Winter 2016. On a local bus from Gokarna to Udupi taking a long break at Bhatkal, most of the CBS women were wearing hijab.
Local newspaper headlines that morning spoke of a certain Shafi Armar from Bhatkal as the main recruiter for ISIS in India. The atmosphere in the bus was tense. A precursory glance sufficed to see that the Hindus and the Muslims were seated separately. Only the Hindus leafed through the newspapers, lingered over the headlines and looked at Armar’s picture. Those who boarded the bus during the break fell silent. I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached Udupi.
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There were also buses that stayed at Gokarna bus stand for hours. In one case, some of the roads were blocked due to political-community riots. If I am not mistaken, a BJP worker was stabbed. What I remember clearly is a business owner in Gokarna trying to calm and reassure foreign tourists. “Don’t worry,” he told them, “here with us there are hardly any Muslims, so you are completely safe.” It seemed to me that it was only then that the tourists realized that the bus was delayed for security/political reasons, and that it was not the fault of the bus company.
He had spoken to tourists with kindness and sincere concern, but his words reminded me of an infamous slogan from the Israeli Kahanist radical right-wing protests: “No Arabs, No Terrorist Attacks”.
The history of PU College comes as no surprise to anyone who has traveled to the Karnataka coast of India. Even if one is not Indian, nor speaks a word of Tulu or Kannada.
I have an unconventional suggestion at this point. Could the intervention of the Supreme Court in the rights of Muslim persons in the Shah Bano case in the 1980s and the decision of educational institutions today to ban the wearing of the hijab be seen as a disagreement of the Hindu middle class with the status quo of Indian Muslim relations with the Indian state?
Muslim women in India, Israel or Europe do not wear the hijab as a measure of protest. Mohammed Ahmad Khan did not divorce his wife Shah Bano in protest. In contrast, the saffron protesters are indeed proactive. They protest against Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, Taana Baana and any other idea that Muslims and Hindus belong to the same cultural and national fabric in India. Opponents of the hijab wear saffron scarves to satirize the state of Indian secularism, to present secularism as a meaningless intellectual tool only meant to appease minorities at all costs. Only the Hindu majority are subject to secular personal laws and the dress code of educational institutions.
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In terms of rights-based discourse, it is much easier to defend hijab than triple talaq instant divorce. Women who wear the hijab have free will. Headgear is usually a personal decision. But as Tavleen Singh, who doesn’t need anyone’s certificate for her secular credentials, points out, personal choices are also the result of social norms that can be dangerous to the social fabric in India. I wasn’t in India in the mid 1980s, but I guess Rajiv Gandhi wouldn’t have shamefully changed the Indian constitution, overturning the Supreme Court, if he had thought that Muslim women in India intended to vote en masse for the Congress party after the adoption of the court ruling.
Ten years ago there was a case in Israel related to the current crisis. The Jewish religious soldiers left a room as soon as a woman came on stage to sing. They claimed that according to the laws of Judaism. a man is not allowed to listen to a woman singing in front of him. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate backed the soldiers, a move that created a crisis between the rabbinate and the IDF. Current Defense Minister Benny Gantz was the Chief of Staff in 2011, and the military decided not to give up. It turned out that when the secular force – the Israeli army – insisted that they were the supreme authority and not the chief rabbinate, the religious elements also had to find a solution within the framework of the law. Jewish nun, which allows soldiers to listen to women serving in mandatory military cultural events.
So, it is not the discourse of human rights or civil rights that is at the center of the debate, but the identity of India. In academia, historians can debate and provide evidence for their claims. In the public space, the present is the lens through which the past is viewed.
Those who oppose Hindutva can provide evidence that pluralism and syncretism are in fact genuine Indian legacies. That Muslims celebrated Hindu festivals, that Hindus worshiped Indian Sufi saints, that tolerant Akbar laid the foundations of modern India. We can highlight the Muslim influences on the cuisine, Indian music and architecture. The influence of Dilip Kumar on Lata Mangeshkar, and on her sister-in-law Begum Para, ambassador of liberated Indian femininity. Stories can be told of Ali Sardar Jafri, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and other Marxist Muslims who contributed to Indian culture and were devoid of religious sentiment.
But alas, these are nostalgic stories. At present, the Hindu majority, half of whom already vote for the BJP, sees a Muslim struggle over a foreign Muslim symbol. This framing gives a boost to the Hindutva theory of a united nation, in which at some point two communities decided to see themselves as outside this unity. The hijab, niqab and burqa are symbols of the Arabization of Muslims in India, and no amount of talk of personal choice can hide this fact.
Lev Aran is a former coordinator of the Israeli-Indian Parliamentary Friendship League. He is a columnist and freelance journalist based in Israel. His work has been published in Makor Rishon, Mida, Ynet MargAsia among other publications. He tweets at @LevAranlookeast. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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