Samhitha S Shetty, a student of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) College Udupi does pooja, each morning, of the tulsi sapling planted outside her home. She also has a favourite Krishna idol that stands tall inside a modest showcase at her house in Udupi. But, the 16-year-old, who is a practicing Hindu, is opposed to the ‘saffron shawl’ protests that have rocked Karnataka over the past few weeks.
The kesari (saffron) protests were held by a section of students to violate Muslim women’s right to wear hijab, she believes. Samhitha Shetty could be one of the first Hindu students from Karnataka to speak out against the 'saffron shawl' protests.
Shetty told The Quint, “The students who are protesting against hijab started wearing the kesari shawls only recently, from just a few days ago. The Muslim students, including my Muslim friends, have been wearing the hijab since several years. I won’t support the saffron shawl protests.” Shetty said, “I support the Muslim girls’ right to wear hijab.”
On 10 February, Karnataka High Court passed an interim order banning all religious clothing in the state’s colleges. The order is likely to hit Muslim women students the most as they will have to choose between hijab and education. The next hearing of the case is posted for 14 February.
MGM College, where Shetty studies, had witnessed massive protests against hijab, with male students in saffron turbans and shawls, attempting to disrupt classes on 8 February.
Owing to widespread tension prevailing in educational institutions across Karnataka, the state government has closed down colleges for three days. The colleges are likely to reopen on 12 February.
‘Scared of Saffron Protests, Not Scared of Supporting Muslim Women’
When The Quint met Shetty, the student of commerce was doing her math homework, sitting casually at her study table. The soft-spoken student took a break from her studies to say, “I have a Muslim friend who is also my classmate. I saw her cry on the day she was told that she should not wear hijab to class.”
The incident happened on 8 February, when, owing to saffron shawl protest, MGM College called all hijab-wearing Muslim girls aside, to tell them that they should not attend classes in their headscarves. The students were served the government order dated 5 February which said that clothes worn to colleges should not disrupt “public order.”
Shetty’s friend, a Muslim student, was among those who were asked to leave the college. The two teenagers are neighbours and usually return to their homes together, after classes. “She told me that she will not walk with me anymore, because teachers may start hating me for supporting her. I was shocked to hear this,” Shetty said.
Shetty told the girl that she will continue to be her friend. “I told her I am not scared of supporting her because I knew, somewhere, that I am right.” Sama and Shetty are still in touch over the holidays. Sama was, however, not available for comment.
Samhitha Shetty, however, told The Quint that she was scared of seeing the saffron shawl protesters raising religious slogans. “I thought they would come to blows and that the tension would continue for long. I was literally shivering when the protest started outside the gate of the college.”
‘Classmates Torn Apart, But Constitution Should be Upheld’
Samhitha Shetty said that her friend Sama was particularly hurt by the conduct of a male student who walked into the classroom wearing a teeka or vermillion. “That boy used take help from Sama during exams. But in teeka he was opposing her.”
The students in her class are all torn in different directions, she said. One of the Hindu students had told Shetty that she too would join the saffron protestors. In the first week of February, women students of a nearby college, Bhandarkars, had worn saffron shawls to classes, triggering a ban on Muslim students wearing hijab.
“I told my Hindu friend that I will not join the saffron protests. I will stand with the Muslim girls,” Shetty said.
Shetty’s contention has been that the country’s constitution upholds the right to religion. "Right to religion is a fundamental right. I wish to tell the saffron protesters to please stop the protest so that Muslim women can wear hijab. They should not oppose other people’s rights.”
Samhitha Shetty also feels that the atmosphere in her college has become intolerant. “I was even scared to go near the college.” Karnataka colleges are expected to reopen on Monday, 14 February.
Shetty, however, said that she cannot wait to get back to studies. She likes math and has thought of going for B Com after her Pre-University course.
“I want things to become normal. But I also think that Muslim girls of my college should be allowed to return to their classes in hijab.”
Shetty said that she will stand by her motto, “unity in variety,” which is a different take on the oft repeated phrase on India’s pluralism, 'unity in diversity'.
For her Muslim friend, Shetty has a message: “I will always support your right to wear hijab. If you don’t have a problem with hijab, neither should anyone else.”