway through their academic year when their principal asked to see them in the Udupi Government Pre University College for Girls' Audio Visual (AV) room. All the women were told they could not wear a hijab to campus. They were given the choice of removing their hijabs, sitting for their exams in a co-educational class, or leaving campus. The 22-year-old recalled begging the administrator for permission to write her exams while wearing a hijab. "He just left without saying anything else to us," she remembered.
Naaz and the other women refused to take off their hijabs. "It is a matter of my izzat (dignity)," she said, having worn an abaya and/or hijab since she was nine. The girls were shocked by the college's decision. Though Udupi's PU college had issued a uniform code in July 2021, Naaz and her friends wore the hijab throughout the academic year without any issue raised by the principal.
The young women tried returning to college wearing headscarves that matched uniform colours. But, this time, they were denied entry at the college gates. The image of them standing outside the shut door of their college went viral.
"I could not breathe. My world stopped that day," said Naaz, who was the first student to file an appeal against the KHC judgement in the Indian Supreme Court. "My exams were coming. Otherwise, I would not have gone to court over this," she said. However, the apex court declined to take up the appeal urgently. The Supreme Court said it did not see the relationship between the advent of exams and the hijab ban.
As the case gained national attention, communal divides between students in Karnataka's colleges increased. "We were kicked out of all the college WhatsApp groups. No one wanted to study with us, no one would speak to us," said Naaz. She recalled how her best friend for years, a Hindu girl, refused to acknowledge her presence on the college campus.
Since the hijab ban, there have been numerous clashes on campuses, between students protesting the hijab ban and those cheering it on. On 5 February, 2022, students wearing saffron scarves raised slogans against hijab-clad women in the Kundapur district of Udupi. On 8 February, 2022, section 144 of the Indian Penal Code (joining an unlawful assembly) was cited in Shivamogga city, Bapuji Nagar, following a clash between students protesting for and against the hijab.
Naaz said, "Police have often come to my house asking questions." After the Supreme Court plea was filed, the local superintendent of police came over and "gave me a police directory so I can call someone if there is any trouble." Naaz says she hardly goes out or speaks to anyone since filing the case, revealing the high cost of choosing to pursue her case in court.
The young women who spoke with Himal Southasian said they felt alienated after the Karnataka High Court decision, even as they pursued the case in the Supreme Court. It was too late in the academic year for them to transfer to a university that would accommodate their hijabs. In any case, such institutions were likely to be in the private sector and beyond their financial means.
"Reading the morning paper every day is bad," Usman from Campus Front India told Himal Southasian. Hiba's eldest sister is the primary earner in a family of five. Her father is unemployed, and her mother is a frontline health worker, paid a minimum wage. "I could barely afford the government college fee of 10,000 rupees," Hiba says. School fees for private colleges teaching zoology, her area of interest, range from INR 300,000 to 600,000. Hiba's dream is to take the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) Exam and become a police officer. It would not be possible for her to write the IAS exams without a college degree, and Hiba knows that. Unwilling to give up on her ambitions, the 19-year-old studies for India's most formidable exam in a local library near her house in Mangalore. "I just hope the Supreme Court will do right by me," she said.
Farrah Ahmed, Professor at Melbourne Law University notes that the fundamental rights of Indian citizens must protect the autonomy of minorities in India. "If we think that fundamental rights are there as window dressing to protect majority practices, then the government's line (that this is not discrimination because not all Muslim women wear hijab) makes sense."
In the end, perhaps the question to be debated is not just whether wearing hijab is an essential religious practice. Constitutional law scholar and legal advocate Gautam Bhatia argues that questions of autonomy, dignity and choice should also take precedence. In his reading, Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia noted that 'wearing a hijab should be simply a matter of choice,' adding that obstacles preventing women from receiving education also had to be considered in the case. However, Justice Hemant Gupta held that the Karnataka court order did not constitute a denial of the right to education, if female students chose not to attend because of the ban. He held that students "should look alike, feel alike, think alike and study together in a cohesive cordial atmosphere," adding "That is the objective behind a uniform." While the courts continue to debate the issue, state Education Minister B C Nagesh has said the Karnataka order remains valid, leaving the women fighting the case – and other hijab-wearing students – in academic limbo.