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  • Meena Kandasamy

(The Quint) Karnataka Hijab Row: Students Recount How the ‘Saffron Protests’ Were Planned

(with G Vishnu, in Udupi)


Large sections of media have framed the protests by Muslim girls in Udupi to wear a hijab inside the classroom as a ‘hijab vs saffron shawl’ debate. Visuals of saffron shawl-wearing college kids swearing down their hijab and burqa-clad Muslim classmates have given TV channels easy binaries to comment on.

The first embers of the fire were seen in May last year, when authorities at the Government PU College for Girls, Udupi, began discouraging Muslim girls from wearing their headscarves inside the classroom. Post-Ramzan, offline classes were suspended due to the second wave. When classes resumed in September, the authorities were even more stern. In the last week of December, eight girls who insisted on their right to wear a headscarf were thrown out of their classrooms. Since 31 December, these eight girls have not been able to attend a single class.


How Did It All Start?


Till 10 February, the eight girls sat outside their college in silent protest. Things took a drastic turn when on 1 February, nearly 100 Hindu students of Junior College, Kundapur, a town 40 kilometres from Udupi, turned up to their classes wearing saffron shawls. On 2 February, the saffron shawl crowd at the Junior College had doubled. By 5 February, four more Kundapur colleges – Bandarkar's College, B B Hegde College, R N Shetty PU college and Venkatramana PU College – witnessed massive “saffron shawl protests”.


The “protesting” students not only presented a memorandum to their principals demanding a ban on hijab inside the classrooms but also gave bytes to select TV channels. How did the “protests” begin? And more importantly, why?


The Genesis of the Saffron Shawl Protests


A close examination of the events leading up to 1 February reveals a perplexing set of decisions taken by the administration of different colleges in Kundapur. The principal of Junior College and others in Kundapur have been insisting that on 28 January, they called the Muslim girls and informed them that hijab would not be allowed henceforth. The authorities also cited a government circular to the parents of Muslim girls. However, the said circular, a copy of which is available with us and which was sent out on 25 January by CDC, lays down rules for only one particular Udupi college.


After examining the case of protesting girls at the Government PU College, the CDC in its circular called for maintaining the status quo, denying permission to wear hijab inside the classroom until a high-level expert committee could weigh in.

Curiously, both Kundapur MLA Haladi Srinivas Shetty and the authorities appear to have misread the circular. They used the circular meant for one particular college to deny Muslim girls all over Kundapur the right to wear a hijab.


A Deep Social Fracture


In a convenient turn of events, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike began their saffron shawl protests on 1 February, raising tensions in the region. On 5 February, the Karnataka government, citing protests, ordered all colleges to avoid religious activities and implement uniforms strictly and specifically denied permission for hijab. The Kundapur MLA did not respond to our calls or messages.


On 8 February, MGM College, Udupi, one of the most prestigious colleges in the region, witnessed a showdown that reflects the fracture in the relationship between the Hindu and the Muslim communities. In visuals that have subsequently gone viral, boys wearing saffron shawls can be seen screaming ‘Jai Shri Ram’ from the campus at burqa-clad protesting girls. Some of the boys used to be friends with the girls they were “protesting against”.


The Hindu Jagarana Vedike’s Modus Operandi

A week after the dramatic face-off at MGM College, Udupi, we met Hindu Jagarana Vedike's “unofficial members” from different colleges at an upscale cafe in one of the nearby towns of Udupi. Sharath (name changed to protect his identity), a journalism student at MGM College, is candid about the planning that went into saffron shawl “protests”.


Sharath, all of 19 and sporting a moustache that is yet to be fully formed, has been with Hindu Jagarana Vedike for two years. He prefers to be called an ‘activist’ as opposed to the leader that he is. At his instructions, five Hindu boys from three different colleges turn up to meet us. Sharath says he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) eight years ago. "We saw what was happening in Bandarkar's college, Kundapur, and decided we must also make an issue out of this if ‘they’ don't respect the uniform. Hindu Jagarana Vedike leader Prakash Kukkehalli and Likesh told us, 'Don't be scared, we are with you.’ On 6 February, four of us decided to form a WhatsApp group and added 201 students to it. More WhatsApp groups mushroomed. Some of our boys personally called Hindu girls and reminded them about their responsibility towards our culture. Our girls got worked up, too,” he says.


“On 7 February, we kept our shawls in our bag and approached the MGM principal and told him we won't tolerate double standards. The principal and HODs [Heads of Departments] asked us to keep calm and told us that the matter would be ‘settled’. But the next day, we decided to whip out our shawls if hijab-wearing girls were allowed entry. The Muslim girls not only turned up in hijab and burqas, but they also gathered at the ladies’ room and began sloganeering ‘we want justice’. Some of them stood outside the gate and screamed the same slogans. We were provoked. Some 350 Hindu students began shouting Jai Shri Ram,” he adds, beaming with pride.


'Turbans Were Returned to Families'


Sharath denies allegations that the Hindu Jagarana Vedike provided the saffron shawls and turbans to Hindu students. However, he later admits that he and his friends “collected” all turbans so that they could be returned to the “right families that provided them”. He says, “All the turbans were returned to families. I went with my friends to return them.” But Sharath did not remember a single family by their name.


“Prakash Anna was there to show us moral support,” he says when asked about the Hindu Jagarana Vedike leader's presence at the MGM College on 8 February. Several videos captured on that day outside the MGM College show Hindu students dutifully returning the turbans and shawls.


“For them, it's religion first, nation later. For us, it's nation first, religion later. All we're asking for is equality and uniformity and they don't want to comply,” says Ashish (name changed), 17, from Junior College, Kundapur, when asked whether wearing a hijab hurts anyone. “We were the first to start the saffron shawl protests in all of Udupi ... On the first day itself, we had 90 boys and girls. On the second, 180 of us came to college wearing saffron,” he says. Kiran denies any association with the Hindu Jagarana Vedike and says he knows Sharath only because the ‘activist’ “hangs around their college”.


Two of the boys interviewed were kids of construction workers, and another was a fisherman's son. All five of them come from OBC communities and proudly declare their love for singing bhajans at Ram temples in their area.


The boys say they get their saffron shawls when they volunteer at events such as the Yuva Brigade (a Sangh-affiliated body) meet. Their social media profiles show that they are keen listeners of notable Hindutva rabble-rousers. Sharath, the most media-savvy of them, shows off his contacts in right-wing media houses when quizzed about his reading. He says he doesn't fear much in college as some lecturers are “covertly” with them. All five boys deny having any Muslim friends. “They don’t talk to us. We don't talk to them,” they shrug.


'The Lecturer Refused to Open the Door'

Udupi MLA Raghupati Bhat, who repeatedly asserts that he’s an objective leader, has often made ad hominem remarks on the eight Hijab protesters of the Government PU College. “They have always been undisciplined. Colleges should have discipline. A place of education should not turn into a place of religion. These girls never used to come on time; used to be bad in studies,” he said.

“I can't even blame them all that much. They're being misused by certain organisations … we all know which organisation I am talking about,” he says, hinting at the often-heard allegation that the Campus Front of India, a Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI)-backed student union, has been puppeteering the hijabi protesters.


Bhat, however, refuses to comment on questions about the Hindu Jagarana Vedike's involvement in providing the saffron shawls. Coincidentally, as the president of the Government PU College Board, it was Bhat who had threatened retaliation at a meeting between college authorities and the parents of Muslim girls.


“If you keep being adamant about wearing a hijab, tomorrow they will be adamant about wearing saffron shawls and turbans,” he had reportedly said. Several sources who were present at the meeting confirmed this to us.


We also spoke to two of the affected girls. “When we entered the classes, they said: ‘Will you go out of the class or do we have to push you?’,” recounts Aliya Assadi. She says that when she went to the class wearing a hijab, they locked the door of the classroom from the inside upon seeing her. The lecturer refused to open it despite her repeated entreaties.


Reading the Hijab Row as Sexual Harassment


The girls also point out that there was rampant discrimination against hijab-wearing students. Lecturers would refuse to answer doubts, or they would give fewer marks in internal evaluations. “Our lecturers used to pass comments like, ‘When you bathe, do you wear hijab and bathe?’,”, says Alia – “male lecturers”, they clarify when we push to know more.

The girls also make an emotional case for wearing hijab. This sudden unravelling of their clothes must be acknowledged for the despair it causes to young Muslim girls who are forced to reject what has been a part of their childhood. “The teachers ask us, ‘What about your education?’,”, says Hazra, adding, “If they really cared about our education, they would let us inside the classrooms.”

Even as the nation’s attention has been captured by the antagonism between the students, we have overlooked the power dynamics of what has happened within these classrooms.


Muslim girls wearing hijab were subjected to taunts and jibes by their teachers. We have on record a young woman telling us how one male lecturer asked her, “Will you wear a hijab when you are taking a bath?” This is a grossly inappropriate comment, an explicit incident of sexual harassment.


One can safely say that if this issue did not centre around the hijab, that if the victims of the taunts had been Hindu girls being provocatively questioned about their bathing by male lecturers, the feminist response to such an issue would have been incredible. Collectively, our civil society would have expressed outrage at the casual sexism and the climate of harassment within classrooms, they would have called for immediate action to create safe learning spaces.


Hindutva impunity is not just a drug that leads to its own high – our social inaction fuels their brazen trip.


Here, it is worth highlighting that Kannada media, with very few exceptions, has consistently taken a pronounced Hindutva perspective on everything. The insidious positioning starts with basic language: several newspapers in the state address Muslims as the ‘other’ community, or anya komu. News channels love to pit communities against each other and turn every issue into an ‘us versus them’ fight. Against such a backdrop, the problematisation of the Hijab has turned into a media spectacle as well.


The Karnataka Model

It is not a sheer coincidence that Mangalore and Udupi have been Hindutva laboratories for more than three decades now. Three major communal riots, thousands of attacks on Muslim cattle traders, and hundreds of moral policing incidents on inter-faith couples by Hindutva and Muslim organisations have ensured that Mangalore always remains in news. It is important to note that the Sangh Parivar has tried several of its experiments in this region before exporting this ‘Karnataka Model’ to the rest of the country.


‘Love jihad’, for instance, gained traction in Mangalore's Bantwal taluk way back in 2009. The Hindu Jagarana Vedike, the same organisation that has now masterminded the saffron shawl protests, had distributed free booklets claiming that 700 girls from Mangalore had been abducted by Muslim men, forcefully converted to Islam and enslaved.


The first major protest against ‘love jihad’ was against the Bantwal police, when 22-year-old Anitha Muliya went missing. Hindutva mobs carried a massive protest against the police, accusing them of protecting ‘love jihad terrorists’. Twenty days later, the Bantwal police cracked the case. Anitha, along with 21 other women, was found to be a victim of Cyanide Mohan, a serial killer who lured victims from poor households with marriage, only to kill them by giving them tea laced with cyanide. The Sangh Parivar's fiction of ‘love jihad’ was busted. But the dividends were rich. Today, it has become a polarising, scare-mongering issue across India.

Is raking up controversy around hijab going to be the next big export of this Karnataka model after ‘love jihad’, the prevention of cow slaughter and the cattle smuggling law of 2020, and the anti-conversion law of 2021 (ironically called The Karnataka Freedom of Religion Act)? It is difficult to rule out that possibility.

Already in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Sangh Parivar outfits have been screaming hoarse about religious conversions. Recently, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab who had gone to vote at the urban local body elections in Melur, near Madurai, was asked by a BJP poll agent to remove it. ‘Hijabophobia’ is poised to become a potent weapon of mass incitement.


The Aesthetics of Fascism


In her study of the aesthetics of power in Mussolini’s Italy, Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi lays down several examples to show how Italian fascism was a society of spectacle that used symbols, rituals and the cult of the leader to create itself. There are eerie coincidences with how homegrown Hindutva fascism also borrows from such spectacles to allow its politics of hatred to penetrate the masses.


The public disrobing of Muslim girls and women, their removal of hijab at the gates of the institutions despite their pleas, the ‘saviour’ syndrome of Hindu right-wingers calling the hijab oppressive, are meant to send a clear signal that the status of Muslims within the ongoing project of achieving a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is that of secondary citizens.


The orchestrated protests with saffron shawls and headgear, the chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as a rallying cry, the hoisting of the bhagwa (saffron) flag (self-advertised as a symbol of Sanatana Dharma as well as of the RSS-BJP) at a Shivamogga college on 8 February – all of these acts pander to the politics of spectacle and lead to the consolidation of these newfound Hindutva symbols as a stand-in for Hinduism. They serve the urgent, poisonous, fundamental purpose of imprinting Hindutva symbols in the minds of people.