The hijab has offended secularist projects for a long time. De-hijabing was a key feature of Turkish statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s imagination of a secular nation a century ago. The secular project of the French government, too, has run into conflict with the hijab several times.

But the dominance of the ideas of multiculturalism and liberalism around the world now runs contrary to attempts at both coercive religiosity and secularisation. The decision of the American Congress to lift the ban on headwear on the House floor in January 2019 to accommodate the first-ever hijab-wearing Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and the popularity of the anti-hijab protests in Iran also subscribe to this trend.

In India, the reverse is happening. The hijab did not face a legal ban, except for the case that originated in Karnataka. In February last year, the Karnataka education department passed an order barring students from wearing the hijab to class.

The order was issued after students affiliated with Hindutva organisations began wearing saffron scarves to protest against what they claimed was an exemption beyond the prescribed dress code by allowing Muslim students to wear hijabs.

The students claimed that permission to wear the hijab demeaned the idea of uniform dressing. This episode, yet again, brought to the fore the debate on religion, state and secularism.

In October, the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on the appeal filed by students against the Karnataka High Court order upholding the ban on the hijab. The apex court suggested that a larger bench could hear the matter.

Post-colonial identity

The debate on the hijab ban cannot be limited to the merits and demerits of secularisation, but must be placed within the context of the formation of India’s post-colonial national identity. It is not only about the relationship of the state with religion or its place in the public sphere. This is because religion and religious identity and symbols are very visible in the state practices and the public sphere.

Then why does the hijab, a religious symbol, disturb secularism and uniformity?

This requires a historical analysis of the development of ideas relating to secularism about Muslims in post-colonial India. The conditions of being secular in the case of Muslims were related to the formation of national identity. This means that the discourse on secularism in post-colonial India differed according to the different imaginations of India.

During the initial years after Independence, elites from the Congress urged Muslims to abandon Muslim politics as a condition for being loyal and secular Indians. They argued that it was because of the reluctance of Muslims to stand with secular parties (that is, the Congress) and their decision to form a separate political platform that India had been partitioned. The continuation of Muslim politics, thus, was perceived as potential separatism and a threat to national identity.

What, then, could Muslims they do with their religion while being Indians? The national elite suggested limiting it to the religious and cultural sphere. Muslim leaders, including those from the now-defunct All India Muslim League, were at the forefront of denouncing Muslim politics.

For instance, the Jamiat Ulema Hind, a prominent organisation of Islamic scholars, adopted a resolution at its annual meeting on April 19, 1949, to “concentrate on the religious and cultural uplift of the Muslim masses of India” while attempting to be identified as a non-political body. In 1955, the organisation decided to give up on politics.

A couple leaves after voting at a polling station in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in March last year. Credit: Reuters.

The majority of Muslims subscribed to this condition of being an Indian in the changed political situation. As a result, efforts to form separate Muslim political platforms failed. It also meant that secularising Muslims was a political project for the Congress and that their religiosity in the cultural and religious sphere would not conflict with Congress’s imagination of the nation.

This separation between the political and non-political in the project to secularise Muslims was opposed by two ideological opponents of the Congress. First, Muslim leaders, especially those who had been part of the All India Muslim League, proposed the continuation of the party in a new form. They advocated that an exclusive political platform for Muslims did not contradict secularism and Indian nation-building.

According to these leaders, such a platform was needed to raise questions concerning Muslims in post-colonial India, and that a separation between politics and religion was not possible. An exclusive political grouping based on religious identity is anti-secular only when it harms the interests of other communities, they contended. Muhammad Ismail, who was at the forefront politically organising Muslims, spearheaded the formation of the Indian Union Muslim League in 1948.

The second opposition was to the proponents of Indianisation. Indianisation is a demand to reduce the distinctiveness of Muslims and assimilate them with “Indian” culture and ethos. It was an ideology proposed by the Jan Sangh and its leaders.

According to Balraj Madhok, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and later the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Indianisation was the solution to the country’s communal problems. It meant the project of secularising Muslims could not be limited to political levels but needed to be extended to all other aspects of their lives. It also implied that being Indian was not natural to Muslims but something they needed to acquire through the process of “Indianisation”.

The Congress opposed the Indianisation ideology, but eventually, it blurred the separation between the political and the non-political. The efforts of the Congress to extend the secularising project to other aspects of Muslim life, such as education and civil laws, drew strong protests.

The Congress found it more challenging to “secularise” the non-political affairs of Muslims than it did to fulfil the party’s goal of ending Muslim politics altogether.

For instance, the party’s policies to secularise the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi created long-lasting resentment among Muslims. The ideological split within the party during the Shah Bano case, the protest to protect Sharia law and the Congress government’s decision to enact the Muslim Women (Protection Of Rights On Divorce) Act, 1986, shortly after showed the reluctance of Muslims to surrender cultural and religious symbols.

The case dated back to 1978, when Shah Bano, an elderly woman who had been divorced by her husband, moved the court seeking alimony. The Supreme Court ruled in her favour under civil law in 1985, but the verdict drew protests over the applicability of personal laws of religious groups. Conservative Muslim groups saw the ruling as encroaching on their personal laws.

‘Secularising’ Muslims

But with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the dominance of exclusive or preferential claims on Indian identity and territory, the status quo began changing. The project of “secularising” Muslims was expanded to several other aspects of their lives. “Indianising” Muslims became central to the discourse of secularism.

It has meant that the changed imagination of a national identity has a widespread effect on defining secularism today. It is in this situation that the hijab is perceived as a threat to uniformity and secularism.

The opposition to the hijab, thus, needs to be understood at the intersection of secularism and the process of perceiving Indian identity. The concern that led to the hijab ban is not about the visibility of religious identifications in public spaces, as this is prevalent in everyday state practices, but the visibility of certain religious symbols – Muslim symbols.

The fundamental issue, then, is whether Muslim symbols can be visible in Indian public spheres. It connects with the much-debated question “Can Muslims be Indian?” or “How can Muslims be true Indians?”

The hijab ban is a continuation of similar practices, like changing the names of cities because of their “Muslimness” and criminalising namaz in public spaces.

Secularism is understood as separation of the state from religion, and facilitates the equal representation of all religions before the state.

But the opposition to the hijab ban and the discourse on “secularising” Muslim women shows how secularism is also a tool of the elites to discipline and forge a specific national identity.

M Sihabudheen is Assistant Professor at SGT University, Gurugram.

This is the last of a six-part series on Nationalism and Belonging in India. It is based on the research of the author and the discussions of the Nationalism Reading Group convened by Priyadarshini Singh at the Centre for Policy Research in partnership with the Association for the Study of Nationalism and Ethnicity, at the London School of Economics. Read the series here.

Also read: One year of Karnataka’s war on Muslim women’s right to learn