The Karnataka campaign isn’t just about the hijab – it’s mainly about showing Muslims their place

The defining image of this new year is girl students in Kundapur in Karnataka, saffron scarves around their necks, processing down a street shouting “Jai Shree Ram”. They were marching in support of an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party campaign to impose rules of dress on their Muslim fellow students.

These young women are the latest addition to the RSS-BJP’s growing army of radicalised youth who act as vigilantes deploying methods ranging from intimidation to physical violence against Muslims.

Over the last few weeks, one pre-university college (high school) after another in Karnataka has refused entry to their hijab wearing girl students. Girls, they say, cannot attend college except without a hijab. In the words of the BJP Member of Parliament for Mysore-Kodagu, Pratap Simha: “You can wear hijab, burqa…and can go to a madrassa.”

There is no ambiguity there. What the ruling party MP is saying is this: if you can be identified as Muslim, you will be excluded from public spaces. If you display your Muslim religious identity, you will not be tolerated. Muslims exist on sufferance. If they fail to meet conditions acceptable to the RSS-BJP regime, they will be forced into ghettos.

Large numbers of Hindu students in these colleges, mostly boys, but also girls as in Kundapur, have turned up in saffron scarves demanding that these be permitted as part of the college uniform if Muslim girls are allowed to wear hijabs. The saffron scarf is a marker of their party-political affiliation and they have been vociferously supported by BJP politicians at all levels – from district level officials, state government ministers to members of parliament.

Should there be even a nominally independent-minded principal, it is unlikely that he would not cave in under this level of political pressure.

This campaign of intimidation is about the hijab, but it is not about the hijab. It is a campaign aimed at “showing Muslims their place”, it is about telling Muslims that in an RSS-BJP run India, Hindus will have control of Muslim bodies. They will decide how much of her body a Muslim girl can or cannot cover. It is a campaign to emasculate a community. For there is no greater battle in largely conservative societies like India, than for control over women’s bodies.

This campaign berthed in Karnataka, like the RSS-BJP’s “love jihad” campaign, is the latest in an already long list of violent RSS-BJP campaigns to stigmatise, terrorise and try and marginalise Muslims. It is part of the systematic state-supported violence against Muslims that has become endemic since the Narendra Modi led-BJP assumed power in Delhi.

Since 2014, Muslims have been lynched by saffron scarfed vigilantes on purported rumours related to beef and cows, they have been assaulted and had criminal cases filed on rumours of religious conversion or inter-faith marriages. Muslims have been arrested under terrorism and sedition laws for democratic protests. Their businesses have been boycotted. They have had Friday prayers disrupted and been denied access to space for namaz. Mosques have been damaged or destroyed, including 15 in the national capital.

All this while, so-called decent people have been silent. It is not helpless silence, it is silent acquiescence. Decent people would be shaken to the core by a man pulled out of his home and murdered by his neighbours because they felt he had eaten something they felt he should not eat. Decent people would be outraged that young and idealistic students were charged with sedition and thrown into jail for protesting a discriminatory law. Decent people would feel shame when others are prevented from praying and their places of worship destroyed.

Decent people would understand that telling a girl what part of herself she can cover and what part she cannot, was an assault on her body.

Decent people would recognise that girls in saffron scarves walking down streets shouting “Jai Shri Ram” trying to intimidate, instead of standing with their peers, are a sign of radicalisation, and not girls going to school in hijabs.

Where are the decent people in India today?