New Delhi: On 17 March, Batul Hamid, 40, principal of Viva College of Law in the west Mumbai suburb of Virar, resigned from her post, alleging, in a letter to the secretary and chairman of Vishnu Waman Thakur Charitable Trust that runs the college, “unharmonious and suffocating” animosity, based on her religious identity.
“The college management accepted my resignation immediately without even asking what the matter was,” Hamid alleged in an interview to Article 14. In her resignation letter, Hamid had written about feeling “uncomfortable”.
The president of the trust that runs the college, a politician who receives support from Muslims, denied Hamid’s allegation, although eyewitnesses we spoke to confirmed some of Hamid’s accounts of harassment over her religious identity and dress.
Hamid, who wears a hijab, said the management “did not once ask about the unharmonious and suffocating atmosphere I said I had faced on duty in the college”.
The hostility began from December 2021, according to Hamid, a little over two years after she joined the college in 2019 and right after a government ban in neighbouring Karnataka on the hijab in many educational institutions and a surge in animosity towards Muslims nationwide.
Between December and her resignation in March 2022, said Hamid, she faced a string of issues, including a dressing-down by members of the college board, allegations in public about her “religious activity”, a reference to a meeting she had with a group of Dawoodi Bohras (the sect to which she belongs) and humiliation in front of peers over wearing a saree instead of a hijab.
Hamid has a doctorate in constitutional law from Veer Narmad South Gujarat University in Surat and taught law for four years in Surat before joining Viva College as principal.
It has been more than 80 days since Hamid resigned. Viva Law College is yet to get a new principal.
Ripple Effect Of Karnataka Hijab Ban
It was in December 2021 that a pre-university government all-girls college in Udupi, Karnataka, ruled that Muslim students could not wear the hijab. Six teenagers in hijab began a protest against the ban. The authorities did not relent. Soon, other colleges in Udupi and other districts enforced hijab bans on campus.
The ripple effect was wide and immediate even though the matter reached the courts. Students who protested the ban and refused to take off the hijab were not allowed to sit for exams. Videos of teachers forced to take off their hijab at college gates went viral.
Some colleges banned the hijab when mostly male students affiliated to Hindutva groups wore saffron shawls to counter the hijab.
In Hamid’s college, the rumours that she was partial to Muslims began, she said, after a Dawoodi Bohra delegation visited her office in November 2021. In December, she was summoned to a board meeting and accused of propagating her religion on the college premises, holding out as evidence of “religious activity” her single meeting with the Dawoodi Bohras.
“I was called before the full board meeting. I was told to switch off my mobile phone. I was interrogated,” Hamid told Article 14.
“Board members alleged my conduct was ‘not conducive’ to the college atmosphere. They pointed to my religious identity and culture.”
Hamid said she was “shouted down”when she attempted to respond and alleged being “harassed, humiliated and insulted for two hours behind closed doors”.
‘If We Were Prejudiced, Why Would We Hire Her?’
The trust’s president Hitendra Thakur is a five-time MLA of Virar and founded his own party Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA) in 2009. His Viva trust runs 16 colleges in the Virar-Vasai township and a school with 8,000 students. Denying Hamid’s accusations, Thakur claimed he was not “at the meeting” and pointed to how she was hired in the first instance.
“If we were prejudiced against burqa or hijab, why would we have hired her in the first place?” said Thakur. “We have students in hijab. She never approached the management with her complaints.”
But witnesses of an exchange between Thakur and Hamid on the sidelines of a seminar on 24 February said the bias was evident. Advocate Sharfuddin Ahmad, general secretary of the All India Lawyers Council was among those who said they witnessed Thakur verbally attack Hamid.
Thakur denied all Hamid’s allegations, repeatedly saying she never complained to the management. She responded that they were never interested in hearing what she had to say, pointing to the alacrity with which her resignation was accepted, with no questions asked.
The Strongman Of Vasai
There were few willing to speak on record about the events that led to Hamid’s resignation and the hostility she said she faced.
The Vasai-Virar region, the fifth most populous township in Maharashtra, is the stronghold of the Thakur family whose political and business influence goes back three decades. The 60-year-old Thakur’s son Kshitij, 38, is also a two-time MLA from nearby Nalasopara constituency.
Thakur’s party BVA swept the civic elections in 2015, winning 106 of 115 municipal seats, and Thakur’s wife was elected mayor of Vasai-Virar municipal corporation, the peri-urban sprawl’s first woman mayor. Fear of his brother Bhai Thakur, the family’s muscle, ensured Hitendra’s uninterrupted expansion of business interests over the years and the region’s development.
Similar to most political fiefdoms that dot every Indian state, the Thakur family ensures it is on mutually beneficial terms with whichever political dispensation forms government in state capital Mumbai.
Thakur also has strong influence over the regions’ significant Muslim population who have voted for Thakur for several years now. But questions are now being asked about Hindu pujas held on the Viva law college campus.
Saraswati Pujas As ‘Culture’
The allegations that Hamid brought her identity to work at an institution where Hindu religious practices were freely followed is reflective of a growing issue: Muslim practices are called religious but Hindu practices are called “culture” and thus acceptable.
In the Uttar Pradesh city of Aligarh recently, a Muslim professor was criticised for praying under a tree in a college where Saraswati pujas were common. The principal claimed the puja was “culture”, an approach that appeared evident at Viva college.
“Thakur said ‘we are proud to be Hindu. We also worship Saraswati, goddess of education’. Another person said they also organise events for haldi-kumkum (Hindu rituals) culture,” said Ahmad, the lawyer, narrating what transpired at the 24 February seminar. “Then Thakur addressed Dr Batul and accused her of religious activities on campus. When she denied it, he asked her to keep quiet. This upset Dr Batul. We also felt bad about this behaviour.”
Hamid said that Saraswati (Hindu god of education) pujas were held on campus and religious ceremonies were organised, “without information, consent or concurrence of the principal”.
Soon after the December board meeting, Hamid said, a teacher told her to wear a sari to college and discard her hijab. Word reached Hamid that the staff were saying she held “religious activities” in college, that her hijab “disturbed the atmosphere”.
Hamid alleged a subsequent and constant low-key but evident hostility from the college management: objecting to the amount of coffee and water she consumed on campus; and to a peon ferrying her bag from the car to the office.
In January, Aparna Thakur, secretary of the VIVA trust, visited Hamid for a conciliatory meeting.
Thakur discussed Hamid’s preparation for an upcoming audit by Mumbai University’s local inspection committee. She was also in charge of a seminar organised for 24 February 2022 that would include experts, senior faculty and also members of the college trust.
Ahmad said he got the impression that the college considered Hamid’s hijab “religious activity” and that Hamid was a “victim of the anti-Hijab campaign that started in Karnataka”.
The Karnataka Ripple Effect
In Karnataka, the heckling by young Hindu men of a student Muskan Khan wearing a hijab in a Mandya college and her grit in taking on the mob was recorded in a college in Karnataka’s Mandya, and went viral. The video of the women’s fightback sparked international reactions.
On 15 March the Karnataka high court said hijab was not an essential practice in Islam. The students immediately moved the Supreme Court challenging the high court order, but the apex court denied the matter an “urgent hearing”.
Within two days of the Karnataka court order on 17 March, Hamid resigned as principal, telling Mid-Day that she felt “compelled”to put in her papers.
“If I had not, they would have created situations and issues showing that I was incapable of running the college,” said Hamid. “So, I decided to keep my dignity and resign instead.”
The news of a college principal quitting over bias against her hijab in a Mumbai suburb spread widely. The college accused her of being an “attention-seeker”.
Local police, seemingly of their own volition, began a probe and within a week released a report that said “the hijab issue” did not appear to be the reason for Hamid’s resignation. “We can help her only if she comes and files a complaint or shares proof,” a local officer told Mid-Day. “Otherwise, this does not look like a hijab matter.”
Bias Against Muslims Grows
There has been a surge in intimidation of Muslims by Hindu far-right groups, directly or indirectly linked to BJP, including calls for their economic boycott, a stream of court petitions to litigate against places of worship, abuse of laws, such as the sedition law, to jail hundreds and evictions of Muslims, apart from calls for genocide.
Many are involved in legal battles over religious identity.
On 31 May, the Gauhati High Court allowed Fathima Beewi, now in Class 8, to wear a hijab to her Catholic school in upper Assam’s Golaghat district after a nine-year battle. In Karnataka, girls are still fighting for their right to continue their education wearing a hijab—on 29 May, Mangalore University sent back a group of students who met with the college principal to allow their hijab.
While Hamid spoke to the media at the time—she has since returned to Surat in neighbouring Gujarat, her native city where her father is a prominent religious Bohra leader—she now refuses to speak of her future course of action.
“I was denied the right to have my grievances heard. I mentioned all that I suffered in the resignation letter,” said Hamid. “But the questions I raised remain to be addressed.”
(Waquar Hasan is a Delhi-based independent journalist.)