Hassan (Karnataka): Since there is a “systematic attempt” to suppress Islamic practices in India—with everything from food habits, clothing and patriotism questioned and maligned—Muslims are holding onto markers of religious identity with greater fervour than ever.
That is one reason why the hijab is ever more popular in a state where it was once rarely used, and even though she believes the young Muslim women who went to court to battle for their right to wear it should not have done so, award-winning author, lawyer and participant in many battles in Karnataka over social issues, Banu Mushtaq, told Article 14 that it has become the issue it has because it has been politicised by Hindu fundamentalists.
“Undoubtedly this whole hijab issue is a targeted attack on Muslims and their practices,” said Banu, 74, who is no stranger to communal flare-ups in Karnataka, where approximately 12.92% of the population is Muslim. From the 1980s onwards she has been part of a broad coalition of Hindu and Muslims writers and artists who led or joined social and cultural movements against fundamentalism and social injustices in Karnataka.
As a writer, Banu played an active role in shaping the Bandaya (meaning rebel or rebellion) literary movement, which brought together women, Muslim and Dalit writers. Writing in Kannada, they used literature as a weapon against social and economic injustices. Her writing focuses on the experiences of women, particularly Muslim women.
The tagline of the Bandaya movement is: “The dear friend whose heart beats for people’s pain.”
“There were protests in response to every atrocity that took place,” said Banu, who acknowledged that such protests had dwindled over the years in Karnataka, after “the Sangh Parivar (Hindu organisations allied with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP) unleashed their propaganda against intellectuals with terms like sickular, ganjigirakigalu (parasites) etc”.
“This relentless propaganda,” said Banu, “questioned the intellectuals’ very existence and destroyed their credibility.”
She said there would be “no political space” for public intellectuals or people to express “displeasure and discontent” unless “a strong opposition party” emerged. “Whenever intellectuals and activists have stood up individually or in small groups, they have been individually targeted leading to the destruction of their lives and careers,” said Banu.
Banu’s pursuit of the Muslim woman’s cause has often landed her in trouble, most famously in 2000, when her advocacy of the right of Muslim women to enter mosques riled the clergy so much that a three-month-long social boycott was announced against Banu and her family.
One of Banu’s short stories was adapted into a national award winning film by Girish Kasaravalli, Haseena, the story of a woman deserted by her husband because she gave birth to four girls. Banu has won several awards for her literature, including the Karnataka Sahitya academy award, Karnataka Rajyotsava award, Padmabhushan B Saroja Devi award and the International woman for radio and television award.
On 15 March 2022, when the Karnataka High Court dismissed the petitions of six pre-university college students protesting a local college committee order to stop wearing hijabs, and ruled that the hijab was not an essential religious practice, Banu said she felt bad for the young women but was not surprised by the verdict.
She criticised the Sangh Parivar’s relentless attacks on Karnataka Muslims, and dismissed their claim that they only had the best interest of Muslim women in mind. “This saviour attitude of Sangh Parivar is only a tool for political gain and is actually being misused to demolish the identity of Muslims,” said Banu.
Yet, Banu said she was hopeful that colleges, parents and the students would work out a solution to ensure that the education of the young women was not interrupted because there was nothing “more valuable”. Muslims, she said, should “choose their battles wisely”, recalling the Shah Bano issue—when caving into Muslim demands, the government passed legislation that nullified a Supreme Court order that provided for maintenance for divorced Muslim women—in which “our rigidity became fodder for the divisive politics of the BJP”.
In the current hijab issue, one of the student petitioners on 15 March moved the Supreme Court and the five other petitioners expressed their disappointment with the High Court order calling it a “betrayal”. The students said they would not attend college until the ban was lifted and vowed to continue their legal fight against the High Court verdict. The Supreme Court refused an immediate listing and said it would hear the students' petition after Holi. The court reopens on 21 March.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Is there any mention of hijab in the Quran?
Yes, annoor (24th sura) in the Quran advocates that women protect their body parts and should cover everything other than the naturally visible parts such as hands, toes and face. It also says that they should cover their head and chest. The Prophet also advises that women should not reveal their shringaar to non-family members. This was advocated to protect the modesty of women. And similar modesty practices are in other religions too.
As far as the burqa is concerned, it was never practised in Karnataka. It was brought here by people who migrated to Saudi Arabia.
There is no punishment mentioned in the Quran for not wearing hijab. Some of the hadiths that were compiled 200 years after the Prophet talk about punishment. There are multiple interpretations of these hadiths. As far as I am concerned, I don’t believe that Islam advocates punishment for women for refusing to wear the hijab.
What are the practical reasons for the practice of hijab?
Muslim grow up watching their mothers and relatives wearing hijab and hence they become conditioned to wear it. They are also incentivised by saying that you will be able to go to school. A girl who wears hijab is considered obedient and mazhabi, which is good for her matrimonial prospects. And once you start wearing it, it becomes a daily habit. Even women of other religions cover their heads in public in many circumstances. This is akin to the practice of hijab.
Earlier, the men used to wear peta (turban) but gradually as men of other religions stopped wearing peta, Muslims adopted the skull cap. The emergence of identity politics and the need to assert religious identity led to widespread practice of hijab and skull cap. Nowadays, we see this kind of assertion among Hindus too who display stickers on their vehicles saying ‘I am a proud Hindu’ etc.
As per me, there are two essential concepts in Islam: Haqooq Allah, which defines my private relationship with Allah and involves rules and rituals which mark this relationship and Haqooq-Ul-Ibad, which defines my duties and responsibilities towards my fellow beings. Islam has no place for superiority. No one is superior. It is considered a highly deplorable character trait.
What did you feel when you saw the visuals of those six teenagers protesting outside the gate on the first day from the Udupi College?
I immediately sprung into action. I called all my friends and contacts in the coastal region to gather feedback about the incident. I felt very bad. What I got to know from a journalist friend is that all these were women’s college students. I learnt that the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) won six seats in the local body elections held in December 2021 in the region. And that some of the Muslim students from this college participated in a ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of the BJP) protest against the rape of a woman in Manipal. Campus Front of India (CFI), another active student organisation, did not like this. They counselled these girls and asked them to demand permission to wear hijab in their college. The college development committee (CDC) and parents discussed the issue. But this was politicised by both sides and soon spiralled into a statewide issue.
It should have been a matter between the CDC and the students. All this saffron shawls and counter protests were unnecessary and was a communally charged political act.
Were these girls wearing the hijab earlier?
Some of these girls say they were wearing it before. But the principal and the CDC committee say that they were not wearing them in classrooms. In my opinion going to court was not a good idea. Because no right is absolute and will depend on the context and on the prerogative of the court.
What do you have to say about the agitated response of several Hindu organisations to the hijab demand?
This is not new. Recently our health minister K Sudhakar said “Brahmins protected India from the perils of Buddhism". He also said, "When the world was trapped in Buddhism and many nations were embracing Buddhism, it was Brahmin saint Adi Sharkarachayra who prevented its spreading in India." This is the primary character of vedic dharma. History will tell us how the vedic dharma led to suppression of Buddhism, Jainism and even the Lingayat religion (the intercaste wedding of Madhuvarasa and Harlayya led to destruction of the Lingayat movement). In a recent excavation in Halebidu, several remains of Jain idols and temples were discovered.
Now, there is a systematic attempt to suppress Islamic practices in the country. Our food habits, clothing practices, patriotism, everything is being questioned and used to malign Islam. Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals app incidents are a testimony to how Muslim women are being targetedly harrassed. But Muslims have been resisting these attempts. As an expression of this resistance, Muslims are holding onto markers of their identity like the hijab with fervour.
There is a saying ‘Islam Zinda Hota Hai Har Karbala ke Baad’ (Islam takes a rebirth after every Karbala) which means that Islam will bounce back strongly whenever suppressed.
For instance, in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, the community recognised that they were lagging behind in education and since then there has been tremendous focus on educating our children. Today, it is heartening to know that a young Muslim woman has won 16 gold medals in Visvesvaraya Technological University. A 21 year old young Muslim man qualified for IAS in Maharashtra recently and a woman (Ambareen Sultana) from Hassan became a judge. These are heartening developments.
Prior to the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests, we had never seen Muslim women protesting on the streets. What are your thoughts on this new cultural phenomenon?
It is a very positive development. Earlier hardly one or two like me would be seen in the public domain. We would end up speaking for all Muslim women. Now many are speaking up, participating in protests etc. Despite vilification as terrorists, ISI agents etc, they are not getting provoked and participating in peaceful democratic protests. They are protesting within the framework of constitutional rights.
But it doesn’t mean that patriarchy amongst Muslims is fully defeated. It is a work in progress.
Inspite of all the hurdles, the Muslim woman is protesting and striving for a better India, remember not just for the betterment of her community but the entire country. She is seeking justice for the entire society.
Muslim women today are knowledgeable and are also influenced by protests elsewhere in the world. Images like that of a Palestinian woman protesting with a child in tow comes to mind.
The Sangh Parivar claims that they are liberating Muslim women from oppressive practices such as hijab, triple talaq etc. What do you think about these claims?
This saviour attitude of Sangh Parivar is only a tool for political gain and is actually being misused to demolish the identity of Muslims. They have already done that to the Dravidian cultures. In Karnataka, the same cultural practices that Basavanna (a 12th century Lingayat saint who advocated a society without caste) fought against are getting reintroduced today. The basic teachings of Basavanna need to be understood and practised but whoever tries to do that is being shunned by their own community. It is sad.
What is the collective response of the Muslim community of Karnataka to the hijab issue? We haven’t seen any credible spokespersons in the public domain yet.
I think the community is awaiting the court judgement. They have realised that vote bank politics from both sides is behind this issue. The community has not discussed this issue publicly at all. The clerics and ulemas also have been quiet. (The high court decision came after this interview: many female Muslim students boycotted classes and Muslim areas shut down in protest in some Karnataka cities).
As a lawyer, what are your thoughts about the court case and subsequent proceedings?
The question is of essential religious practice and the restriction of hijab as part of uniform. I have studied previous cases involving such arguments. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled against an air force officer who had petitioned the courts to allow him to grow a beard as per his religious practice. Kerala High Court and Maharashtra High Court had also ruled against hijab. Then there are judgments like Sabarimala. Considering these precedents, I am sceptical of the Karnataka High Court accepting hijab as an essential religious practice. When such issues reach the court, unfortunately the judiciary will rule based on technicalities.
The government has said that their order does not apply to Sikhs wearing turbans?
Yes, I think it may be because the courts have ruled in favour of Sikhs in previous cases questioning their five religious symbols. They are deemed as essential practices. Also, I think the Gurudwara committee intervened and resolved the issue in Mount Carmel College.
But yes, there was no politicisation of the issue from the right wing. Maybe it's because they consider Sikhs as part of the Hindu community. Undoubtedly this whole hijab issue is a targeted attack on Muslims and their practices.
One of the most memorable images from early 2000s is you, Prof Rahamath Tarikere, Girish Karnad, Gauri Lankesh and others getting together as part of the Komu Souhardha Vedike (a civil society group against communalism) to protest during the Baba Budangiri issue (an attempt by right-wing Hindu organisations to take over a syncretic shrine and stop Muslims from entry). But nowadays, we hardly see public intellectuals, artists, writers, filmmakers etc. coming onto the streets to intervene in issues such as the hijab issue. What happened?
In the 1980s, the farmers movement, Dalit Sangharsh Samiti movement, Samudaya theatre movement (an influential cultural movement that used theatre as a tool to raise awareness about social issues–with a particular focus on workers and farmers) , Bandaya Sahitya Sanghatane (A rebel literary movement in Kannada that brought together women, Muslim and Dalit writers) were very active. All these movements and intellectuals leading these movements had a significant impact on the public. Their views and opinions on issues were widely accepted. Those were the times when there was ideology, every movement was well organised and there was a belief that we will transform the society. The tagline of the Bandaya movement was, ‘The dear friend whose heart beats for people’s pain’. There were protests in response to every atrocity that took place.
Then the Sangh Parivar unleashed their propaganda against intellectuals with terms like sickular, ganjigirakigalu (parasites) etc. This relentless propaganda questioned the intellectuals’ very existence and destroyed their credibility. These malicious attempts combined with shifting individual allegiances (a famous example is the revolutionary Raitha Sangha (farmers organisation) leader Babagouda Patil who joined the BJP and became a union minister in the Vajpayee government), aspirations and ambitions led to failure of these movements. I distinctly remember how a humiliating campaign was run against U R Ananthamurthy (an award winning writer) after the 2014 elections, with calls for him to migrate to Pakistan.
What is the role of public intellectuals today?
As Toni Morrison said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
At a political level, as long as a strong opposition party does not emerge, there will be no political space for public intellectuals or even people to express their displeasure and discontent. Whenever intellectuals and activists have stood up individually or in small groups, they have been individually targeted leading to the destruction of their lives and careers. Father Stan Swamy, Sudha Bharadwaj, Prof Anand Teltumbde and even the young woman Disha Ravi are great examples of how important voices are being suppressed.
What gives you hope for the future?
The people of India have never allowed complete destruction of the country. There have been ups and downs but never complete annihilation. No rule is permanent. So I believe these roots of tolerance, bonding and humanity of our people and country are still alive.
If a Muslim lady is giving birth on the road, a Christian or Hindu etc will come forward to help. We won’t see religion then. That is the belief. And this basic humanity is our hope.
These are attempts to break this bonding and humanity, but it is not yet destroyed. Even when the young Muskan was harassed by a mob, we saw that the college personnel protected her in whatever way they could. There are also many ordinary Hindus who have expressed their displeasure at how these young Muslim girls were being treated by media and the goons.
Many Kannada TV channels tried to link these girls with ISIS, fundamentalism etc. You have worked in the media. Why do you think our media have transformed so drastically?
Media, judiciary, police system, education system, are all parts of society. So when society is constantly poisoned with hate, it will affect these pillars of democracy too. When our political system, which is our mother root, is constantly setting fire, it is natural that it will spread to other roots of our democracy.
Also, there is the pressure of corporate ownership. Even a publication like Prajavani is changing. They all have to align with the agendas of corporate ownership etc. Despite the manufactured divisions among people through propaganda, I believe there is still a stronger human connection and bonding between us which is untouched.
This is a cycle. What is up today has to come down someday. There was a time when all progressive organisations like Raitha Sangha, Dalit Sangarsh Samiti, Samudaya and Bandaya Sahitya Sanghatane were collectively fighting the social evils of the caste system, but they have all gone different ways now and are not as vibrant as before. I believe this will change again.
Many of the young boys who protested with saffron shawls were said to be from backward communities. The Sangh Parivar has been able to mobilise these communities. Why do you think this has happened?
Yes, of course. In the 1980s, the social justice movements were very active. Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) etc were constantly working with the youth telling them about Ambedkar’s teachings, awakening them etc. But that stopped once individual political ambitions took over and the vibrant politics diminished. There have been two generations since then who have had no contact with these movements. They are siding with the politics of the day to fulfil their political aspirations. Hindutva politics has become their crutch which has systematically co-opted them.
Who are the political leaders of Muslims in Karnataka? We don’t see anyone other than C M Ibrahim (a former Congress minister now with the Janata Dal United) , U T Khader, Tanveer Sait and Zameer Ahmed (all Congress) who have mostly been silent on this issue.
The community hasn’t worked towards increasing political representation in the state. Muslims don’t even have a media house which can be their voice in Karnataka. They think that they can go on leading a normal life without being political. They have not realised that even to lead a normal life, political space will be required.
Unfortunately, CFI, PFI have taken advantage of this ambivalence of the community and are trying to become the voice of Muslims in the state. But I don’t agree with their politics. I don’t think their methods and strategies are appropriate for us.
How has the place of Muslim woman within the community changed since your time?
There has been tremendous change. The number of Muslim women could be counted on fingertips. Few who got involved in social movements were told “why are you going out? You should be at home”. Today these young girls who are bravely coming onto the streets and girls like Muskan who are standing up to oppression are becoming icons of the community. That is a welcome change.
In my time, studying in Kannada itself used to be opposed. Even Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), who proclaimed that Muslims should study and learn English was rewarded with multiple fatwas. Today AMU is a prestigious university. So even getting basic education was a big deal for women. Watching films was a crime. Today, the proliferation of media is so much that these restrictions will not make sense.
Watching Muskan singlehandedly face those hundreds of heckling men gave me a lot of hope. Hats off to her bravery. But some of the girls in Udupi were definitely tutored by others to talk about rights etc. But whatever the politics, we should ensure the education of those children is not affected. They should not be made pawns in this.
Why has politics changed so much in Karnataka?
Unfortunately those social movements, despite their vibrancy and fervour, did not result in change in the society and also died down due to various reasons. Also, the ideologies did not update themselves. Moreover, electoral politics has become a machinery driven by money. Earlier, parties would ask for votes as well as money for parties. Now, parties spend thousands of crores in every election.
Political parties and civil society don't seem to be doing enough about the violence.
Civil society groups are coming together. A meeting has been organised in Shimoga where all stakeholders have been invited to discuss and try and resolve this issue at the civil society level. Political parties are worried about their vote banks and are themselves ridden with infighting and disagreements.
What would be your advice to the girls at the forefront of the hijab issue?
I would say continue fighting in the courts but also continue your studies in the meantime. Colleges are saying they will make provision for a designated place to remove hijab before entering the classroom. There is nothing more valuable than education for a woman. We have to choose our battles wisely. The resistance we all showed against CAA in the recent years was commendable. The entire community galvanised around the issue. But that will not happen in the case of the hijab issue. Remember what happened in the Shah Bano case? Our rigidity became fodder for the divisive politics of BJP.
But do you think the Sangh Parivar will stop at the hijab issue?
They won’t. But as a community we should be wise enough to know which issue to fight for and which to let go. And everyone has realised it and that is why you don’t see widespread support from within the community. Because the hijab issue is a double-edged sword and resistance to this will be used for vote bank politics by the right wing. Also, I personally think there is no need of exhibitionism in Islam.
I appreciate your views as a critical insider of the Muslim community. But aren’t you putting the entire onus on the minority community for these issues? What about the responsibility of the majority community and the government?
Of course. Yes, the issue of hijab and the uniform should have been resolved between the students and the CDC. Unfortunately, the current government thrives on polarisation and did not take any proactive steps to stop the issue from being politicised. I still believe that the majority of the population will support the cause of education of the Muslim girl students at any cost.
What is your response to the Karnataka High Court’s judgement which has upheld the ban of hijab as part of uniform?
As a lawyer I had studied previous judgements in cases involving arguments of “Hijab as essential religious practice in Islam” and I had anticipated this judgement. The high court has precedents to pass such a judgement. That is why I was advocating that this issue should have been resolved at the college level. Now the girls might go to the Supreme Court. Let us see what happens there. In the meantime, I hope the young girls will continue their education.
(Basav Biradar is an independent researcher, writer and filmmaker. He teaches courses on cinema and theatre as visiting faculty at Azim Premji University.)