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The Hijab Controversy

Published in https://www.rvasia.org


With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness - James 3:9


The hijab controversy surfaced in the small town of Udipi, in the Southern Indian State of Karnataka during the last week of December 2021. The New Year was marred by the ensuing disputes that still remain smoldering angrily in the lives and hearts of the student community who were embroiled in this unfortunate episode. For those who have not followed the story, the incident happened at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College, where six girls belonging to the Pre-University (PU) programme were prohibited from entering their class because they had worn the ‘hijab’ , a religious head-dress used by Muslim women. The college authorities claimed that it went against the prescribed uniform of the institution, while the students countered this saying that this was a newly introduced rule that was politically motivated. As an immediate reaction to this incident, a number of Hindu students sporting saffron shawls demanded that they be allowed to wear religiously symbolic attire, clearly drawing communal battle-lines. Needless to say, the protest continues to drag on, and this institution in Karnataka shot into fame for all the wrong reasons.


An unfortunate outcome of .the incident at Udipi was that it sparked similar protests in Gujarat, in Kerala and in other states of India . The political parties on both sides of the religious divide made maximum use of the opportunity by delivering hate speeches, and harnessing scores of students to express their allegiance to their respective religions through violence and rank indiscipline. Needless to say, the damage that is caused through these thoughtless acts extends far beyond political , religious and educational boundaries. After experiencing this wave of expressed hatred, how would a teenager view his/her classmates? Wouldn’t the hijab or the saffron scarf, as the case may be, determine their relationship with the other? As a matter of fact, it is incidents like these that strike at the heart of exalted educational institutions, turning them into hotbeds of political and religious rivalry.


When we witness these ugly incidents that are becoming the norm in India in the past few years, we cannot help spending a few nostalgic moments to remember our own PU days. Nobody cared if the student at the next desk was Ann, or Anjali or Afzal. They were all included to share those carefree days of fun and friendship. Admittedly, studies did not always come first. The age between sixteen and seventeen spreads out in so many directions. Just out of the protective nurturing of parental custody, it is a time when one reaches beyond caste, creed and gender to enjoy common interests, and share lighter moments with classmates. It was a time when only tiffin boxes could be identified as Hindu, Muslim or Christian depending on the goodies in it. The irresistible aroma of a mutton biriyani, the tangy taste of spicy chutney with dosa, the audacious red fish curry with mashed tapioca identified each student’s lineage as clearly as the hijab or the saffron scarf. And yet they only served to spread a shared happiness and camaraderie among those who generously helped themselves from the lunch boxes of the others.


From an institutional viewpoint, a pre-university programme has educational goals that are quite distinct from programmes at other levels of education. Fresh from school, students have two short years to decide where their interests lie, and what line of specialization they should take up in college in order to prepare themselves for a career of their choice. Academically, this is a difficult decision for most students, and the institution has a primary responsibility to guide the students to make the right choices. To achieve this, the institution must be a centre of academic excellence, one that brings forth and nurtures the best in the students so that they understand their potential, and are able to compete globally to achieve their goals.


Along with academic targets, the institution must essentially create a multicultural ambience that remains impervious to distinctions that render students unequal by any yardstick. Inequality cripples the minds of perpetrators and victims alike. In this case, religious differences among students are being manipulated by political activists. They are brain-washed into believing that they are carrying out a divine purpose by attacking their own fellow citizens. Being vulnerable and immature, students become tools in the hands of nefarious powers that have vested interests and agendas that are divisive and potentially dangerous to the sovereignty of India as a nation.


If we believe in divine justice, then we can be sure that a day will come when these manipulators will have to answer for misguiding scores of young teenagers who are being denied their right to an educational environment that promises each one his own space, respect and dignity. In this context we are reminded of the poem entitled “Where the mind is without fear” by the great Indian poet and visionary Rabindranath Tagore, where he expresses his yearning for a world “ that has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”. As children of one God, the Creator of this Universe, and as proud citizens of India, let us join this celebrated poet in prayerful hope for the country of our forefathers:-

Where the mind is led forward by Thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father

Let my country awake

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