First and foremost, we would like to clearly state that the right to wear the hijab (or not) should rest with Muslim women. That choice should solely be their prerogative. This should be the beginning and end of any intellectual discussion on the use of the veil in schools, colleges or any other public space.

The current campaign against Muslim college-going students wearing the hijab first began last month at a single college located in the coastal Karnataka district of Udupi. Then, another college in Kundapur in the same district stopped a group of veiled students from entering its premises. The pushback, laced with physical intimidation and sectarian sloganeering, is now gradually snowballing into a larger movement against the donning of hijab in educational institutions.

What was a non-issue (or in some places, nothing more than a subterranean issue) till just a few weeks prior, has now become a national emergency. The matter has reached the Karnataka High Court, which has now ordered students to refrain from wearing the hijab (alongside other religious articles of clothing) in classrooms.

It is crucial to understand how the Hindutva forces are framing this offensive against the hijab. When we do that, we might also begin to make sense of why so many liberals, instead of pushing back against the right-wing tirade, are partaking in this show of majoritarian might. The whole issue then becomes a prism into the overwhelming cultural majoritarianism of Narendra Modi’s India that is strengthening the roots of anti-minority thought with great success.

Hindutva turns secular

There is a certain duality in how the Hindutva ecosystem is pushing the anti-hijab discourse into the mainstream. On the streets of Karnataka, the pushback, led mostly by young Hindu students, is awash with overtly sectarian hues. The provocateurs have come out wearing saffron stoles and are chanting “Jai Shree Ram.” There are visuals of one mob hoisting the saffron flag on a pole meant for the tricolour in a college in Shimoga.

On the other hand, pro-Hindutva commentators who inhabit primetime TV debates or premium newspaper columns are taking an ostensibly progressive route, arguing that educational institutes should be free from all religious symbolism or that the hijab is anti-women or both. It is an altogether different story that these commentators have never taken issue with the overt Hinduisation of the Indian polity by the Modi government. This mixed approach is deliberate, as it is designed to provide broader appeal to an otherwise narrow and partisan argument.

The sudden support of a section of the Hindutva commentariat for secular ethos on the prohibition of religious symbolism in public spaces may look like an adapted version of French secularism – or laïcité – that propagates a clean break between the state and the religion.

In reality, it is Hindutva sloppily co-opting a more recent version of laïcité, largely pioneered by the government of President Emmanuel Macron, which not-so-subtly targets French Muslims (particularly Muslim immigrants) in the name of secularism. In fact, of late, the Hindutva camp has come about to admire Macron for his new right-wing posture and his hard talk on “jihadis” and “illegal immigrants”.

Thus, beneath this seemingly secular pushback against the hijab, lies a sinister single-point agenda: erase the Muslim way of life from public space. In any case, it is a no-brainer that Hindutva is literally about anything but secularism, at least in the traditional sense of the idea of laïcité. It is a movement that brings religion and politics together in a profoundly spectacular way.

From the prime minister leading grand temple inaugurations to chief ministers routinely participating in public Hindu rituals, the ruling political class in India today has become unambiguous about its religious leanings in a way that the secular constitution has started to look like a caged bird. To even point out the irony of Hindutva cheerleaders making a secular argument about the hijab would be awfully trite.

Thus, in today’s India, any rhetoric against Muslim symbols, including artefacts of clothing, cannot be seen through universalistic moral lenses. They have to be placed within the politics of Hindu nationalism and cultural majoritarianism that has direct sanction from the ruling party.

In any case, there is no prohibition of religious symbols in public places in India – a basic constitutional norm that seems to have eluded even the Karnataka High Court bench that has placed a moratorium on the hijab in classrooms. In the absence of such limits set by the state, students are free to wear them anywhere.

Like with any public space, particularly schools or universities, children and students should be given a way to represent themselves ideologically, religiously and politically. Is limiting the right to choose, clothes or otherwise, not a gross violation of one’s fundamental rights and ways of belonging to India?

Asking Muslims to remove or not wear the hijab seriously limits the public space for Muslims. One does not achieve any neutrality by removing the veil, only inequality and unfreedom. Schools and universities, above all, cannot and should not become neutral spaces where cultural and religious symbols are not tolerated. Otherwise, the democratic values of citizenship will be further undermined for India’s minorities.

Liberal complicity

This anti-hijab politics is communal and sexist. We often hear both populists and liberals say that the veil signifies the domination and patriarchy of women in Muslim society. That may be so and we ought to address it in some way. But, it is crucial to note who is making that argument in what context.

French philosopher, Etienne Balibar, argues that Europeans using the veil to project oppression of women is an instrumental use. This instrumentalisation is used as an additional means to attack the entire Muslim community in situations where they are already discriminated against. In this instrumentalisation, Muslim women are doubly stigmatised – first as women and then as Muslims. In most cases, such rhetoric is deployed by a majority that chooses to remain silent about the ills of its own social realm.

It is this aspect of anti-Muslim instrumentalisation that continues to elude a section of the Indian liberal class who have sleepwalked into the anti-hijab trap laid by the Hindutva camp.

The sudden and rapid escalation of a non-issue like the hijab into a matter of national concern, that too by show of force, suggests an insidious and systematic attempt to de-Muslimise Indian Muslims through a mix of violent intimidation and socio-legal morality is underway. So, the anti-hijab argument today is being made in a predominantly sectarian context by a group of people who are avowedly anti-secular and have full sanction from the state.

Yet, we see many liberal voices speaking outside of this critical context, framing the whole thing as a symmetric battle between two equal sides. What this does is decenter the issue from cultural majoritarianism to competitive communalism, further legitimising the Hindutva agenda.

For instance, renowned TV news journalist, Rajdeep Sardesai, while condemning the “brazen street thuggery backed by a partisan state”, noted that “there are fundamentalists in every religion who want to trap us in a war of religious symbols”. Journalist, Sagarika Ghose, made a similar observation while tweeting out pictures of her book Why I Am A Liberal. Social activist, Shabnam Hashmi, tweeted that she refuses to become a “a pawn between the Hindu Right and the Muslim Right”.

Further, the manner in which the “progressive” anti-hijab argument is being framed by these liberals has a civilising tenor to it, much like the colonial argument on non-Western societies. This is especially true for liberals from the majority community who see themselves as social reformers of minorities and prophets of modernity, no matter what the context is. They share a common urge with the mainstream Hindutva cabal to “liberate” Muslim women, be it from the clutches of the veil or triple talaq.

“It is distressing that the hijab-saffron scarf row in Karnataka is forcing even the well-meaning voices of modernity and liberalism to defend the regressive practice of covering up young women,” wrote noted journalist, Shekhar Gupta, in his “50 Word Edit” on ThePrint.

Tavleen Singh, a columnist at The Indian Express, finds it “absurd that Indian women should be demanding the right to wear a hijab”. Notably, many liberal voices are recirculating a series of tweets from 2018 by Ramachandra Guha, which quote Dr BR Ambedkar on how the “compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women” is a “social evil” that goes beyond the social evils of even the Hindu community. In a March 2018 column for The Indian Express, Guha had compared the burqa with the trishul (Hindu trident) and argued that it “represents the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of the faith”.

This sort of hyperbolic condemnation of the burqa, niqab or hijab comes from a certain sense of moral superiority that is very much an attendant element of modern liberal thought. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong in a liberal critique of patriarchal social norms, but when offered within an asymmetrical context of majoritarianism, such as in today’s India, it ends up being used as a stick to school Muslims, especially women.

Thus, borrowing certain liberal critiques from the past – such as Guha’s reference to Ambedkar or reformist thinker, Hamid Dalwai – to explain the current context is not just unhelpful, but also damaging. They introduce a veil of neutrality in an environment that is anything but neutral.

Straightjacketing Muslimness

Further, this sweeping criticism of the hijab by “modern liberals” flows from a very essentialised view of Muslims and Muslimness, wherein only a certain template of being Muslim becomes acceptable in the mainstream discourse.

This view operates on an Orientalist binary of a “good versus bad Muslim” in which wearing the hijab is seen as necessarily bad and anti-progress while eschewing it is seen as “modern” or “forward-looking”. This liberal straightjacket obfuscates the many different ways of interpreting the hijab, especially from the vantage point of a Muslim woman who wears it voluntarily.

As one young Muslim graduate, Sania Mariam, wrote in response to Guha, such a schematic view of the hijab comes from an “absolute non-engagement with the various facets of Muslim-ness, and the denial to acknowledge the myriad ways of living within the Muslim community”.

In essence, motives of veiling vary, and they may not just be an expression of someone’s religion and politics. For instance, during the Spanish flu spread in San Francisco, the Turkish yashmak veil was also used as a mask by the general population. Writing about Bedouin society, anthropologist Lela Abu Lughod reminded us that veiling is “voluntary and situational.” It can communicate a degree of social comfort, depending on how it is manipulated when worn. It is also the most “visible act of modest deference”, Abu-Lughod tells us.

However astonishing this concurrence of liberal thought with a sectarian agenda might look like, it is not ahistorical. Both fascist and liberal politics have in the past shared an organic relationship with authoritarian politics.

One might recall the letter written by Italian philosopher and one of the earliest fascist intellectuals, Gentile Geovanni, to Benitto Mussolini, which German-American philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, uses to show the organic relationship between liberal social theory and authoritarian states.

Geovanni wrote:

“[...] liberalism as I understand it, the liberalism of freedom through law and therefore through a strong state, through the state as ethical reality, is represented in Italy today not by the liberals…but to the contrary by you yourselves. Hence, I have satisfied myself that in the choice between the liberalism of today and the fascists, who understand the faith of your fascism, a genuine liberal, who despises equivocation and wants to stand to his post, must enroll in the legions of your followers.”  

Thus, we need a new popular liberal discourse that does not always rely on universal moral codes, and instead understands the context of who is shaping those codes and in what manner they are being introduced into mainstream society. Otherwise, we will continue to regress into a culture of majoritarian practice that closes the walls around minorities from all sides.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi, and a former visiting fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.

Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral scholar at the National University of Singapore.