Did the ‘saffron shawl’ protests get support from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka? It did, as the first public representative to back the protesters was Kundapur’s BJP MLA Halady Srinivas Shetty. But could the MLA have acted differently to ease tensions instead?
Just 90 kilometers away, in Koppa taluk in Sringeri constituency, the saffron shawl protests started, spluttered and stopped. Simply because the local MLA chose to act differently. Koppa saw Indian National Congress MLA TD Raje Gowda put up a front to stop the protests.
A look at the approach taken by two MLAs, of two different political parties, reveal how the saffron protests, which eventually spread to several colleges and schools in Karnataka, preventing Muslim women students from wearing the hijab in classrooms, could have been nipped in the bud.
The series of events that unfolded in Kundapur and Koppa also reveal the political reasons for the saffron protests to have continued unchallenged.
How the BJP MLA Reacted
Here’s how the BJP’s Srinivas Shetty handled the saffron protests in the first week of February this year.
A month after six young women students of Government PU College for Girls, Udupi, demanded that they be allowed to wear hijab in classroom, a bunch of young male students of Government PU College, Kundapur staged a protest wearing saffron shawls on 2 February. The protests were reportedly supported by Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a rightwing outfit.
The college was about 37 kilometers away from Udupi, where the protest for hijab was ongoing.
In Kundapur, college principal BG Ramakrishna informed the chairman of the institution, MLA Halady Srinivas Shetty, of the turn of events.
“A meeting was called to resolve the issue,” Ramakrishna told The Quint. The meeting was held on 3 February, by which time the saffron protesters had grown in numbers.
In the meeting, Srinivas Shetty, who has been five-time MLA in Kundapur, asked the protesters what their demands were. He followed what Udupi MLA Raghupathi Bhat had already done – prevent women wearing hijab from attending classes.
“The protesters told Shetty that they will continue to wear saffron shawls if the women wear hijab. The MLA, within minutes, told the college administration to disallow the girls from wearing the hijab,” a source who had attended the meeting, said.
The resolution of the meeting was communicated to district education officers. The Deputy Director of Public Instruction’s office communicated that hijab will be banned inside college from 3 February. The hijab-wearing students were left to protest outside the college on 3 and 4 February.
In the meanwhile, the protests spread to 13 other colleges, all under the purview of MLA Shetty. Shetty called for a second meeting on 5 February, where the saffron protesters raised their demand for a ban on hijab.
“The second meeting was attended by student outfits too. The MLA communicated that he will stick to his earlier decision of banning both hijab and saffron shawls,” the source said.
This, despite most of Kundapur’s colleges having been allowing Muslim women to wear hijab till the beginning of February. On 5 February, the Karnataka government issued an order which banned clothing which can disrupt "public order."
The source said that Hindu rightwing outfit Hindu Janajagruti Samti’s representatives had openly back the saffron shawl protests in the second meeting, even as MLA Shetty made no effort to stop them.
On the contrary, affected Muslim women students were not called to attend the meeting, as only their parents and representatives of Campus Front of India, a Muslim student outfit, were allowed to talk.
When contacted Srinivas Shetty was not available for comment.
In stark contrast with Shetty's actions, in Koppa taluk of Sringeri constituency, MLA TD Rajegowda called a meeting as soon as the saffron shawl protests started in the first week of January. The protests first broke out in a Government Degree College, that came under his purview.
How the Congress MLA Reacted
TD Raje Gowda was in Bengaluru, when he first heard of the saffron shawl protests in Government Degree College, Koppa. He rushed back to his constituency the same night, on 9 January, he said. By then, the protests had reached even Government PU College in Koppa.
The MLA, who was also the chairman of the College Development Committee, called a meeting with the authorities including principals of both the colleges.
He later called a meeting with all concerned parties including the students wearing hijab and the saffron shawl protesters. Parents of all the students were also called.
In the meeting, the MLA referred to essential religious practices of different communities. “I told them that it is customary for Muslim women and even some Hindu women to cover their heads with scarves. It is not customary for Hindu men to wear saffron shawls, except in some communities, like pandits” MLA Raje Gowda told The Quint. The parents agreed with the MLA’s observation. He later told students who were wearing saffron shawls not to wear the same.
The MLA took the support of district police officials to communicate the sensitivity of the situation at hand. “The police officials also told the students to avoid confrontation,” he said.
But what drove home the message was what the MLA did next; he allowed Marwadi Hindu women to cover their head with scarves.
“The Marwadi women students of different colleges have been wearing headscarves. I agreed to let them continue the custom. I also told the Muslim women students that they could cover their heads. Only the saffron shawls were not allowed,” the MLA said. Raje Gowda also did not allow Hindu rightwing outfits to stick to their stand.
To put an end to the controversy, he called three faculty members who had allegedly supported the saffron shawl protests.
“I came to know that the faculty members were instigating the students at the behest of some outfits. I told them not to do it. They complied when I called them out,” Gowda said.
In Sringeri, the saffron protests did not resume in February, even as students in colleges of Kundapur and Udupi staged such protests. “Sringeri has a history of religious tolerance. I asked the parents and students to think about it,” Raje Gowda said.
Could active involvement of the ruling BJP’s MLAs, in constituencies including Udupi and Kundapur, have stopped the standoff between saffron protesters and hijab-wearing women?
“The MLAs could have helped preserve communal harmony. In this case, it was not done,” said Amrith Shenoy who runs Sahabalve, an organisation upholding peaceful coexistence between communities. Shenoy has also been associated with the Congress.
Why Did the MLAs Act Differently?
MLA Raje Gowda said that he was not worried about losing the support of Hindu voters. "I stood with justice and I told the people involved that they need to uphold constitutional values," he said. However, the MLA who had lost the last term to the BJP, did worry that trouble broke out in his constituency in an election year.
According to Gowda, only communal divide would affect his votes. "I stopped the divide by appealing to both the communities. I did not differentiate between anyone. If peace remains in the constituency, I will come back to power again," he said.
Meaning, the MLA thought that Congress' win can be ensured if he manages to rein in communal tensions.
On the other hand, Kundapur MLA's electoral calculations were different. He was aware that the demand for hijab was also being raised by the Campus Front of India, the student outfit of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), a Muslim political outfit.
"In Kundapur, Halady's hold cannot be challenged because he has the backing of Hindu rightwing outfits and those who support them in principle. He listened to the demand of saffron shawl protestors because he could not have antagonised them, by favouring what was seen as a demand from SDPI," a source close to the BJP said.
That is, as Legislative Assembly elections are expected to be held in 2023, BJP's Srinivas Shetty did not want to distance himself from Hindu voters. If political calculations were different for the BJP MLA, could the saffron shawl protests have stopped right at the start?
Should the Congress, which is often blamed for not confronting hindutva directly, constantly uphold communal harmony to win elections in Karnataka? After all, it worked for MLA TD Raje Gowda who went an extra mile to prevent untoward incidents in his constituency, even as saffron protests raged in surrounding districts.
On 14 February, Congress legislators, including Leader of Opposition Siddaramaiah held a protest against rising communal tensions in Karnataka by wearing black bands on their arms.