Updated: February 6, 2022 2:25:12 am
The move to stop hijab-wearing students from entering classes was tantamount to “robbing” their future, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Saturday. “By letting students’ hijab come in the way of their education, we are robbing the future of the daughters of India… Ma Saraswati gives knowledge to all. She doesn’t differentiate.
#SaraswatiPuja,” Rahul tweeted in a reference to Saraswati Puja which was observed Saturday.
This statement by Rahul came nearly three weeks after the row over hijab started, and a day after some of his party colleagues, including Mallikarjun Kharge and former CM Siddaramaiah, spoke out against the move. On the ground, however, his party leaders from the region have preferred silence.
As what began as a protest by a few Muslim girls in a government pre-university college in Udupi spreads into a faceoff between groups — boys and girls wearing saffron scarves marched, too — the near absence of the Congress, once the main opposition to the BJP in this polarised region, is stark.
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BJP leaders like Udupi MLA Raghupathy Bhat; Education Minister B C Nagesh; Home Minister Araga Jnanendra and Culture Minister V Sunil Kumar have weighed in, saying students cannot demand the right to wear hijab to class, even calling it part of efforts to “Talibanize Udupi’”.
The Campus Front of India, the student wing of the SDPI and the Popular Front of India, has accused the BJP government of failing “to meet the legitimate demands of the students for their rights”.
But the first reaction from the Congress came only on Friday when Siddaramaiah slammed “the discrimination” and said: “A principal in a college has locked the gates and prevented Muslim girl students from entering with head scarves. It is a violation of their fundamental rights.”
Former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy, whose Janata Dal (Secular) had been in alliance with the Congress in the state, also criticised the move to stop hijab-wearing students from entering classes in the Udupi college.
“On one hand, the Central government is talking about a policy of educating girls called ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, on the other hand, it seems like they have set out to make it ‘Beti Hatao’ instead of ‘Beti Padhao’ through this hijab controversy,” he said.
Since 2013, when the Congress had won a majority of the five Assembly seats in Udupi and the BJP only one, the party has ceded political ground, leaving a void that the BJP and SDPI have filled.
In the 2018 Assembly polls, the BJP had swept all the five Udupi seats on the back of a highly polarised campaign, which blamed the Congress and SDPI for murders of multiple right-wing Hindutva group members while Siddaramaiah was CM. Then, in December 2021, the SDPI had won the Kaup town council in Udupi, and the Vitla and Kotekar town panchayats, which were earlier Congress strongholds.
Muslims form nearly 25% of Udupi’s population, while the backward class Billavas constitute around 30%. There is also a sizeable Christian population. Support of a combination of these communities earlier help the Congress win polls in the region. However, in recent years, the Billavas have been won over by the BJP.
The Congress has tried to counter by going soft on Hindutva issues, a reason being assigned for its silence on the hijab issue. Recently, it had tried to re-build a Muslim-Billava alliance, through joint conventions. But the hijab row might have put paid to that.
The controversy has also helped the BJP by putting on the backburner resentment brewing against its government at the Centre among the Billavas over the rejection of a Republic Day tableau featuring Narayana Guru (a spiritual leader held in reverence by backward communities).
Abdul Azeez Udyavar, the organising secretary of the Udupi District Muslim Okkutta and the district president of the Welfare Party of India that has contested state and local polls in Karnataka without much success, said: “It all (the hijab issue) started after the results of the urban local bodies, and is being used to polarise votes. If hijab had been an issue, I am sure the parents would have brought it to our notice, and it could have been solved without much hype. The Campus Front of India has used these students for their benefit.”
Muneer Kattipalla, the state president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, hoped calmer heads would prevail on both sides. “With education the priority, the government should allow the protesting students to attend class but also make the campus religion-free (to counter Muslim girls wearing hijabs, some boys have been turning up wearing saffron stoles). If the government refuses to allow the students to attend (with hijab), then the students should also not hold it against the college but follow the rules, as education is what is at stake.”
Some of the protesting students had approached the Karnataka High Court, and it is expected to take up the matter on February 8.
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