Education, Gender, Human Rights, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

India: Hijab Row the Latest Show of Hindu Nationalism

Right-wing populist politicians target Muslim women to inflame divisions and win elections

May 11 2022 -  


    In an election season, India’s ruling party has again resorted to the right-wing populist playbook, stirring up divisions for political gain. This time it is the turn of Muslim women, caught in the crossfire of a backlash against both the rights of religious minorities and women’s rights. The controversy over the wearing of the hijab in schools is just the latest chapter in the saga starring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party in their quest to consolidate power. Their attempts will continue, as will civil society resistance and struggles for rights.

One day in late December 2021, Muslim students at an all-female college in the small town of Kundapur, in India’s southern state of Karnataka, were offered an impossible choice: either ditch their hijab, a headscarf they wear as a symbol of their faith, or renounce their right to education. But they refused to comply, and instead protested.

As protests spread and brought counterprotests by Hindu students, a piece of cloth soon became the centre of a storm, where struggles for the rights of women and religious minorities intersect. With both under attack by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing populist government, Muslim women must have seemed the perfect target.

The hijab row

Out of the blue, the authorities of a state-run school in Karnataka ruled that the hijab was in contravention of uniform rules and denied those wearing it entry into classrooms. Other government-run schools followed suit. The state government, in the hands of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), backed the ban and extended it to the whole state through a directive stating that ‘clothes which disturb equality, integrity, and public law and order should not be worn’.

Karnataka is often described as the ‘hotbed’ of the Hindutva ideology supported by many right-wing Hindu groups. Thirteen per cent of its population is Muslim, and although nominally secular, the state has increasingly turned religious mandates into law – the very definition of religious fundamentalism. Among other things, the sale and slaughter of cows have been banned in the state because cows are sacred for Hindus, and an anti-conversion bill has made it more difficult for people to convert to Islam or Christianity and for interfaith couples to marry.

On 31 December, six Muslim girls who were denied entry to their classrooms because they wore the hijab protested outside their school, marking the start of wider protests. The students also filed a writ in the Karnataka High Court and brought their complaint to the National Human Rights Commission.

While the ban was imposed only in Karnataka, rights groups feared it would pave the way for tighter nationwide restrictions. To resist this, protests spread throughout India, and by early February they had reached the capital, New Delhi, and were even echoing abroad, as Turkish rights groups held a demonstration outside the Indian consulate in Istanbul.

As protests spread, counterprotests followed: many right-wing Hindu students, mostly male, marched in saffron shawls, a colour considered a Hindu symbol. A civil society report has described in detail the tactics of Hindutva supremacists to push ‘saffronisation’ into schools and fuel communal violence.

In Karnataka the script was followed to the letter: as Hindutva activists turned up to disrupt protests against the hijab ban, heated arguments and physical harassment ensued. Some cities witnessed incidents of stone-throwing and arson. On 10 February, on the grounds of treating ‘both sides’ equally, the Karnataka high court issued an interim order banning anyone from wearing any covering or religious symbol within classrooms. Muslim students challenged the order in the Supreme Court.

On 15 February the Karnataka government ordered a three-day closure of all high schools and colleges. The next day, city authorities in the state’s capital, Bengaluru, banned protests outside schools for two weeks. On 21 February, the murder of a member of the right-wing Hindu group Bajrang Dal added fuel to the fire: the 23-year-old man, identified as Harsha, was killed while campaigning against the hijab. Schools were closed again.

On 15 March, the Karnataka high court upheld the ban on the basis of the argument that wearing the hijab was not an essential Islamic principle. With one stroke of the pen it swept away any pretence of secularism, under which no court should be able to decide what is essential to any religion.

Later in March, in another district of Karnataka, teachers were suspended for allowing Muslim students to attend exams wearing the hijab. A few days later, the state government excluded teachers wearing the hijab from exam duty, effectively expanding the ban to teachers.

Schools have been turned into yet another political arena. The backdrop and apparent driving force was a series of state-level elections, including in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP was looking for a strong showing ahead of upcoming national-level elections. Religious divides are being intensified and instrumentalised for political gain.

    Voices from the frontline: Aiman Khan and Agni Das

    Aiman Khan and Agni Das are members of the Quill Foundation, an Indian civil society organisation (CSO) engaged in research and advocacy, focused on the human rights issues faced by underprivileged people.

    There have been protests on two fronts. The girls who have been directly affected by this restriction are protesting outside their college gates and holding demonstrations in other public spaces. But they are facing intimidation and threats by Hindutva vigilante groups while also being warned that they will be criminally charged for protesting.

    In bigger cities, protests are also being organised by human rights CSOs and Muslim groups, and particularly by Muslim women.

    Following the Karnataka high court ruling, CSOs have played an important role in raising awareness about the implications of the verdict. Several CSOs rejected the court order while also producing analysis to help the public understand its intricate legal language.

    Civil society has been able to respond in a tangible and timely manner, offering unconditional solidarity and support to the schoolgirls affected by the order and experiencing trauma resulting from violence, discrimination and harassment in the aftermath of the high court order. Some CSOs have offered mental health counselling and other services.

    Other CSOs have offered litigation support, in two forms: first, by representing individual cases of religious discrimination and providing legal support to those who missed out on exams due to the ban; and second, by petitioning on larger issues before courts of law. There have been several petitions before the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Karnataka high court order.

    In short, the civil society response has been key because of its capacity to play a full range of roles to drive change, from the micro to the macro level. An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights in India, and the international community can play a vital role in reinforcing the work of local CSOs to amplify marginalised voices.

    This is an edited extract of our conversation with Aiman Khan and Agni Das. Read the full interview here.

The surge of Hindu nationalism

The controversy around the hijab was nothing but an excuse – but an effective one. Straight out of the right-wing populist playbook, this crackdown on the Muslim minority formed part of a wider BJP strategy to consolidate its power. And it was only the most recent link in a long chain of affronts.

Modi’s resounding re-election victory in 2019 gave him the green light to take a decisively autocratic turn and seek to homogenise India as a Hindu state, undermining India’s foundational secular principles and violating the guarantees of religious freedoms enshrined in its constitution.

Although most of the world’s major religions are represented in huge numbers in India, the BJP and its allied paramilitary Hindu nationalist force, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have popularised a vision of Indian nationhood that excludes Muslims, who make up over 14 per cent of the population: a 172 million minority bigger than the population of most countries in the world.

    Minority communities are subjected to vilification because they are framed as ‘the other’. The Muslim minority is a specific target of persecution.


Soon after his re-election, Modi made a definitive move of aggression against Indian Muslims. On 5 August 2019 he unilaterally revoked the constitutional special status of Jammu and Kashmir state, which is around 70 per cent Muslim. The following day, the BJP-dominated parliament passed a law to divide the state into two union territories to be ruled by central government instead of their own state governments. Widespread protests were violently suppressed and a long communications clampdown was imposed.

The next step came in December 2019, when parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which modified the constitutional clause that prevented undocumented migrants from becoming citizens, granting this right to people coming from specific countries who were highly likely to be members of non-Muslim religious minorities.

This law was used in conjunction with the extension of the National Register of Citizens, which excluded from citizenship millions of people who lacked evidence of having been legally in India since at least 1971, but allowed them to apply for asylum under the CAA – unless they were Muslims.

At both national and state levels, BJP governments adopted countless discriminatory laws and policies targeting religious minorities, and specifically Muslims. This stoked hatred and division with increasingly bloody consequences, as seen in early 2020, when violence erupted between Hindu and Muslim communities in New Delhi, leaving dozens dead. The police mostly stood by as mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were targeted and journalists covering the unrest were attacked.

    Voices from the frontline: Syeda Hameed

    Syeda Hameed is co-founder and board member of the Muslim Women’s Forum, a civil society organisation working for the empowerment, inclusion and education of Muslim women in India.

    The decision to ban Muslim students from wearing the hijab in colleges’ premises came as a surprise. Such a ban is strange to our society. Unlike in France, where it has long been under the spotlight, the hijab had until very recently never been prohibited in India.

    Karnataka state is known for its diverse society and pluralistic culture, with the two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, historically coexisting, along with a wide spectrum of other religious groups.

    However, the roots of the Karnataka hijab controversy are quite deep, and are linked to growing Islamophobia. Those in power have ignited a sectarian fuse all over India in every possible way. Right now, Karnataka state also has a right-wing government, which has created fertile ground for strain in Hindu-Muslim relationships.

    To them, the hijab ban is just another tool to remain in power. It is tied to current political events, notably the upcoming election. Right-wing politicians fabricate issues that target Muslims, who are depicted as the ‘disruptive other’, to divert people’s attention from dire economic conditions. The hijab ban did the job well, as it captured media attention. Sensational media coverage only added fuel to the fire.

    The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not.

    The hijab ban is very much part of Muslim marginalisation. Muslims are being driven to a corner and targeted by a right-wing government that demonises them to boost their support and remain in power.

    This is an edited extract of our conversation with Syeda. Read the full interview here.

Why women?

This time, the target was not just Muslims, but specifically Muslim women. Indian Muslim women are members not only of a minority religious group that has increasingly come under attack but also of a gender that has perennially been subjugated by men both within and outside their religious group, forced to follow male dictates on what to wear and what not to wear – among many other things.

A source of controversy in some western countries, the hijab had never before been a big deal in India – until politicians saw in it an opportunity to stoke division for political gain. But many Indian Muslim women view the hijab as an integral part of their faith. For others, it is a token of negotiation with conservative families, and the very reason they are allowed to go to school in the first place. Either way, they have made a choice that is no longer being respected.

‘Whether it is a bikini, a ghoonghat, a pair of jeans or a hijab, it is a woman’s right to decide what she wants to wear,’ tweeted Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, general secretary of the Indian National Congress, one of India’s opposition political parties.

    The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not.

This story was originally published by CIVICUS Lens

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  • Red Robbo

    UK-based journalist and commentator Khadija Khan:
    ‘The reality is that the hijab is not a benign item of clothing in Muslim societies. It symbolizes a social structure where any demand that women be treated equally to men, in any respect, is seen as a rebellion against divine law—and such demands are often met with harsh repercussions. Wearing the hijab has always been presented as a religious imperative, a symbol of modesty, and one of the indications of a woman’s pious character, along with unconditional submissiveness to men, and complete compliance with cultural norms that treat women as second-class citizens. Women who refuse to comply are stigmatized, ostracised and tortured’ (Areo magazine, 29/11//21)

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