The young men in saffron scarves who yelled Jai Shri Ram! at girl students in hijabs were deliberately trying to foment serious political and religious conflict. (Representational Image/ DC File)
James Baldwin, the famous black American writer, once wrote that he would never know when the lift kept him waiting whether the white liftman was genuinely busy or prejudiced against coloured people. India’s 200 million Muslims might feel similarly bewildered about Hindu attitudes. Confusion can cut both ways as I realised on reading a 19-year-old Karnataka computer student’s comment that "I was made to realise I am a Muslim" when ordered to take off her hijab.
Surely, it was precisely because of a heightened awareness of her religious identity and determination to be counted as a Muslim that the young lady wore a hijab in the first place. She did not sport a Sikh’s turban or iron kara. Nor did she tie a mask over her face like orthodox Jains. There was no vermillion in her hair parting or conch shell bangle on her wrist, both Hindu symbols. She did not wear a crucifix either to indicate Christianity. Instead, she wore a garment that the world -- including Muslims throughout the Ummah -- recognises as uniquely Islamic. It is sometimes said that there is no Quranic sanction for the hijab (or its full-fledged cousin, the burqa) and that the Prophet Mohammed never mentioned the veil. That is neither here nor there. What matters is that like the Karnataka student, many Muslim women regard hijabs as a token of their faith, and wearing it as making a statement. They see the ban as an attack on their religion and identity.
Ripples of that controversy have spread far and wide, with many liberals worldwide veering to the view that India is becoming a monocultural country like Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa or Zionist Israel. Mindful of this, the American philosopher Noam Chomsky warned recently that the "pathology of Islamaphobia" was "taking its most lethal form in India where the Narendra Modi government was systematically dismantling Indian secular democracy and turning the country into a Hindu ethnocracy". There might be some reason to fear for the argumentative Indian’s inalienable right to dissent. Some might agree (on aesthetic grounds) with Boris Johnson that women in burqas "look like letter-boxes". But even if wearing the hijab smacks of obscurantism, forbidding it cannot be justified.
However, what may have been acceptable in seventh century Arabia and might still be the preference in Saudi Arabia is not the model that today’s India seeks or needs. At the same time, forcing modernity down the throats of those who languish psychologically and socially in another age cannot be a happy act, no matter how obnoxious the restrictive values and precepts of that age may be.
There is no alternative to social evolution in a free society that respects everyone’s right to choose his or her lifestyle. Just as it is wrong of governments to prevent people from converting to other religions or eat beef, it is equally wrong of governments to force people to convert (and the so-called ghar wapsi phenomenon is often no more than forced or induced conversion) to a certain faith or eat beef.
Free choice -- subject only to the requirements of law and order -- must remain supreme in any democracy. The concept that "your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins" implies a certain consideration for others which is especially important for multicultural harmony in a demographically diverse society.
If the Supreme Court does not want the quite unnecessary hijab dispute to be raised to a national level, turning it into a confrontation between Muslims and BJP supporters could lead to a dangerous polarisation. The young men in saffron scarves who yelled "Jai Shri Ram!" at girl students in hijabs were deliberately trying to foment serious political and religious conflict.
There are bound to be among the BJP’s albeit few Muslim supporters some men whose wives and sisters wear the hijab or even the full burqa. Sadly, the second year B. Com. girl student in Karnataka who retaliated by chanting "Allah-hu-Akbar" treated taunts and gibes that may have had multiple meanings as a specifically anti-Muslim action like the murderous burst of firing that was opened on the politically contentious Asaduddin Owaisi, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president and a four-time Member of Parliament, as he travelled by car to New Delhi after a series of political rallies in and around Meerut during the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections.
Such a rejoinder at once raised the temperature of the exchange. While civil society calls for every attempt to keep temperatures down, such episodes might lead to a repetition of the horrendous religious killings of the pre-Partition days.
Perhaps some Muslims do feel uneasy in India. Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had confessed to a sense of shock at seeing the Indian tricolour fluttering above the Mughal Red Fort. I remember as a child hearing my grandmother’s Muslim bearer, an uneducated Bihari villager, saying that the British had taken India from Muslims and should return the country to them. Those Muslims had the option of taking up Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s offer of a homeland. Many did so in fact. The many who stayed back are certainly better off than the millions of Hindus stranded in Pakistan and Bangladesh. About the only instance of a relatively clean ethnic exchange was between Greece and Turkey, and that was manageable because the numbers were much smaller. On the whole, too, the people on both sides enjoyed a higher economic and educational standard.
Multiracial harmony is impossible without give and take by both sides. The Dharma Sansad that Yati Narsinghanand organised in Haridwar, Swami Anandswaroop’s Sant Sammelan in Allahabad, the UP chief minister’s general campaign rhetoric, and a host of new laws, regulations and bureaucratic interpretations expose the BJP’s hostility towards Muslims. At the same time, the Muslim response seems to be assertive to the point of defiance. Bushy beards, an abundance of muslin caps, mosques sprouting everywhere, and the muezzin’s noisy call to prayer can seem like unnecessary irritants. Those who patronise provocative politicians like Mr Owaisi don’t help the Muslim cause; they only make things easier for the saffron lobby.