“The assistant commissioner objected to wearing hijab in educational institutions. We cried, requesting him to let us follow our constitutional right. But our requests fell on deaf ears,” said Muskan Zainab, clad in a white and blue uniform and black headscarf.
The 16-year-old is among eight students banned from attending classes since December 28 at the Government PU College for Girls in Karnataka’s Udupi district. Reason: they wear the headscarf despite objections by the college management.
When offline classes commenced in September last year, the management had opposed the wearing of hijab, pointing to a rule about a “common uniform”. But these students began wearing it in December after being repeatedly denied permission. Students, their parents and alumni have denied that such a dress code exists, and accused the faculty and management of communal attitudes towards the headscarf which they say is part of the right to freedom of religion.
On Wednesday, Muskan hoped that a meeting presided over by the assistant commissioner﹘including parents, college management and officials of the Karnataka State Minorities Commission﹘would put an end to the ongoing row. It came after students approached the district DCP and complained to the Department of Pre-University Education and the minorities commission after they were barred from classes.
But the meeting failed to reach a consensus.
According to official sources privy to the details of the meeting, the assistant commissioner asked the students to listen to their teachers and attend classes till the education department takes a decision.
Repeated calls by Newslaundry to assistant commissioner K Raju remained unanswered.
The controversy had made headlines as pictures of the girls in headscarves, forced to sit outside classrooms, were widely circulated on social media last week. After the visuals went viral, Muskan claimed, a non-teaching staffer allegedly forced her and two other students to write a letter of apology, stating that they will not wear the hijab and their allegations against teachers were false.
A picture of the students outside the classroom was widely circulated on social media.
Is there a dress code?
“Our lecturers said that it (hijab) defies college policy. But when we checked the policy a month ago, we were shocked to see no such mention in the signed agreement. So, we decided to wear hijab from December 28 after repeated appeals to the management turned futile,” said Muskan, who has only taken two days of leave in the academic year.
In the terms and conditions listed on admission forms, the college management mentions that students should wear a “neat, full uniform”. It doesn’t specify religious symbols such as the hijab or the cross.
The terms and conditions on the admission form in Kannada do not specify any religious symbols.
Speaking to Newslaundry, college principal Rudra Gowda denied all allegations of harassment and claimed that the protesting girls are “undisciplined, irregular and arrogant”. “We believe in a common uniform. Students particular about hijab can opt for religious colleges,“ he said, adding that there are 100 Muslims among 1,000 students in the college but “only eight of them are staging a protest”.
There are several photographs from the last two years of girls clad in the hijab along with the uniform in the classrooms. The college principal, however, said that these students removed the headscarves in class and only wore them on campus.
“Uniform dress code has always been the practice in the college ever since its inception in 1985. How is it fair to let Muslim students wear a hijab and not allow Hindu students wear a saffron shawl,” asked Udupi BJP MLA Raghupathi Bhat, who is also the chairperson of the college development committee. Students were criticised for following “religion in a college” during a meeting chaired by Bhat in the first week of January.
However, Muskan’s father Abdul Shukur denied the existence of such a “uniform dress code”. Several alumni agreed to the same. “We have seen the alumni of the college wear hijab; why is the management imposing such rules now,” Abdul Shukur asked.
Almas A H, a second-year science student and one of the eight girls, said, “The management forbids us to wear hijab by stating that it is against the college rules. But we have seen our seniors wear hijab too.”
Yashpal Suvarna, vice president of the college committee and national general secretary of the BJP OBC Morcha, said the protesting students were affiliated to the PFI’s students’ wing Campus Front of India. He said if the hijab issue was not resolved then Hindu students would be provoked to wear saffron shawls.
The issue gained momentum as a section of Hindu students turned up in saffron shawls at Government Degree College in Balagadi in Koppa district last week to protest against the decision to wear hijab by Muslim students in the college.
Karnataka Education Minister B C Nagesh, meanwhile, said the state government has not fixed a uniform code but urged students to follow the rule at the college in Udupi. He also alleged that the issue was being politicised after the students approached the Campus Front of India.
Similar incidents have been reported in Karnataka over the last few years. In 2017, students affiliated to the ABVP at the government first grade college in Bhatkal threw saffron shawls at women in burkas and headscarves.
In 2016, a college in Dakshina Kannada district banned students from wearing headscarves. In January last year, several students wore saffron shawls at a college in Aikala to object to the wearing of hijab by few Muslim students. In February 2017, students from Sahyadri Science College, Mangalore, wore saffron shawls to protest against hijab.
Masood Manna, state committee member of Campus Front of India, claimed there was a growing “RSS influence” on the campus. “The principal of Udupi college is not concerned about the constitutional values because there are greater forces of RSS working behind him.” He alleged that Muslim students were forced to become members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in October last year.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a student claimed, “It was made mandatory for all the students in commerce and arts departments to be part of the ABVP...the class leaders in commerce and arts departments, affiliated with ABVP took the matter to the principal, whereas the leaders in science department have allowed us not to be part of the ABVP for now.”
A few students alleged that the principal asked class leaders to circulate ABVP membership forms among students.
The principal, however, denied these allegations. “Ninety-nine percent of their allegations are false.”
ABVP’s co-organising secretary in Karnataka, K Basavesh, said the organisation never compels anyone to enrol. “Wearing clothes that reveal religious importance in educational institutions is not acceptable. It sows the seeds of separatism among students. As it is happening across the state, the government should extend a uniform dress code to PUs.”
The students continue to wear the hijab despite being barred from classes.
Harassment and complaints
In a ruling by the Kerala High Court, it was observed that the right to wear a hijab would be covered by Article 25﹘it had pronounced similar verdicts in 2015 and 2016.
However, that does not seem to be the case at the college in Udupi where a section of alumni point to “continuous taunts” by fellow students and lecturers over the hijab.
Atiya Fathima, who graduated from the college last year, alleged that her seniors demanded that she remove the headscarf, her classmates refused to share notes with her, and the lecturers were verbally provocative. “We were the victims of continuous taunts by fellow students and lecturers,” she said.
“One of the lecturers forcefully removed the hijab of a student and threw it on the CCTV camera in the physics lab. But that didn’t stop the girl from wearing a hijab,” she alleged, adding that a teacher chased a Muslim student who hid under the table to escape the harassment. “She mocked and laughed as the girl cried.”
While countries such as Belgium and France brought legislation banning citizens from wearing face veils and headscarves in public places, Article 25 (right to freedom of religion) of the Constitution allows Muslim women to practise their faith.
Without going into the merits of a petition that argued for the hijab for candidates appearing for the All-India pre-medical test exam, the Supreme Court, in an oral observation in 2015, had said, “Faith won’t disappear if you appear for the exam without a scarf.”
However, experts believe the verdicts by the Kerala High Court are more likely to be upheld in other courts of law in the absence of a judgment from the Supreme Court in such a matter.
But why do these students at the college in Udupi still wear the headscarf despite such alleged harassment? “Because it is like a second skin to me and I love wearing it. I feel that I am disobeying Allah if I don’t wear a hijab,” said Atiya, who has been wearing a headscarf since class 5.
For Muskan, being in a public space without the headscarf feels “greatly discomforting”. “The lecturers ask us to wear a full uniform. Isn’t the hijab just an addition to the uniform,” asked Muskan, who continues to attend college in the hope that the management will let her sit in class with the headscarf.
Meanwhile, the college has declared holidays for a week amid a rise in Covid cases. The principal said that six infections have been reported on campus and classes will be held online for a week.
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