Udupi (Karnataka): It was in the last week of December 2021 that Muskan Zainab, 17, was told by her college principal that she would not be allowed to attend classes if she wore a hijab.
A little earlier that month, Muskan wore a headscarf in class, and went unnoticed by the teacher. “It was the first period, and the teacher was busy writing on the board,” Muskan told Article 14.
The Class XI student of the Government Girls Pre University (PU) college in the coastal town of Udupi in south Karnataka said it was almost time for the bell by the time the teacher looked around and saw her.
The next teacher, however, took one look at Muskan and asked her to meet the principal. Outside the principal's office stood seven other girls, all wearing a hijab.
After a whole academic year of virtual classes, when classes resumed in college in September 2021, the management in the Udupi college began to oppose headscarves in classrooms, citing the need for ‘uniformity’.
Muslim students were perplexed—until then, the practice for several years had been to keep their headscarves on, make a request if a teacher objected, and take it off if the teacher refused to allow it.
"Our seniors used to request teachers, and they were allowed,” said Muskan Zainab. “But if the teachers asked them to remove the headscarf, they obeyed.”
By the last week of December 2021, however, principal Rudre Gowda communicated to Muslim students of the Government Girls PU College that the hijab was banned in class.
Eight girls resolved collectively to keep their headscarves on, and protest if they were not allowed. According to Muskan Zainab, the girls took the decision with a view to exercise their rights.
“I am a Muslim girl who wears a hijab. In my previous school until Class X, I used to wear it,” she told Article 14. About Muslim girls who don’t wear the headscarf, she said, “It is up to them. I wear it because I like wearing it and my faith asks me to.”
In January, eight girls including Muskan began to protest peacefully outside their classroom upon being refused entry for not taking off their hijabs. Two girls dropped out of the protest a few days later, but as Muskan and five others persisted, the matter snowballed quickly into a Hindu-Muslim row.
Udupi is located in a region that has over decades grown into a laboratory for Hindutva, with a proliferation of right-wing groups.
By the third week of January, as the girls’ protest drew wide attention, the Hindu Janajagruti Vedi, one of the many Sangh Parivar outfits in the region, threatened that Hindu students would wear saffron shawls to college if the hijab was not banned in classrooms.
At one meeting attended by the protesting girls, their parents and the college management, the girls were scolded for speaking Urdu and Beary, the south Karnataka dialect spoken mostly by Muslims, or wishing their Muslim friends with a salaam, one of the girls told Article 14.
The row over the hijab in the southern state of Karnataka is set amid a rising tide of attacks against religious minority groups here, by non-state players tacitly supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state. A new legislation to ban religious conversions, based on the bogey of forced conversions by Christian missionary groups, was enacted in 2021 around the same time that vigilante groups threatened to disrupt Christmas celebrations and prayers, heckling Christians in Belagavi, Belur and Tumakuru, among other places.
As protests for and against the hijab spread in southern Karnataka, early in February, the Karnataka high court began to hear at least three petitions filed by advocates Muhammed Tahir, Sanjay Hegde and Devadatt Kamat, and passed an interim order on 10 February banning the headscarf and all forms of religious expression in students’ attire.
By then, some students had been made to sit in separate classrooms for choosing to wear a headscarf; mob opposition to their attire had led government officials to decree that colleges should segregate those with headscarves; more colleges began to refuse entry to hijab-wearing students; the Karnataka home minister ordered an investigation into whether there was a conspiracy behind the teenage girls’ protest; and in Mandya, a solitary girl in a burqa was surrounded and heckled by dozens of young men waving saffron scarves and chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as she walked towards the college building.
Though the admission guidelines for 2021-22 issued by the department of pre-university education states that there is no mandatory uniform for students, in practice, almost all PU colleges have enforced wearing of uniforms.
The high court’s interim order of 10 February prohibiting religious clothes was clarified by state chief minister Basavaraj Bommai and education minister B C Nagesh—it would apply only to pre-university colleges that have a prescribed uniform. But that did not quell the chaos in subsequent days as college managements across the state implemented a blanket ban on the hijab from 14 February.
Protestors outside a paramedical college in Belagavi were detained, a lecturer in Tumakuru resigned after being told she could not teach with her hijab on.
Schools even in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh attempted to illegally impose a ban on the hijab.
Amid concerns that the school uniform row was being used by Hindutva groups to throttle Islamic practices, the US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom tweeted that the hijab ban violated religious freedom. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an axis of Islamic countries, expressed its concern, prompting a curt response from India’s ministry of external affairs, calling the organisation’s tweeted comment evidence of their “communal mindset” and “nefarious propaganda against India”.
The events left the six girls who started the protest in Udupi overwhelmed. The last time they were allowed inside a classroom was in December 2021.
“All I want is to sit and study with my headscarf on,” Muskan said. She didn’t have a problem with other students wearing saffron shawls.
How The Protest Became A Hijabs Versus Saffron Scarves Row
Several rounds of discussions were held between the parents of the protesting girls in Udupi and the college management, chaired by the president of the College Development Committee (CDC). The principal, Udupi district collector and the deputy director for pre-university education in the district were in attendance at these meetings.
The CDC is presided over by the elected member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of the local constituency, in this case Raghupati Bhat of Udupi constituency. Bhat belongs to the BJP.
The CDC mainly works to recommend school/college infrastructure improvements, fund allocation, etc, also occasionally called in to resolve disputes. However, by a government order dated 5 February 2022, the CDCs in Karnataka were given the additional responsibility of prescribing a uniform for students. An interim high court order passed on 10 February also instructed students to follow the CDC’s prescribed dress code.
During the Udupi CDC meetings in the first week of January, Bhat opposed the hijab and said that if hijabs are allowed, saffron shawls should be permitted too.
Asked why saffron shawls were introduced into the discussion, Bhat told Article 14 that he was responding to a request from Hindu girls. “When Muslim girls demanded that hijab be allowed inside classrooms, around 70 Hindu girls have given a written request that saffron shawl should also be allowed,” he said. “I spoke about saffron shawl only because they requested it.”
The Government Girls PU College in Udupi, however, did not witness any student wearing a saffron shawl from December 2021 to 17 February 2022, including on 8 February when Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) college in the same district witnessed a protest by saffron-wearing boys.
At a subsequent meeting, Bhat offered the protesting hijab-wearing students the option of attending classes online. One student agreed and quit the protest. Another student dropped out of the protest after several rounds of talks with the college authorities. Now, six girls were protesting, including Muskan Zainab.
The college in Udupi town has 90 Muslim students, the majority of them children of migrant labourers. One of the six girls protesting is from a migrant family.
On 1 January, Yashpal Suvarna, also a BJP leader in Udupi and vice-president of the CDC, said at a meeting that the protesting students were connected to the Campus Front of India (CFI), the students’ wing of the Popular Front Of India (PFI), an Islamic group that various state governments (here and here) have sought to ban.
The CFI’s state committee responded by saying they had indeed tried to give a representation on the matter to the Udupi college authorities. “We had met the principal on 30 and 31 December to request that hijab-wearing students be allowed to sit in the classrooms,” Masood Manna, CFI state committee member, said. The CFI also met the deputy director for pre-university education.
Four days later, Bhat and Suvarna gave calls for Hindu students to sport saffron shawls. On 4 January, students in Chikmagalur’s Balagadi College, more than 150 km east of Udupi, wore saffron shawls.
Shashidhar Hemmadey, a journalist in Kundapura, said it was the failure of the district administration that led to the matter escalating. "It is the failure and narrow-mindedness of the faculty of the college that escalated the situation to such a grievous extent,” he said. “Schools have mistreated and humiliated the students.”
The hijab and saffron shawls never should have been connected, U T Khader, member of the Karnataka legislature, who belongs to the Indian National Congress, told Article 14. “This has been used to humiliate and throw Muslim girls out of education," said Khader, a former health minister. “This is an utter failure of the district commissioner and deputy director for pre-university.” He said Muslim clerics should have been consulted on the hijab.
Udupi To Kundapura: More Colleges Turn Away Hijab-Wearing Girls
On 3 February, in Kundapura, a town nearly 40 km north of Udupi, the Government PU college asked Muslim girls to remove their headscarves if they wanted to enter the campus.
When 28 Muslim girls refused, principal Ramakrishna BG closed the iron gates to them, apparently on account of the state education minister’s comments that wearing religious clothing in school and pre-university college would amount to indiscipline.
Tehrein Begum, 17, said they tried to reason with the authorities, but without success.
"The principal said he can't allow hijab or saffron shawls (on campus).” she said. “Just because the boys had removed their saffron shawls in front of the gate, how can we remove our headscarves?”
Until 4 pm, the 28 girls sat on the road outside the school, not allowed inside even to use the washroom. "We requested our teachers. But they did not allow us to get inside and use the washrooms,” Tehrein said. Instead, she said, the girls were questioned on whether their parents had instructed them to wear the hijab.
The girls used the washroom at the Kundapura government hospital, but on finding that uncomfortable, used the bathroom at a relative's shop located 50 metres away from the school.
Female Muslim students of Kundapura PU college said the school did not try to stop the boys who had been wearing saffron shawls earlier from bullying them.
"During the lunch break, many boys came and called us beggars sitting on the road,” Tehrein said. “They made lewd comments about how many coins they should throw at us."
The Muslim Okkoota, an Udupi-based umbrella group of Muslim organisations, registered a complaint on 4 February with the Udupi district collector and additional district commissioner (ADC) seeking strict action against the college. The ADC passed an oral order instructing hijab-wearing students to be allowed into campus, but said they should be accommodated in a separate classroom.
No action was taken against the principal, Ramakrishna BG, who refused to comment on the issue.
Meanwhile, from 3 February, other colleges in Kundapura, including R N Shetty College, Bhandarkar College and B B Hegde College, began to deny entry to hijab-wearing students. Outside classrooms in these colleges, Muslim girl students held peaceful protests against the restrictions on their entry. In Kundapura’s BB Hegde College, Muslim boys also came outside the campus in solidarity with the girls.
The Role Of The Bharatiya Janata Party
On 8 January, Karnataka education minister BC Nagesh defended the emergence of Hindu students sporting saffron shawls to college as a "reaction" to Muskan and her friends’ protest in Udupi.
On 7 February, the evening before a final practical exam for students at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) college located on the Manipal-Udupi highway, principal Devidas S Naik announced that students with any kind of religious clothes would not be allowed inside classrooms. No arrangements were made for hijab-wearing students to take the exam.
On 8 February, while girls wearing headscarves were made to take these off at the gate if they wanted to enter, more than 50 boys in saffron turbans and shawls jumped the walls of the college and performed a protest dance spinning saffron shawls in the air, jumping and chanting Jai Shri Ram inside the campus. The exam was cancelled.
The boys denied that any organisation or group had distributed their readymade saffron turbans, but Suvarna, who is the national general secretary of BJP’s OBC Morcha, was spotted on campus, according to students. A subsequent investigation by The News Minute established the role played by Suvarna and the Hindu Janajagruti Vedi in distributing saffron shawls.
On 21 January, about two weeks before the saffron protest in MGM college, Prakash Kukkehalli of the Hindu Janajagruti Vedi leader warned that students would wear saffron shawls to college in Udupi and the Dakshina Kannada districts.
Earlier, on 4 February, the Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) filed a complaint with the district commissioner of Udupi, demanding action against Suvarna for calling the students terrorists and allegedly threatening the students of the Udupi college.
Speaking to Article 14, Suvarna said the protesting students were at fault. “They have tweeted on Babri Masjid, Shaheen Bagh and Delhi riots. Being a student, how come they know all these?” he asked. He said the students had “retweeted CFI”. “They have requested court for adjournment until UP election,” he said. “Why should a student be bothered about elections?”
The involvement of politicians polarised the mood in the colleges.
One girl student told Article 14: “We are not allowed to wear rudraksha beads with the uniform.”
Several students found the saffron scarf/turban protests distasteful. One of them, a student associated with the National Cadet Corps at the MGM college in Udupi, said it was a “planned protest”. He said he was offered a saffron shawl at the college gate that morning, but he declined.
"I saw my classmate at the saffron protest. I was shocked. He used to borrow my notes before exams,” said Yusra, a second year BCom student of MGM college, who gave only her first name. “Now he stops me from getting into college.”
Not all college principals responded similarly to the right wing groups’ organisation of anti-hijab protests. "In PU College Byndoor, 30 km north of Kundapura, the principal allowed both hijab-wearing and saffron-waving students,” said Idrees Hoode, vice-president of the Okkoota. He said the following day, the boys had all but lost interest in wearing the saffron shawl.
Discrediting The Girls: Leaked Social Media Photos, Harassment
Like most other Muslim students of colleges in Udupi and Kundapura, Zarkha Zainab, 17, a student of RN Shetty College, had deleted all her personal photos from various social media accounts towards the end of January. Some who failed to delete these early enough were shamed for their photos without the headscarf.
Zarkha Zainab’s friend and classmate Hashmiya* was one of them. A photograph of her without a hijab was leaked from her Instagram account. Her Instagram settings were ‘private’, indicating that only those accounts she had permitted could view her posts. Zarkha said Hashmiya’s photo was leaked by a childhood friend, a photograph of the teenage girl smiling shyly on ‘Traditional Day’, a college event.
One post mocking Hashmiya said in Kannada, alongside her photo, “School is a holy place. If hijab is not allowed in school, you make it a problem. So is social media your in-laws’ place?”
A second poster called the protesting girls attention seekers. “Height of hypocrisy,” read another poster.
By 5 February, Hashmiya’s photo and accompanying text were shared dozens of times by WhatsApp users in the college and, soon thereafter, also on social media.
Terrified at this turn of events, more Muslim girls deleted photographs from their social media pages. “Palak* had a public account,” Zarkha said about another friend. “But as soon as we got to know that Hashmiya was attacked, Palak deleted all her personal photos.”
Palak forgot an old Tik Tok video, and a grab from the video was leaked. The 17-year-old was abused online. She “doesn’t wear hijab while making Reels on Instagram” and “doesn’t wear the hijab while making tik tok videos”, one post said, prompting several responses calling the teenage girl a hypocrite.
“Whether the women students wore a hijab previously or not does not matter. There is no ‘time limit’ for exercising our fundamental right,” said social activist Safoora Zargar. “The larger issue here is the denying the rights of a Muslim woman when she chooses to wear the hijab.”
Zargar, along with several other Muslim women activists and jounalists, was harassed through Github platforms including Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai, with their photos from social media profiles used on the apps.
“Also, hatred and online abuse against Muslim women are dangerously rising. And it is spreading out, as women students are being disrobed in public,” added Zargar.
After Hashmiya's parents lodged a complaint with the college principal, Neesha* was summoned for an explanation. That evening, Neesha's parents visited Hashmiya’s parents and apologised for their daughter's action.
"Hashmiya did not file a complaint with the police or ask for further punishment from the college authority. She is sad and tired," said Zarkha.
Hashmiya and Palak did not want to talk about the harassment and told Article 14 that Zarkha would speak on their behalf.
Zarkha does doodle art in her free time and has an Instagram page solely for mehendi designs. She wants to study interior designing.
School Hands Out Minor Girl Students’ Personal Details
As classmates and childhood friends shared photographs of the Muslim girls, including some from private accounts, to discredit their participation in the protests, the Government Girls PU College made public the addresses, Aadhar numbers, contact details and even annual marksheets of the six protesting students.
The college administration shared these details with the CDC president, MLA Raghupati Bhat, and later with members of the media. One television channel highlighted their scores and said they had been uninterested in studies.
Asked why the college had released this information to the media, Bhat told Article 14 that the college did not directly hand this out. The girls’ school records and CCTV footage had been submitted to the court, he said. “Documents in court are public. Media might have accessed it from court.”
Bhat also accused the girls of being indisciplined. Asked on what basis he was making this claim, he said, “Those matters cannot be disclosed.”
The girls sought to counter claims that they were disinterested students. “I was appointed once as class leader and given responsibilities. My friend, Almas, has scored 92% in her Class X,” Aliya Asadi, 17, said.
“There are lots of trolls commenting on our marks. But I am not reading them,” she continued. “It does not matter to me because I know who I am. I know what I can do.”
While Muskan Zainab’s Class X result was an overall score of 85%, and Resham scored more than 80%, the others’ scores were in the 65%-70% range. For days afterwards, the girls were abused and trolled online.
On 10 February, the parents of one of the affected students went to Udupi town police station to file a complaint against the college authorities for leaking the girls’ personal details, but left without filing the complaint, uncomfortable with the prospect of the girls being called to the police station to record their statements.
On 11 February, the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) filed a complaint with the offices of the district collector and the additional commissioner.
Principal Rudre Gowda of the Govt Girls PU college refused to comment on the SIO’s complaint.
Afwan Hoode, a representative of the SIO, told Article 14 that the Udupi town police station called two student representatives following SIO’s police complaint, but then quizzed them instead on who had told them of the protesting girls’ details being shared with the media. Intimidated, the students did not pursue the case. “The school wanted to threaten the girls and has allowed this public harassment,” Afwan Hoode said.
With the girls’ personal information being shared widely, TV channel reporters began to call their families. Most of the girls switched off their mobile phones. “One local channel came without taking permission to my friend's house, with the camera on,” Aliya said. The girl’s mother rolls bidis for a living and requested the crew not to shoot her. “But they were on TV.”
On 9 February, a Republic TV reporter asked Aliya to identify her friends’ photos. "My throat has gone sore,” Aliya told Article 14. “I am tired of saying again and again that a headscarf is a right of a Muslim woman. She might choose to wear or not to wear it. And that it cannot be used to restrict our entry into schools or any public place.”
Beyond The Hijab: Anger, Shock, Distress For Protesting Girls
Five years ago, Asadi participated in the karate national championship in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, her hijab tucked firmly inside the collars of her karate costume. That is now a distant memory.
Aliya Asadi is a state-level gold medalist. “Though I was the only Muslim girl with a hijab at the Indore nationals, I faced no objection in participating with the hijab,” Aliya recalled.
Since December, Aliya and her friends have spoken up at meetings inside the college and later to local, national and international media to explain how the discrimination affacted them.
"When we refused to remove our headscarves, the teachers would tell us to go and meet the principal. And from the principal's office, our parents would be called to school, almost daily,” said Muskan. “Our parents waited many hours outside the principal's cabin.”
However, later in January, principal Rudre Gowda said the six protesting girls had displayed indiscipline, they had irregular attendance and poor grades. The girls responded by saying they were going to college regularly, and that it was teachers who had denied them attendance.
"I am having trouble sleeping,” Aliya told Article 14, about the impact of this on her daily life. “My parents tell me I scream and cry in my sleep.”
On 8 February, as Kundapura’s colleges fell silent while pre-university students took their lab final exams, the headscarf-wearing girls were at home, having been denied entry. Outside the gates of most colleges in Kundapura, teams of policemen idled.
Ayesha Imthiaz, 20, a student of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College in Udupi, said college atmosphere had never been this fractured. She remembered English literature classes in which teachers referred to the “shastras, Mahabharata and Ramayana”.
In 2021, she unsuccessfully contested student council elections in the college, her hijab in place. "In 2020-21 our college elected a hijab-wearing girl as general secretary. We also had elected a Muslim girl who didn’t wear a hijab in the past,” she said.
Yusra, the MGM College BCom student, said college WhatsApp groups have gone silent on the subject of the hijab, “but statuses speak”, she said, referring to the WhatsApp status posted by classmates. “Some students don't use a status supporting the hijab or saffron,” she said. “But their neutrality only helps the saffron supporters.”
In Kundapura, a small town known only for long stretches of serene beaches before the recent incidents, Muslims account for 10.59% of the population.
It’s not uncommon to see Muslim women walking on the streets wearing a burqa or a niqab, the face cover. Many said their children were first generation learners to reach pre-university and college.
Ayesha Nourin, 16, a student of RN Shetty College in Kundapura, had not attended college since 3 February. The student, who loves biology and dreams of becoming a doctor, said she is trying to study by herself at home. “But I am worried,” she continued. “I feel I am lagging behind my classmates.”
In Nourin’s large joint family, none of her aunts has completed high school.
At her home in Nagoor, 8 km from Kundapura, Nourin’s younger sister was drawing, her books filled with sketches of mothers and daughters wearing headscarves and full frocks with stars on the frills, of groups of girls going to school with their arms loosely around one another’s shoulders, a school on a hilltop, girls wearing jeans.
There were also pictures of Korean pop band BTS’s signature hand symbol for the heart; of Masjid al Aqsa in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holy sites; and the word ‘Palestine’ written in calligraphy in Arabic.
As per the 2011 census and a 2017 report of the union ministry of minority affairs, the average percentage of Muslims with a graduate education is 3.61% lower in Karnataka than the national average.
“Though there has been growth in Muslim students graduating, the number of students getting into professional courses is minimal,” said Idrees Hoode, vice president of Mohammadia Educational Trust and a representative of the Muslim Okkoota.
While the overall proportion of people with a technical education is very low in India, only two in every 1,000, the share of Muslims in technical education is only 0.1%. The national monitoring committee for minorities’ education report in 2013 found that a higher percentage of Muslim students end up pursuing undergraduate diplomas and certificate courses.
Abdur Rahman, a former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who resigned from service to protest the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, said financial constraints often prevent Muslims from attempting to get admission into technical institutes.
“Muslims are also mostly self-employed. Many feel education alone cannot secure them jobs,” Rahman told Article 14. “They feel most workspaces discriminate against them.”
Rahman, author of Denial And Deprivation, a book on the condition of Muslims in India, said the compulsory introduction of surya namaskar in schools, the bhojan mantra before mid-day meals in Madhya Pradesh, the Gita education in Haryana were all measures that have quietly “alienated Muslims from mainstream education”.
For now, after the Karnataka HC interim order, hijab-wearing students said they were coping with the daily humiliation of having to remove their headscarves at the college gates.
Zarkha, the student of RN Shetty College in Kundapura, said most of her Muslim friends come to college wearing a burqa. “We change out of the burqa under the stairs because we don't have a ladies room,” she said. They fold their burqas, place them in their bags, and go to class in the uniform and a headscarf. “This is what has been going on for years,” she says. “Now all of a sudden we are asked to remove the headscarf even to enter the campus.”
There are security personnel, police, teachers and journalists at the college gates, said Ayesha Imthiaz. “I can’t remove my hijab at the gate.” She was also worried about missing classes in her final year, while exams for internal assessment were underway. “I feel like going and trying to talk to teachers, and protesting if not allowed,” she said. “But I am also afraid to go near the college wearing a hijab… they could arrest or lathi charge me.”
* The names of some female students in this story have been changed to keep their identities confidential.
(Afra Abubacker is an independent journalist based in Kerala.)