Outrage after hijab-wearing woman heckled by Hindu mob in India

Authorities shut educational institutions after protests over the ban on hijab intensifies in southern Karnataka state.

Indian student activists from Muslim Students Federation (MSF) hold placards during a protest against hijab restriction, in New Delhi
Muslim students and members of Muslim Students Federation protest against the recent hijab ban in New Delhi [Rajat Gupta/EPA]

A video posted on Twitter showing a hijab-wearing Muslim student being heckled by a Hindu far-right mob at a college in Karnataka state has caused outrage amid intensifying protests over ban on Islamic headscarves in the southern state.

Muskan Khan was surrounded by men wearing saffron scarves as she arrived at her college in Mandya, the viral video showed, as she confronted the protesters, many of whom, she said, were outsiders.

The ban on Islamic headscarves has outraged Muslim students who say it’s an attack on their faith enshrined in India’s secular constitution, while Hindu right-wing groups have tried to prevent Muslim women from entering educational institutions causing communal tension.

“I was just there to submit an assignment; that’s why I entered the college. They were not allowing me to go inside just because I was [wearing] the burqa,” Khan later told India’s NDTV news channel.

“After that, they started shouting the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’. (Hail Lord Ram). Then I started to scream ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is the greatest),” she said, adding that she would keep fighting for her right to wear the hijab.

“Ten percent [of the protesters] were from the college but [the rest of them] were outsiders,” Khan said.

Fears among Muslims

The Karnataka government run by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Tuesday announced shutting down of educational institutions for three days.

The standoff in Karnataka state – home to India’s IT hub of Bengaluru, has galvanised fears among the minority community about what they say is increasing persecution under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Fresh demonstrations on Tuesday saw police fire tear gas to disperse a crowd at one government-run campus, while a heavy police presence was seen at schools in nearby towns.

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai from Modi’s BJP appealed for calm after announcing all high schools in the state would be closed for three days.

“I appeal to all the students, teachers and management of schools and colleges … to maintain peace and harmony,” he said.

Students at a government-run high school were told not to wear hijabs last month. Since then Hindu far-right groups have tried to prevent hijab-wearing Muslim women from entering educational institutions in the state.

The government of Karnataka, where 12 percent of the population is Muslim, said in an order on February 5 that all schools should follow dress codes set by management.

Muslim students and members of Muslim Students Federation (MSF) protest against the recent hijab ban at Karnataka's colleges, in New Delhi, India
Muslim Indians hold up signs reading ‘Hijab is our right’ in New Delhi, India [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Escalating confrontations between Muslim and Hindu students

BC Nagesh, the education minister of Karnataka who tweeted the order, said school dress codes had been set after reviewing court decisions from across the country to ban the hijab at educational institutions.

Campuses have seen escalating confrontations between Muslim students condemning the ban and Hindu pupils that say their classmates have disrupted their education.

Local media reported last week that several schools in the coastal city of Udupi had denied entry to Muslim girls wearing the hijab citing an education ministry order, prompting protests from parents and students.

“All of a sudden, they are saying you are not supposed to wear hijab … why did they start now?” said Ayesha, a teenage student at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College in Udupi.

Ayesha said a teacher had turned her away from her chemistry exam for wearing the garment.

“We are not against any religion. We are not protesting against anyone. It is just for our own rights,” she told AFP.

Tensions have frayed further in recent days in Udupi and elsewhere in majority Hindu Karnataka as students with saffron shawls – typically worn by Hindu far-right wing groups – thronged into classrooms to show their support of their schools’ hijab ban.

Fellow student Amrut, standing nearby among a crowd of Hindu boys wearing saffron shawls, said the dispute had unfairly prevented him from attending class.

“We had … requested them not to wear hijab,” he said. “But today, they are wearing hijab. They are not allowing us to go inside.”

Pakistani education rights icon Malala Yousafzai called the hijab ban for students “horrifying”.

“Objectification of women persists – for wearing less or more. Indian leaders must stop the marginalisation of Muslim women,” Yousafzai said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Critics have said Modi’s election in 2014 emboldened Hindu supremacists who see India as a Hindu nation and are seeking to undermine its secular foundations at the expense of its 200 million-strong minority Muslim community.

Opposition parties and critics accuse the BJP government at the federal and state levels of discriminating against religious minorities and running the risk of stoking violence. Modi has defended his record and says his economic and social policies benefit all Indians.

A case filed by one of the students, who said in her petition that wearing the hijab was a fundamental right to religion guaranteed by the constitution, was heard in the Karnataka High Court in state capital Bengaluru on Tuesday.

While no final order was passed, the judge appealed for peace and calm and will continue hearing the petition on Wednesday, one of the lawyers for the petitioner told Reuters.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies