Karnataka’s “hijab controversy”, which began at Udupi’s Government College in December 2021, snowballed into a major issue. Now the Karnataka High Court has issued a judgment which makes it possible for government and private schools and pre-university colleges under the P.U. Board to ban the wearing of hijab in the classrooms.
As teachers working in different schools, colleges, and universities in different parts of India, and as Indian teachers working abroad, we stand in solidarity with the Muslim students’ right to wear a hijab in the classroom if they wish to. It is a question of the women’s autonomy and their agency, and the hijab does not compromise the integrity of education in any way.
Our constitution makers envisioned an important role for public education in the task of building a democratic republic. Education’s task is to create a material and cultural basis for building an equal society. In a country that is diverse, socially divided, and unequal, this is a necessary but challenging task. If we are to attain this constitutional objective, it is imperative that we understand the difference between equality and homogeneity. Cultural homogeneity is neither necessary nor beneficial for the attainment of equality.
Our students come from different religions, castes, genders and speak different mother tongues. They eat different kinds of food and wear different kinds of clothes and ornaments. These differences in appearance and beliefs, in practices of thinking and speaking, in eating and appearance, are not frozen in time. Rather in the course of their education, students learn to reflect critically on the world around them and begin to interrogate beliefs and practices that they grew up with. This includes reflections on the relationship between patriarchy and religions. In the process, students sometimes reaffirm their beliefs, and sometimes discard them.
This process of learning and unlearning is central to our society’s democratizing process. The process gets severely damaged when a specific dress or other markers of identity becomes a barrier to accessing education. It not only harms the future of the community in question by pushing students out of education, but it also drastically alters the culture of the classrooms. Students are trained not only through the official syllabi but also through the classroom environment. A culture of segregation strikes directly at the heart of the very objective of education.
We are concerned by the fact that the “hijab controversy” seems to have been cleverly orchestrated by the ruling party. Hindu vigilante organizations have played a key role in creating disturbances in schools and colleges. Muslim students wearing the hijab have been heckled and stopped from entering schools and colleges. Students wearing saffron shawls have agitated outside educational institutions, demanding a ban on the hijab wearing students. Delivered in this context, the judgment is a shot in the arm of those institutions which are keen to disallow the hijab in classrooms.
We are also deeply concerned about the radicalized Hindu youth who have been disrupting schools and colleges. We wonder who is responsible for this radicalisation and whose interest is served when young men and women fight against each other in the name of religion. We are deeply worried about the futures of these young Hindu radicals who have been made to believe that the hijab clad women are a threat to the integrity of education and the nation.
We also lament the lack of any consultation by either the government or the court with the teaching community regarding the wearing of the hijab in classrooms and the unfolding disturbances in schools and colleges. It is noteworthy that a sharp collective voice of teachers is missing in the entire episode, despite many teachers being uncomfortable with the government order, and now the court judgement, against the hijab.
This is not surprising because our lawmakers have a long tradition of disregarding the opinions of key stakeholders while making policy decisions in education and other sectors. The state of Karnataka itself provides some stark instances. Large sections of Karnataka’s teachers have expressed their displeasure at the way in which the National Education Policy has been conceptualized and implemented but their voice seems to have counter for very little. Guest teachers across Karnataka are protesting their terms and conditions of employment, demanding their absorption and acceptance as permanent faculty. Their demands have been accepted only partially.
Increasing contractualisation and precarity in the teaching profession has severely damaged the bargaining powers of teachers. This plays a role in reducing their ability to take a strong collective stand for either their own rights or that of their students. We urge fellow teachers to come together in defence of the constitutional right to education, right to freedom of religion, and in favour of women’s autonomy. We appeal to you to stand with the objectives of democratic education.
Let this also be a process of mutual solidarity, under circumstances where teachers’ voices are being increasingly suppressed and the profession is being downgraded and downsized. Let us collectivize, for your students, for ourselves, and for building a plural society where fraternity, justice and dignity prevails.
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