This controversy shows that the secular state and its principles give enormous opportunities to create new problems.
The Hijab controversy began as a dispute between a few Muslim students and college management regarding permission to wear hijab inside the campus, which was denied on the grounds that it was against the uniform rule. Muslim girls insisted that they have their freedom to wear hijab because it is part of their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Immediately, Hindu students reacted by wearing Saffron shawls on campus to assert their identity. These protests had a cascading effect and resulted in a series of protests and heated debates.
The controversy got muddled up when different political parties entered these debates. Now the matter is under trial in the high court of Karnataka. What transpired in this debate involves multiple issues ranging from rights and law to an array of moral positions. Irrespective of which side one belongs to, the debate around the dress code on college campuses do not help anyone but shows a bankruptcy in handling issues like this especially in educational institutions. These conversations show how shallow the nature of our reflection on serious issues like the peaceful coexistence of communities is today in India and how we are converting places of learning into places of hatred.
To get some glimpse of what was debated in this controversy, a cursory look at the debate will be sufficient. Some have stated that wearing hijab is a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution. Many felt that the public places like educational institutions must show neutrality towards any religion and therefore they cannot use those religious symbols in colleges. Some even argued that uniforms in campuses bring about a sense of equality and therefore allowing hijab would violate of such principles. For some the prayers, Saraswathi puja etc. on campus is evidence of schools being neither neutral spaces nor all religions being treated equally. Therefore, allowing hijab should not be a problem but, rather, a means of treating all religions equally. For some this conflict is about denial of the right to education to Muslim women as well as discrimination against minorities and is therefore a clear case of communal bigotry. If one carefully examines this debate, it appears that the principles of equality and religious neutrality in public places are at loggerheads with the principle of religious freedom, while both are important pillars of liberal secular democracy.
During this debate, many thinkers were worried about the fate of the students and what they will learn and carry along with them in such an environment. Today, students are provoked to show off their identities. On the contrary, these campuses are expected to nurture an attitude of valuing diversity and peaceful coexistence. But these controversies are doing the opposite of what is expected of the campuses. It is puzzling how the issue has become such a point of conflict which was not present earlier. What enabled our ancestors to deal with enormous diversity in dress, food, practices etc. for centuries? They always lived with people from different backgrounds, traditions, and religions in India without any of these conflicts. Even when such conflicts came, they had their ways of dealing with them successfully.
During our student days, campuses were known for their diversity. Most Muslim girls did not wear hijab, even if they did, they did not bring it into to classrooms and rarely some wore it in the class. Even when someone wore a hijab or burqa none of us identified it with any serious problem. In the same manner some of the boys used to wear dhoti and shawl on certain occasions, while a few used to have shikha on their head. Almost all of us shared this school upbringing. Campuses were filled with a lot of humour regarding attire and although students used to make fun of each other it hardly led to any kind of tension. There was freedom to wear what they wanted to. There was ease among the students to change these dresses to suit the occasion. The hijab or burqa was not very different from any other person wearing a turban, saree or shawl or dhoti. There was no problem in these people attending Saraswathi puja or attending a Muharram procession which used to pass through school campuses. In all these cases, the idea of the hijab or burqa as a religious symbol was neither known to us nor to even many Muslim students. Just as there were many other jaati groups, Muslims were also seen as yet another group. Even though we learnt about religions in secondary school, that did not make any difference to our lives. Just as different groups exist and have different ways of going about this world, Muslims became one of those different groups and it was the same for most Muslim students, with whom we continue to share same affectionate friendship.
The idea that some dress is a symbol of some religion was almost non-existing amongst student communities. There was an “indifference” to different ways of being in this world. The question of tolerance or respect was never raised, but all of us thought that different people have different ways of being in this world, and each has their ways of being in this world. Neither Muslim students and their parents saw us as ‘Kafirs’ nor did we see them as enemies. Muslims existed like any other community/jaati and many of the Muslims still exist in the same manner (except for some intellectuals and activists). Though there could be local conflicts, they were never major problems till the 1990s.
This should not be mistaken for a preachy story of peace or harmony in the service of national integration. It is about what we experienced as part of Indian traditions, and how we were brought up. We did not see the dress as an expression of religious identity. The way Kodava, Gujarati or a Bengali woman draping saree in her own way, Muslims wore some dress. It was part of our milieu to deal with the differences with an attitude of indifference. The hijab or burqa was seen in the same manner. But this did not mean that we tolerated somebody wearing a particular dress because of the principle of toleration which assumes that one has a problem with something and yet tolerates it because of a principle. It was not even a question of mutual respect or disrespect. As Indians we had and even now continue to have a kind of indifference to differences, and this has been a hallmark of our co-existence. The tendency of Indian culture has been to accept and live with differences.
But today things seem to have taken a different shape, maybe because of various political reasons, the differences are highlighted as symbols of identities. Earlier even most Muslims in India did not think that hijab was the symbol of their religious identity either. But now they have been made conscious of such an identity and this controversy only adds to this kind of awareness. Similarly, many of the groups who do not have any such symbols have begun to engage in such symbolism and affirming different symbols of identities. As a result of affirming these new identities there has been growing intolerance in India amongst the educated population. Today we are witnessing that the feature of indifference which had made co-existence possible in a very healthy manner, is fast vanishing. The politics around identities which are linked with the language of rights, constitution, freedom etc. seems to be provoking a deeper conflict rather than solving the issue at the local level. So, where is the problem arising from?
The problem seems to emanate from the structures and ideas that evolved during colonial rule of India and the same continued with the secular state. The secular state with its structure emerged in certain historical situations in Europe, and it is fundamentally a product of dynamics within Christianity and its secularisation in Europe. These theological ideas and institutions in its secularised form were then sold as the only option to save this world and all of us bought it as panacea to the problems of humanity. If we look at the debate around the hijab controversy, it is very clear that the entire controversy has emerged because of the possibilities that law allows us to think. The legal system in our part of the world, instead of solving problems of the society, creates more opportunities to create new problems.
If one looks at the history of educational institutions in Karnataka, Muslims, Hindus and Christians studied in all private institutions where management had people from all these groups. In all these colleges different people studied and followed the rules of these institutions without much problem. At times when there were some minor disputes, they resolved it by talking to each other. We had not witnessed any such controversy of this kind earlier.
If one looks at why there is a conflict now, which did not appear earlier, one will start finding the answers. Many intellectuals who claim themselves to be secular, along with some of the Muslim organisations have been training students to assert their rights. Though such attempts were never successful earlier, recent attempts by some scholars backed by different political outfits have been successful in fuelling such controversy now. This has been main goal of certain Muslim groups since the colonial period, that is bring all the Muslims under Sharia and Islamic way by dissociating with the local practices. For these attempts Hindu groups reacted by picking up the language of rights and law and used the saffron as their identity marker. Saffron, the colour of Rishis, is associated with knowledge and the kind of change that they brought in the world. Such a colour is reduced to a religious symbol. All the parties in these debates are employing the language of modern politics. Saffron today is pitted against Hijab and Muslims. They invoke ideas like liberal democracy, secular state, law, rights, religious freedom and so on. Instead of thinking about how this language itself generates the problem, as it has been well formulated in the works of S N Balagangadhara, people are using these languages to solve some problems. They are unable to recognise that these problems themselves are products of entry of secular state in a non-religious culture. Once we start building our conversations within the language of modern politics to talk about ourselves be it Muslims or Hindus, then we will have initiated a process of creating new problems and look for solutions that are already provided by these structures like law.
Finally, by looking at this controversy one is tempted to think what are we up to? Today, we are in the process of making our future generation learn religious symbols, create conflicts and start deciding relationships based on religious identities. This allows different Muslim fanatic organisations to push the large Muslim population to follow a particular kind of Islam that they propose. This will result in Hindu and other groups asserting their identities. Muslim population will be pushed towards aggressive Islamisation. The attitude of indifference that was carefully crafted and transmitted by our ancestors will simply disappear and we are forcing our future generation to ‘tolerate’ differences. such conflict over hijab has already happened in the courts of many of the western countries but have their solutions satisfied either side? The answer is clear no. But, in our part of the world, we have a legacy and a history of coexistence, a practical knowledge that has been transmitted to us. Our schools and colleges must be centres of learning for such values rather than transforming the living with the difference into a pain.
This controversy shows that the secular state and its principles give enormous opportunities to create new problems. There are groups which are keen in exploiting these possibilities in the name of identity politics or in the name of asserting rights and that has become a new formula that guides present-day politics. In fact, it has become counter-productive to resolve conflicts by dissolving the indifference to difference that Indians have and then preach about peaceful coexistence. One must look at these kinds of issues with more intellectual rigour while attempting to assess what kind of conflict resolution our ancestors undertook in our past. The liberal, secular claim would deny such possibilities of explorations as shown in the works of Jakob De Roover. Therefore, we must envisage a way of living which emerges from within our culture. At this stage what we must teach our students is not the new ways of generating conflicts using the constitutional principles but a way of peaceful and happy living wherein dresses are not seen as religious symbols, but it is a kind of difference that exists in the world. We must learn from our ancestors, to teach indifference to differences. Otherwise, our campuses will be battle grounds of identity politics and this is exactly what we must not allow to happen.