IN video which has since become popular on social media, a group of men gather in a dusty street in the southern state of Karnataka, India.
Carrying saffron-colored flags and matching scarves, the men sing loudly at the same time, mocking their goals: Muslim women in hijab who stay huddled in the corner of the street.
The visual confrontation between their black and blue Islamic robes and the raging sea of saffron – a color closely related to Hinduism – symbolizes the deepening of divisions in the country, due in part to the rise of Hindu nationalism.
What started in January as a peaceful demonstration by six Muslim students protesting against the right to wear the hijab at their state school has turned into a larger movement defined by gender, religion and clothing. And the arrival, weeks later, of saffron-clad counter-demonstrators indicates a blurring of the line between the Indian state and religion.
The orange-yellow hue, seen as a symbol of divinity in Hinduism, has been brazenly adopted by the far-right Hindutva movement, and has become increasingly politicized in recent years. The movement aims to standardize Indian culture around Hindu values.
Meanwhile, for Muslims in India, the hijab has become a symbol of resistance to the wave of Islamophobia spreading across the country as women wearing religious attire protests in various cities and towns in defense of students.
“I started covering my head three years ago in protest against crimes against Muslims,” said 23-year-old Muslim activist Afreen Fatima in a telephone interview. She demonstrated in her hometown of Allahabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
“But now it has become a spiritual duty for me. It confirms my identity. I am a Hindu Muslim and I am not going anywhere. “
Symbol of resistance
The hijab, the Islamic headscarf, is worn by millions of Muslim women around the world as a sign of modesty and privacy. In some countries, however, the garment is controversial with critics portraying it as a symbol of oppression or claiming it is inconsistent with secular values.
In 2004, the French government banned the wearing of religious clothing, including the hijab, in state schools. Seven years later, France became the first country in Europe to ban all face-covering clothing in public spaces, and policymakers described the movement as a matter of national identity and security. Other European countries have since followed suit with similar restrictions, although the types of veils allowed – and where they can be worn – vary.
However, in India, the hijab is neither prohibited nor restricted in public places, and the right to practice one’s faith is guaranteed by a secular constitution. But, as in other parts of the world, Muslim women may face backlash and discrimination for choosing one of them.
According to Indian poet and activist Nabiya Khan, Muslim women are “depicted in an Islamic veil and viewed as submissive” because they “do not fit into the feminist narrative of the liberal elite.”
“I wear the hijab because I want to,” she said via WhatsApp. “It serves me religious and spiritual significance. It brings me closer to my god.
Muslim students leave school in Udupi, Karnataka after being denied entry on February 16, 2022. Source: Stringer / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
The Karnataka conflict began after a small group of hijab students were denied entry to their classes in the coastal city of Udupi, according to a petition they later filed with the state’s highest court. In early January, girls staged a protest outside a government school demanding that they be allowed inside. But their teachers refused.
Their demonstration sparked rival protests by right-wing Hindus wearing saffron scarves and flags (such as those captured in the aforementioned video) chanting the religious Hindu slogan supporting the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party and demanding that girls remove their hats.
The clashes spread to Karnataka, and in early February, the state ordered all high schools and colleges to close for three days. Authorities in the state capital of Bengaluru also banned protests outside of schools for two weeks.
Karnataki BC Nagesh’s education minister said he supports a ban on the wearing of the hijab in educational institutions. Citing the state mandate for religious clothing, a subsidiary of CNN CNN News-18 says the Karnataka government is “very firm that the school is not a platform for practicing the dharma (religion).”
However, activists say the hijab brawl goes deeper than the dress code, saying it is only the last part of a larger crackdown on India’s Muslim minority since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power nearly eight years ago.
The BJP did not respond to CNN’s request for comment or allegations that it advocates Hindu nationalism and is using the hijab for political gain. When asked about the hijab controversy during a meeting with journalists In February, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told CNN that the matter was with the Karnataka government.
Muslim women in Mumbai protest against the Karnataka government on February 13, 2022 Source: Praful Gangurde / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
Karnataka has already enacted laws that critics say is rooted in Hindu ideology. Last year, the state banned the sale and slaughter of cows, an animal considered sacred by Hindus. It also introduced a controversial anti-conversion law that makes it difficult for interfaith couples to marry or convert to Islam or Christianity.
For Fatima, the hijab brawl is only the last step of the authorities to suppress Muslim voices.
“This movement is us who fight for our faith, identity and religious freedom,” she said. “By wearing the hijab and taking this position, we are telling the Indians that we are not going to back down.”
In one of the most striking scenes of the February stalemate, a Muslim hijab-wearing student, Muskan Khan, does exactly that. In another movie, which also became popular, Khan is accosted by men when he gets off his scooter to give his school assignment.
They invoke her, demanding that the hijab be taken off. But instead of obeying, Khan exclaims “Allahu Akbar” – which in Arabic means “God is great” – and punches the air with his fist.
Her raised fist became an icon of rebellion. In an act of solidarity, dozens of Muslim women changed their Twitter profile pictures to the silhouette of Khan’s fist raised, while her image appeared on posters and posters during demonstrations.
Ashish Bagchi is one of the many designers and artists who shared Khan-inspired illustrations on social media. His image shows her walking, head held high as saffron-colored arms – representing the Hindu right – burst into her.
The illustration by Ashish Bagchi depicts the saffron-stained arms surrounding Muskan Khan, which has become a symbol of resistance to the proposed hijab ban. Source: Ashish Bagchi
Bagchi’s personal political works, which appear on his Instagram and Twitter, present the narrative of India’s shrinking freedom.
“What really touched me was the way she stood in her place,” he said. “What stood out for me were the men who screamed and waved their saffron stole. Unfortunately, the saffron color now symbolizes a particular political ideology. “
The colorful saffron has its roots in Hinduism – one of the world’s oldest religions – and represents peace. About 80% of India’s 1.3 billion inhabitants are Indian, and this color can be seen on temple idols, tied around cows’ necks and used as street decorations at festivals.
Hindu holy men immerse themselves in the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela religious festival in Haridwar on April 12, 2021. Source: MONEY SHARMA / AFP / Getty Images
But ever since the BJP came to power with a Hindu nationalist agenda in 2014, the color has become more and more politicized. Modi and his compatriots are often seen wearing saffron clothes and accessories at election rallies, while supporters waving a party flag (which is mostly saffron) or other similar colors.
“The appropriation of saffron is a way of signaling that the party is not only political but deeply rooted in religion,” said Gilles Verniers, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, India, in a telephone interview.
A crowd at a rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 3, 2019 in Calcutta, India. Source: Atul Loke / Getty Images
“Color serves the purpose of the” uniform “and gives BJP supporters a feeling of unity and commonality.”
Yogi Adityanath of BJP, the chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, is one of the high-profile figures who are almost always seen dressed from head to toe in this color. Perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in Indian politics, Adityanath – a former Hindu priest – is known for his provocative rhetoric against Muslims.
Yogi Adityanath at the inauguration of Awadh Shilpgram Cultural Center and Marketplace in Lucknow, India, March 19, 2021. Source: T. Narayan / Bloomberg / Getty Images
And while not every Hindu wearing this color is an advocate of Hindu nationalism, when saffron-clad politicians speak out against the country’s minorities, historian Aditya Mukherjee encourages far-right groups to do the same, according to historian Aditya Mukherjee.
“The religious symbolism used by the Hindu right today is a complete reversal of what Indian culture is. They gave the color a different meaning, ”said Mukherjee.
“This is not what the Hindu religion represents. And it is certainly not an organic feeling that comes from many Indian Indians.
“This is a very scary moment for India,” he added, referring to how extremists brutally attacked Muslims.
Perhaps symbolic, as saffron becomes an increasingly common sight in public life, the status of the hijab in India has been questioned. The Karnataka Supreme Court has concluded deliberations on whether schools can ban headscarves or not, and a ruling is pending soon. In the meantime, she continues to have a temporary injunction prohibiting all religious dress in educational establishments with a dress code or uniform in force.
For the Fatima activist, removing the hijab is “like asking our women to undress.”
“This is extremely disturbing. It’s unethical, “she said, adding that it was impossible to” silence “the rising Hindu right.
“The opportunities we as Muslims have to claim justice are very few. Muslim women have it worse. We are not privileged to remain silent. We will strengthen our identity even more. ”
Top image caption: Students and activists hold banners while shouting slogans during demonstrations in Karnataka after Muslim students were told not to wear the hijab in schools.