A bindi, a hijab and the inequality in what is proclaimed Indian

The visuals of a Hindu female teacher, bindi on her forehead, Sindur proudly displayed, undressing her Muslim hijab-wearing colleague proved, if anyone had an iota of doubt, that the so-called anti-hijab row in Karnataka is not is not about the hijab. It’s a painful video to watch – a teacher is humiliated in public by her colleague, her supposed equal. And after? Will Hindu male teachers cut the beards of their Muslim colleagues before they enter the temples of education?

In the name of uniformity, an inequality has been legally created. It is a new inequality; it did not exist prior to the court order.

Once you create a new inequality, it’s hard to extinguish it; even if this “temporary” hijab ban is lifted, the damage will not be repaired. Even temporary inequality is accompanied by a sense of humiliation. It’s not temporary.

Before discussing this, it should also be understood that a removal of the ban will require an ethical miracle, highly unlikely in today’s courts. The courts have also, and it must be admitted, this is not new, regained the power to discuss and decide on religious practices, traditional Muslims, and it is difficult for them to do without. This power to decide what is essential in the religion of others is intoxicating. The Indian courts have done it without realizing that when they do it, they do it without permission.

Courts should listen to Premchand to understand the complexity of the question of authority. A Hindu scholar has started publishing a translation of the Quran with his commentary. Premchand, while reviewing it, said that without having it checked by an Islamic Muslim scholar and theologian, it was not safe for a Hindu to publish his translation of the holy book. He warned the translator that his subconscious biases or ignorance could affect and color the work. So he needed to restrain himself.

Enough has been written about the futility and impossibility of the exercise of deciding what is or is not essential to a religion. This cannot be done by a secular court and should not be attempted. It should be enough for them to see whether a practice is genuinely owned by a group or not; otherwise they will come to an absurd judgment like the one that declared the Masjid not an essential part of Islam. The court appeared not to realize that this order can cause a majority power to demolish and destroy mosques at will, and yet claim that it is not religious persecution. This was also on the minds of the judges who upheld the belief of Ram’s birth at this very place essential to the Hindu faith, while taking the land of the Babri Masjid away from the Muslims.

Judges come from this world, and they know all too well what practice is truly important to a particular population. They know that the saffron head covering now used against the hijab is not authentic. It’s actually a weapon. But they created a false equality by comparing it to the hijab.

The rigor and zeal with which Hindu teachers and administrators carry out this task of standardizing their educational institution tells us that they have discovered a power over their Muslim counterparts. Students as teachers. Imagine also the humiliation of a Muslim teacher who is asked to remove the hijab on behalf of the institution. Would it be communal enough not to have this secular order established?

Can the courts follow their order in its logical sense and order the removal of bindis, sindur and bracelets? They won’t, and why?

This episode also brings us to another question. Hindus are led to believe that they are the most tolerant community in India. That they are open to other cultures, unlike Muslims or Christians. They know them. The truth is that most Hindus know very little about Muslims and Christians, and non-Hindu minorities on the contrary know a lot about Hindus. This is why the BJP can spread propaganda of Shah Rukh Khan ‘spitting’ at Lata Mangeshkar’s funeral, as Hindus know very little about Muslim prayers other than the prayers offered at funerals.

They call Christian schools “mission schools.” They are often attacked and vandalized for promoting a foreign religion and culture. Muslim schools are called madrasas. It is not difficult to guess how ruthlessly and relentlessly the madrasas are demonized. Then there are the Hindu schools – but hardly anyone talks about them. In fact, even supposedly secular institutions are by default Hindu institutions, as are secular parties.

Proponents of no religion in “temples of education with no place for religion” fail to comment on daily Hindu activities in schools and colleges. Hinduism comes into the classroom as culture and common sense. Non-Hindus are in fact homogenized through this facade of diversity instead of being included or having their identities respected.

Lighting a lamp, chanting the Saraswati Vandana, offering obedience in front of a Saraswati idol are considered cultural practice, but eyebrows are raised when Jamia Millia Islamia or Aligarh Muslim University programs start with Tilawat. What is culture, what is custom? Doesn’t the predominance of the Hindus color the culture of India? That’s what Nehru had said. This makes Arvind Kejriwal bold enough to ask all Delhiwalas to do a pooja on Diwali. Why can’t Muslims poop? Why are they so bigoted? Can he ask all Delhiwalas to offer namaz on Eid? The question seems awkward.

Many other supporters of Muslim women believe this could be an opportunity to free them from this oppressive custom. But this is not a release. The closest parallel to such brazen cruelty under the guise of emancipation is that of the United States bringing democracy to Iraq through carpet bombing.

The crudeness and vulgarity exhibited in Karnataka can in no way be called emancipation. It seems to be part of a slow cultural genocide that is demolishing places of worship and acts of Muslim religiosity, criminalizing dietary habits through lynchings and draconian laws, changing the names of towns and purging any visible signs of Muslim presence in Indian society.

The understanding is that everything Hindu is Indian and cultural, while Muslim and Christian practices are not inherently Indian, they can never be culture, they will remain narrowly religious. For Hindus to feel equal, Muslims and others must shed their markers of identity. Why do Muslims speak Urdu in Karnataka and Miya Bhasha in Assam? It is only by leaving all this that they can become “Indianized” and make public spaces equal.

During the court proceedings, it was questioned whether not banning the hijab should mean permission to wear it. The court took it to its logical end by asking if one can carry a weapon in class since nowhere in the rules is it prohibited. A more logical question would have been: if one comes to school with a hijab since it has not been banned, can someone also enter the campus wearing bindi or sindur since this isn’t it forbidden either? This line of questioning would have helped them to establish a notion of real equality. But the fact that they couldn’t ask that question should make them question their own inability to fully answer the first question.

Alishan Jafri is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.

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