In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, a lone girl walking to her college was harassed by a group of belligerent young men. The girl was on her way to submit an assignment and most of the young men chasing her were not from her college, according to her. She was wearing a hijab and a facemask. The boys were wearing saffron scarves, en vogue in BJP circles, and a large majority were not wearing masks. They were shouting Jai Shri Ram with seemingly no purpose other than wanting to intimidate the girl and prevent her from going to campus. After calmly walking for a few steps, with the crowd of men snapping at her heels, Bibi Muskan Khan pulled down her mask and shouted Allahu Akbar in response to their slogans.
A Concerted Effort to Dehumanise Muslims
The Karnataka government had issued a notice saying that students will have to follow dress code norms prescribed by their colleges. Following this, there have been discussions about the centrality of the hijab to Islam, debates about the constitutional freedom of choice, and arguments about college uniform policies. And at the periphery of all these exchanges, in somewhat hushed tones, there is talk of another issue: the consistent and systematic way in which Muslims in India are being dehumanised.
Just recently, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Pravin Togadia issued a statement saying buses in Gujarat should not stop at food stalls owned by Muslims. Some time ago, apps called Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals were created to auction Muslim women online, and in December 2021, a conclave was held that saw open calls for the genocide of Muslims. The main thrust of incidents such as these is to pressurise Muslims to retreat from and become invisible in public spaces. Of course, anyone who knows anything about psychology knows that such pressure from the outside only engenders the opposite reaction and leads to a conservative turn inwards.
When SRK Was Attacked For Offering 'Dua'
Just as the hijab controversy was taking off in Karnataka, another incident happened in Mumbai. During the last rites of Lata Mangeshkar, Shah Rukh Khan raised his cupped hands in dua and whispered a prayer. Like Bibi Muskan Khan, he, too, pulled down his mask and blew a prayer towards Lata Mangeshkar. Thousands of social media users immediately used that 10-second video to claim that Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim, was spitting on Lata Mangeshkar, a Hindu.
Despite the absurdity of this distortion, the theory thrived in enough right-wing spaces to warrant articles and clips ‘explaining’ that Muslims often pray with their hands cupped and then blow the prayer outwards in keeping with the Sunnah, or the practice of the Prophet.
What emerges then are two things. First, there is pressure on Muslims to not appear Muslim in public spaces. A middle-class hijab-clad student, in other words, someone who is conspicuously Muslim and who is on the threshold of preparing for her life and its challenges, is targeted in the same way as an elite Muslim, whose religious identity remains otherwise inconspicuous, were it not for his raising his hands to do dua.
Second, it is noteworthy that when it comes to Muslim religious practice, even those who are sympathetic get caught up in the merits or demerits of hijab as a practice rather than focusing on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom that every Indian has the right to wear what they want. Even amongst Muslims, those who identify as progressive, moderate or modern are quick to condemn this ‘orthodox’ practice in the same breath as condemning the persecution of Muslims.
Fighting As a Muslim
A number of people, including some Muslims, raised objections to Muskan Bibi saying “Allahu Akbar” in reply to the chants of “Jai Shri Ram”. It would follow that they should logically also condemn Shah Rukh Khan’s gesture of doing a dua with cupped hands.
After all, why should a word be more offensive than a gesture? Why should a Muslim not speak as a Muslim when they are persecuted or targeted because of their religion? Surely, the burden of secularism must be borne equally by all citizens.
It is worth recalling that when there was an effort to make Germany Judenrein, ie, purified and free from Jews, many Jews declared atheism or converted to Christianity in an effort to appear more German. This was happening in the 19th century, much before the rise of the Third Reich. However, in the end, they were still targeted as Jews. Hannah Arendt makes an important point when she states: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.” Bibi Muskan Khan was doing just this.
Why the Timing of the Controversy Suits BJP
Following the protests against and in support of the freedom to wear hijab, the Karnataka government issued a statement saying that it has banned clothes that will "disturb equality, integrity and public order". The order said, “In the event of the administrative committee not selecting a uniform, clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn." In other words, implicit within this statement is the idea that hijab disturbs public order.
Recall, a liberal columnist a few years ago also drew a false equivalence between Muslim and Hindu religious symbols – likening the burqa to a trishul – and argued that Muslims should not attend political rallies in skullcaps and hijabs.
Conveniently, this entire controversy has arisen at a time when the BJP has been trying to inflame opinion and divide communities in Uttar Pradesh in the run-up to the election. Their efforts have largely been met with indifference.
BJP's Message to Muslims: 'Remain Silent'
Some analysts have sought to paint the ‘hijab row’ as a struggle for power between the student wings of the BJP and the Popular Front of India (PFI). However, in reducing the current events to nothing more than a political turf war between rivals, what is easily glossed over is that the BJP is operating from a position of power. After all, it was the head of a government college, who also happened to be the BJP’s sitting member of the Legislative Assembly, who first decided to ban students from wearing the hijab. In fact, it has now transpired that the saffron scarves were distributed amongst the men from a Toyota Innova, and later, a list of all the Muslim students’ contact details were leaked by the college administration.
Subsequently, in Puducherry, the authorities asked a government school to inquire into allegations against a teacher who objected to wearing headscarves in class.
The BJP dreams of an India that is uniform in terms of religion, culture, language, dress, and eventually, of course, politics. The message that is being sent across the length and breadth of the country is that Muslims who are unable to come to terms with the BJP’s vision must learn to be silent.
Muslim Women Don't Need Saving
Recently, the Prime Minister made a revealing statement in Uttar Pradesh. Addressing voters in Badaun, Rampur and Sambhal, he said, “My Muslim mothers and sisters gave me immense courage and strength. And, it was due to them that I was able to free you from this problem [of triple talaq].” Notwithstanding the criminalisation of divorce, the attitude that Muslim women need saving has also given legitimacy to increasingly brazen intolerance against Muslims.
However, Bibi Muskan Khan with her raised fists was able to show that Muslim women will fight for their rights themselves, and perhaps in the near future, they will be the ones leading the fight for the rights of all Muslims, men and women.
(The author teaches political science and history at Ashoka University and is a national spokesperson for the Samajwadi Party. He is the author of Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950 published by OUP. He tweets @Mahmudabad. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)