Hijab controversy

Published February 11, 2022

IN today’s India, the rabid forces of Hindutva appear hell-bent on baiting Muslims. Sometimes their antics are farcical, such as the debate over whether actor Shah Rukh Khan ‘spat’ on singing legend Lata Mangeshkar’s mortal remains while reciting a prayer. In other instances, their activities threaten the safety and well-being of India’s minorities, as the current controversy surrounding schoolgirls wearing the hijab has revealed.

These examples sadly illustrate how India has changed under the right-wing BJP, as the forces of secularism and tolerance have been besieged by the extremists of the Sangh Parivar, whose aim is to remake India in their destructive image. And the fact that the Hindu hard right now has the firm backing of the state has brought this dream — a nightmare for India’s minorities — closer to realisation.

But perhaps this violent trajectory was expected, as the ideologues and foot soldiers involved in physically turning Babri Masjid into dust are today in the corridors of power. This has meant nothing but trouble for India’s Muslims. With regard to the Shah Rukh Khan incident, an innocent gesture of respect was deliberately twisted by a BJP leader who falsely said that the Bollywood star ‘spat’ at the funeral. This is not the first time that the popular actor has been targeted, while other Muslim celebrities in India have also had their patriotism questioned by the hard right.

As for the hijab controversy, there is even more cause for concern with the administration in Karnataka not letting female Muslim students wear the garment to school. This is clearly not about academic discipline, but a move to stamp out religious and cultural symbols, and dictate what women and girls can and cannot wear. Just as the Afghan Taliban and other Muslim hardliners are wrong in enforcing dress codes for women, the state in India too has no business telling Muslim women how to dress. The video of a veiled schoolgirl on her way to class being heckled by a far-right Hindu mob in Karnataka is chilling, and her courage in the face of such violent bullying is to be lauded.

Read: Hindutva 'unveiled' as RSS mob heckles hijab-clad Muslim girl in India's Karnataka state

What are India’s Muslims to do? Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch, they have been hunted down for allegedly eating beef, stripped of citizenship on flimsy grounds and prevented from performing prayers in public places. Now, schoolgirls are being targeted for wearing the hijab. This madness must stop if the fundamental rights of Indian Muslims are to be protected.

If India is still committed to democracy, then it follows that minority communities must be allowed to live according to their religious and cultural norms, without being harassed. However, if the decision has been made to ditch democracy in favour of Hindutva, then the outlook is grim for Muslims as well as followers of other faiths in India — in fact all those who believe in pluralism.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2022

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