The year began on a strange note for 20-year-old Saadiq Hamza. Even though he had his head down in class, on January 3, the very first day of college in 2022, he heard his classmates plan a saffron scarf protest.

Saadiq Hamza is a second-year commerce student at the Government First Grade College in Koppa, a small town with a population of about 5,000 people in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district.

Long before the rest of the state saw Hindu students don saffron-coloured scarves around their necks to protest against the hijab – the head-covering scarf worn by some of their Muslim women classmates – Koppa had its brush with the conflict.

“It started in my class only,” Saadiq Hamza said. “It was four of my own friends.”

The saffron scarf protest soon spread to the Government Pre-University college, where Saadiq Hamza’s sister, Shafa Hamza, is enrolled in Class 12. She was startled when she heard even her best friend had joined it.

“My classmates made fun of this and kept saying ‘your partner itself is against you,’” she recalled. “I did feel bad.” But later her friend explained that “she only wore the scarf because some of the boys had asked her.”

Shafa Hamza said she had grown up wearing the hijab – all the women in her family do. While the siblings were unsettled by their friends suddenly turning against a traditional practice of their community, Saadiq Hamza said he wasn’t completely surprised – such instances had taken place in the past as well.

At his college, in 2018, students had gone on a protest demanding that Muslim female students not be allowed to wear the hijab. The principal, Professor Anantha S, recalled: “One day the Hindu students turned up with saffron scarves and said they were against hijabs.”

He called for a meeting with the college development committee and the parents of the students, and it was decided that the hijab could be worn as long as it wasn’t tied or pinned. The controversy died out.

But four years later, it has resurfaced again – and this time the matter is no longer in the principal’s hands.

In the first week of February, as the saffron scarf protests snowballed, spreading to many other districts in Karnataka, the state government suspended classes in all high schools and colleges.

The Karnataka High Court heard the matter, and in an interim order on February 9, forbade all students from wearing any sort of religious attire inside the classroom while court proceedings were underway.

On February 14, as the high schools reopened, TV cameras captured images of both Muslim students and teachers removing their hijab at the gates.

Ripples of the controversy have now travelled far and wide, reaching colleges in Madhya Pradesh and Puducherry, even eliciting a range of international responses from Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, footballer Paul Pogda and the United States’ ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

But its roots lie in the Malnad region of Karnataka. Often called the “Hindutva laboratory” of the South, it has a long-running history of religious polarisation. In the 1990s, the Bababudangiri hill shrine in Chikmagalur, revered by both Hindus and Muslims, became the focal point of a Hindutva campaign that continues till this day. The wider region has often seen clashes between the two communities.

The current generation of college students has been shaped by this poisonous history. “Since the 1990s, the Sangh Parivar has been brainwashing young people, giving them a sense of importance,” said Pattabhirama Somayaji, an English lecturer who recently retired from the University of Mangaluru. “So today, they shout in the streets and nobody questions them. They beat up Muslims and nobody lifts a finger.”

The Karnataka conflict comes at a time when Hindu majoritarianism is ascendant in India. The Bharatiya Janata Party in power in both the Centre and the state. But Somayaji pointed out that the friction in the colleges might have erupted regardless. “This is the result of three decades of communalism in this region,” he said.

How the latest round of conflict began

About 100 km west of Koppa lies the coastal district of Udupi. The latest round of conflict over the hijab began at one of the government pre-university colleges in its district headquarters. (In Karnataka, colleges that teach Class 11 and 12 students are known as “pre-university”.)

Muslim students at the college claim that earlier batches had been allowed to wear the hijab. But in 2020, when they joined Class 11, they were told the rules had changed: the hijab was no longer allowed.

However, since physical classes remained on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, it was only when the Class 11 and Class 12 batches came to college in October 2021 that the conflict surfaced.

On December 28, a group of students wearing the hijab were barred from attending class. “The administration told us if we can’t follow rules then we can take a transfer from the college,” said Hazra Shifa, a Class 12 student.

As Muslim students sat in protest against the new rules, attracting media attention, the images travelled beyond Udupi and inflammed old frictions in Koppa. Hindu students at the Government First Grade College in the town began to notice that some Muslim students had taken to pinning their hijabs in violation of the rule introduced in 2018. They decided to show up in saffron scarves on January 4.

By early February, students in Kundapur, a small coastal town 40 km north of Udupi, too, were protesting in saffron scarves. Over the next week, the protests spread like wildfire. Even Karnataka districts relatively untouched by religious discord began to see skirmishes outside colleges. Capitulating to the protestors, the government shut down the colleges. The high court allowed them to reopen – but this time, minus the hijabs.

The Government First Grade College in Koppa saw a saffron scarf protest on January 4. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

From France to biryani

In the corner of Karnataka where the controversy first erupted, college students from the Hindu community marshal a range of arguments against their Muslim classmates wearing the hijab.

Some of the arguments border on the absurd.

“They talk under their scarves in the middle of the class,” claimed Prakash K, a second-year student at UPM college in Udupi. “But the teachers don’t notice them and then blame the Hindu students for talking.”

The hijab covers the head, not the face. Yet, he insisted, “My own friend was punished even though she wasn’t the one who talked.”

Prakash, whose real name has been withheld on request, like many other students in this report, stretched the argument even further: “Sometimes the scarves touch the other students and that hurts.”

In Koppa, Vinay Shivapura, a 19-year-old second year commerce student from the Government First Grade College, said with a hint of pride: “Before they started the saffron scarf protest in Udupi, we did one here. We were the first.” Explaining the rationale behind wearing saffron scarves, he said, if Muslim students can “show off a symbol of their religion, why not us? We also love our religion.”

In Kundapur, a group of Hindu students who had gathered in a public park plucked reasons for opposing the hijab from near and far. “In other countries like France, it is banned,” said Akshay P, a Class 12 student. “Why should it be allowed here?”

“It is about equality,” he added. “Everyone should look the same inside the class.”

Underlying this desire for uniformity were false beliefs about Muslims enjoying undue advantages over Hindus. “You know Hindu families are supposed to have just one or two children but Muslims are allowed to have lots of children,” said Arjun R, another student. “It is a government rule, you know?”

There is no such government rule. But the students claimed they got all their “facts” from Kannada news channels.

Praveen A pulled out his phone to show video footage purportedly aired by a Kannada news channel of biryani being distributed at a protest by the Muslim students. “How could they have gotten biryani unless they had political support?” he demanded.

Another student, Saket K, declared that there was a reason why he had not cultivated any friendships with Muslim students. “Have you seen the videos? When the girls are asked if hijab is important or studies, they say hijab. For us, education is important,” he said.

Then, echoing an argument used by Hindu supremacist groups for nearly a century, he added, “For them, their religion is more important than the country. For us, our country comes first, then religion.”

The students insisted that these weren’t just social prejudices that they had picked up from their elders – such conversations did not take place at home, not even over the dinner table, they said. “But our parents want us all to be treated equally,” Akshay said. “No special treatment for anyone.”

Overhearing the conversation, a man sitting nearby in the park, who was a few years older than the students, suddenly joined in. “They don’t allow women into dargahs but send them to college and they want us to allow the hijab,” he said.

Then, betraying signs that the resentment might also stem from economic factors, he pointed out that the Muslim students could be heard speaking English on TV news channels. Fluency in English is associated with affluence in India. “Why can’t they protest in Kannada?” he asked. The students heartily agreed.

It wasn’t just male students from the Hindu community who harboured prejudice against Muslims. A young woman from Kundapur who had participated in the saffron scarf protest echoed the same sentiments as her male counterparts – “equality”, “uniformity”, “rights”.

She admitted she did not know her Muslim classmates beyond a passing acquaintance. “If we see each other we just smile,” she said.

What stopped her from making friends with them? “It isn’t because they are Muslims or anything. At the end of the day, we are all the same. Under the burqa she is a woman and so am I,” she said. “But I’m not close with any of them.”

The distance perhaps came from the experience of growing up without any social interaction with Muslims – neither her school, nor her neighbourhood had any Muslim presence, the student conceeded.

Although her family did not usually discuss politics, the hijab controversy had become a talking point at home, she said. She felt a sense of pride when she protested against the hijab.

Living with prejudice

Among Muslim students, some are hurt by what they say is a “sudden change” in their Hindu classmates. “We love our friends. We have known some of them since school,” said Raziya K, a final year student at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college. Sulthana K, a second year student at the same college, said, “We share food and notes.”

A day before some of their Hindu classmates staged a protest against the hijab, Raziya said they had “opened their bags and asked us to look inside them.” Inside were saffron scarves, which they wore around their necks the next day, February 8, shouting “Jai Shri Ram” and “Vande Mataram” at the gates of the college.

“We just shouted back ‘we want justice,’” Raziya said.

But not everyone was taken aback by the turn of events.

In Koppa, Sadiq Hamza said he frequently encountered the prejudice that his Hindu friends carried against his community. “Even the teachers target us often. They are always scolding us and no matter what mischief the others are up to, if we do the slightest thing, we will face hell,” he said.

Often, his Muslim peers had to contend with violence, he claimed. “Once a Muslim student’s shoulder brushed against a Hindu student and the Muslim student was beaten up.”

He added, “I don’t know why I even joined college. It is very frustrating for me.”

In Udupi, Shifa and her friend, Aliya Assadi, said they were infuriated when one of their own friends complained to the authorities that the students were getting disturbed by the Muslim students protesting against the hijab ban.

“We are the ones sitting outside class and missing lectures, with our board exams in two months. How did she become the one who was suffering?” Assadi asked. “We don’t even sit near the class, we sit far away and mind our own business but she had the audacity to complain about us.”

For Shifa, who is in the science stream, missing classes also meant missing the practicals. “You think I can afford to buy laboratory equipment and do experiments at home?” she asked.

Hazra Shifa and her friend Aliya Assadi are among the Muslim students who were denied college entry in December because they insisted on wearing the hijab. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

The role of politics

Despite the history of religious discord in the region, college teachers say the scale of the current controversy caught them off guard.

“We have never encountered such a problem before,” said a teacher at one of the colleges in Udupi, who wished to remain anonymous. “Students would remove their burqa at the ladies room on campus and then wear the scarf, which was the same colour as the school uniform.”

The backlash to the hijab came as a surprise. “There is no student politics on campus, there is only the student welfare committee that the teachers themselves select,” the college teacher said.

But the bus stand right outside the college was splattered with graffiti of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the right-wing student group affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, as well as the Campus Front of India, the student outfit of the Popular Front of India, which espouses a hardline version of Islamist politics.

In fact, according to a report in the Indian Express, the political rivalry between the two groups may have played a role in fanning the controversy in Udupi. Another report in the Newsminute suggested the involvement of the Hindu Jagran Vedike in mobilising the saffron scarf protests in the district.

In Koppa, Subhash Gowda, a 23-year-old alumnus from the Government First Grade College, who is now the district convenor of the ABVP, said that since 2018, the group has mobilised for a hijab ban every now and then. But he claimed the saffron scarf protest this year was organised by the students themselves and that the ABVP played no role in it.

One of the students who participated in the saffron scarf protest in Udupi claimed outsiders had played no role in the protest. But he added that later this month, students planned to inaugurate an ABVP committee on the campus.

Many have also pointed out that the contrast between Koppa – where the controversy was quelled – and Udupi – where it got inflamed – stemmed from the political affiliations of the local representatives.

Udupi has elected Raghupathi Bhat of the BJP as its member of the legislative assembly, while Koppa comes under the Sringeri constituency where the MLA is a Congress politician, TD Raje Gowda. The saffron scarf protestors said that as the head of the College Development Committee, Gowda managed to bring back the no “pinning” hijab rule in a meeting with the parents.

But in Udupi, Muslim students blamed Bhat, who is a the chairperson of a similar committee in Udupi , of making a “campus” issue into a national one. He had accused them of acting at the behest of hardline Islamist groups and demanded a probe by the National Investigation Agency into their activities.

Academic Pattabhirama Somayaji said the rising influence of Muslim groups in the region was understandable. “Since the Sangh Parivar has been getting stronger over the last few decades, it is only normal that the Muslims also decide to organise themselves and start to speak up for their community,” he said.

He added that he had noticed more women from the Muslim community were now seeking college education, and perhaps their visibility had unsettled the Sangh.

Writer K Phaniraj said the sight of more women students in hijab was a positive sign as this only went to show that more Muslim families were sending their daughters to study. “It is a co-incidence that at a time when more women are being allowed to pursue an education, at the same time the Sangh is trying to criminalise Muslim women,” he said.

Phaniraj, who has observed and documented what he called the “rise and rise of Hindutva” in coastal Karnataka, added that “since the 1990s, every decade, the Sangh has found a new way to criminalise the daily lives of Muslims.”

In 2010, when the BJP was in power, the state had passed an anti-cow slaughter law that affected the livelihoods of Muslims engaged in the cattle trade. More recently, the party has championed a law against interfaith marriages by alleging that Muslim men were trapping Hindu women through “love jihad” with the aim of converting them to Islam. The ban on hijabs is the latest salvo by the Sangh parivar, Phaniraj pointed out.

“It’s like a web series – this is season three,” he said.

The future of friendship

For now, all attention is on the Karnataka High Court, which continued to hear arguments for and against the hijab on Monday.

The principal in Koppa, Anantha S, who had quietly resolved the hijab dispute in his college in 2018, as well as diffused the saffron scarf protest in early January, said he is bound to do whatever the court decides. “I am a government servant. I will do whatever is asked of me,” he said. “Harmony should be maintained, that’s all.”

Students from both the communities professed complete faith in the judiciary which they said would safeguard their constitutional rights. Assadi said she is very hopeful. “I know that the court will ensure that we are given our rights, we are eagerly awaiting the verdict,” she said.

The Kundapur students who protested against the hijab also said that they would respect the verdict. Gowda, the ABVP representative, said that like the Ram Mandir verdict, he is sure that justice will prevail. “We will accept whatever the court decides,” he said.

Sixteen-year-old Shafa Hamza is more concerned about her friendship with her Hindu classmate. “Since the first day she has been my friend. We are always hand in hand. Even her mother is so fond of me,” she said, with a smile.

For now, she is hopeful that their friendship will survive the current upheaval.

“We are all the same at the end of the day. Sometimes people are affected by politics and they take it out on us,” Shafa Hamza said. “My friend also told me that nothing could ever threaten our friendship and that we would be friends forever.”