Skye Arundhati Thomas

The mobile phone footage shows 19-year-old Muskan Khan riding a scooter into the yellow-walled compound of her college campus in Mandhya, a city in Karnataka in south-west India, on 8 February. She parks it, steps off. Around her, a jumpy, agitated crowd of young men dressed in matching saffron-coloured scarves are caught in the throes of a tirade: ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ they chant, spinning the cloth above their heads, as though punctuating the chorus of a pop song. Khan has to walk past the boys to enter the college building. They charge at her, taunt her, demand she take off her hijab. She punches the air, her body tilting, face crinkled in a frown, and declares: ‘Allahu akbar.’

Just over a month earlier, on 28 December 2021, six Muslim girls were not allowed into their college classroom in Karnataka because they were wearing hijabs. The girls were registered students; their ID card photos showed them wearing headscarves. But on that day, a few months before their final exams, they were refused entry and kept in a holding room as though in detention, forced to reconsider their choice of dress. After appealing to local education departments without success, they filed a petition in the state’s High Court, claiming a violation of their constitutional rights. Their lawyers argued that the ban ‘creates a stigma’ among the girls’ peers, affecting their ‘mental health as well as future prospects’. The High Court deferred the case for review, and protests escalated across the state. Police charged at students with wooden batons, and college campuses had to be temporarily shut down.

‘For me it’s a spiritual act,’ Maryam Alavi, a lawyer, says of wearing a hijab. ‘It’s not about practice of religion, but my private thoughts with my maker.’ The girls’ petition refers to Article 25 of the Indian constitution, ‘the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion’. The court, which resumed hearings last week, has so far been debating whether wearing a hijab is ‘essential to the practice of Islam’ and therefore protected. It is not within the court’s remit to interpret religious texts, or to essentialise religious practices. As Alavi says, wearing the hijab is an act of self-determination, but it is being instrumentalised to alienate Muslim women across the country.

The precedent here is a landmark case from 1986, Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala. Three children – Jehova’s Witnesses – were expelled from school for refusing to sing the national anthem. They said it conflicted with their religious beliefs. The Kerala High Court ruled that the national anthem did ‘not offend religious sentiments’, but at the Supreme Court, the children’s right to profess their faith was upheld. ‘Our personal views and reactions are irrelevant’ to matters of religious identification and preference, Mr Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy remarked.

There are legislative assembly elections in several states this year and a general election will take place in 2024. The BJP, looking to consolidate regional power, is defaulting to the tactics that proved successful in bringing Modi to office in 2014, and has helped keep him there since: deliberately stoking divisions between Hindus and Muslims. Male Hindu students started wearing saffron scarfs to protest against women wearing hijabs, as a way of saying: ‘If they wear religious symbols, why can’t we?’ But the right to wear a hijab cannot be conflated with the desire to wear a saffron scarf. In the current Indian climate, the two are not equivalent. The saffron scarf is a symbol of the Hindutva nation building project, whose entire impetus is exclusion. The law’s attempt to arbitrate what constitutes an ‘essential’ religious practice sidesteps the way that the hijab ban is part of a larger attack on Indian Muslims.

After the video of Muskan Khan went viral, she became at once a symbol of resistance and a target for BJP propaganda. Manipulated images of her were spread over WhatsApp, Facebook and fake news websites: photoshopping her face, accusing her of taking foreign funds, engaging in conspiracy mongering. Some BJP officials have tried to claim that they object to headscarves merely on practical grounds, because they supposedly make it harder for students and teachers to communicate. Karnataka has been a BJP state since 2018, and what’s happening there seems to show an acceleration in central government interference with the federal legal infrastructure. ‘If someone disrobes you,’ the journalist Alishan Jafri tweeted, it is not for the court to decide ‘whether or not clothes are important to you, instead of punishing those who disrobed you.’