By backing the “ban” on wearing the hijab to colleges, the BJP government in Karnataka violates the fundamental freedoms of students — and promotes an exclusionary code of public behaviour. Instead of finding ways to defuse the confrontation between an Udupi college and its students, the state government has doubled down and invoked provisions of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, and directed colleges to ensure that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn”. This is dubious framing — and one that does not stand the test of the Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to equality, the right to education, and the right to practise their religion.
The potential consequence of the Karnataka action could be to force young women, who face enormous odds to reach the gates of schools and colleges, to retreat from classrooms to the confines of their homes or religious institutions. The BJP’s much-vaunted commitment to girls’ education (Beti Bachao Beti Padhao) and the rights of minority women that it championed in the legislation against triple talaq rings hollow when its government can so recklessly risk the hard-fought gains of educating Muslim girls. The common sense of coexistence by which millions of Indians live their lives shares nothing with the hardline secularism of, say, the French republic. Here, secular spaces like schools and colleges regularly see displays of religiosity. Wearing religion on the sleeve — from the woman on the street to the highest functionaries of the government (though the state must be held to higher standards of neutrality) — is part and parcel of daily life. Ironically, the BJP often dismisses secularism as an affectation of the ancien regime it has uprooted. That a dispute over a uniform can lead to colleges shutting out students of a community suggests that even the pretext of secularism is being weaponised to target minorities. The discriminatory logic of such a polarising campaign was evident in a Kundapura college, which allowed protesting women students inside the campus but herded them into separate classrooms. The Indian republic’s success in resolving the competing claims on public spaces and resources from various communities might be up for debate, but it has never been guilty of sanctioning a segregation of spaces. Separate can never be equal in a democracy.
Courts have spoken on the rights of an individual, the rights of a community and the freedom of choice. It is up to the courts again to step in and draw the line. The anti-hijab campaign may be part of a larger agenda of polarisation in coastal Karnataka where the ruling BJP has ratcheted up anti-Muslim, anti-Christian rhetoric and the Congress has abdicated and even ceded space to hardline groups. Children at the barricades of their schools and colleges facing off over identity, being herded into separate rooms, doesn’t deepen democracy, it aggravates many a risk. The hope is that the court, the custodian of rights, takes note.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on February 8, 2022 under the title ‘Her right to learn’.