Robe Reversal: Why CM Siddaramaiah Walked Back On Hijab Statement

Sharan Setty

Dec 25, 2023, 03:25 PM | Updated 03:24 PM IST

The hijab controversy erupted a year ago in Karnataka's Udupi.
The hijab controversy erupted a year ago in Karnataka's Udupi.

A year ago, Karnataka's ban on hijab in classrooms sparked controversy.

Initially viewed as an isolated case, the matter escalated quickly, coinciding with the state's election preparations.

The opposition accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of using the issue to gain Hindu support. After a prolonged dispute, the Congress won a decisive victory in the elections.

A few months ago, Swarajya reported from Udupi that most students wished to move past the hijab controversy. Yet, a year later, political manoeuvring continues, with the now-ruling Congress party proposing to permit hijab in classrooms.

On 22 December, Chief Minister Siddarmaiah wrote on social media platform X that he had issued an order to revoke the ban on hijab in educational institutes in Karnataka.

He blamed the BJP for dividing people based on what they wear and eat.

Siddaramaiah was in Mysuru on the day of his X posts. He made a statement lashing out at the BJP: "They say ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas', but are sidelining those who wear skullcaps, don the burqa, and sport beards. Is this what they mean?"

He added that it is his choice to wear a dhoti and kurta. Similarly, he said it is an individual's choice to wear whatever they want.

Despite the rhetoric, CM Siddaramaiah has since backtracked.

Analysts say that this might be because of existing court pronouncements or, perhaps, part of a Congress strategy to avoid giving the BJP a stick with which to beat the party.

For now, the party may feel that its signalling of support for hijab in colleges would be sufficient to assuage its voters.

"We have not done it yet (allowing the hijab). One person asked me a question, and I replied to that. Yes, the government is considering to end the ban. But the matter will be discussed with government officers first," the Chief Minister said.

Siddaramaiah's statements have rekindled the debate centering on two major questions.

First, when a student of a different faith, whether Christian or Hindu, can remove their symbols of religiosity while entering schools or colleges, why can't the same rule apply to a Muslim student?

This is especially important in the context of one side claiming that hijab is an essential religious practice of Islam and the courts refusing to come out in support of this view so far.

A larger bench of the Supreme Court will hear the case after the court delivered a split verdict on the question of whether hijab was an essential practice.

The case reached the Supreme Court after the Karnataka High Court refused to affirm that hijab was an essential practice of Islam.

The second question to be answered is that if hijabs are allowed in educational institutes, will the Congress be okay with students sporting the saffron shawls?

So far, it hasn't categorically come out in support of any other religious attire being sported in schools or colleges.

It is especially worth examining the statements coming from the Chief Minister, as he was also appointed to the board of Congress leaders looking into drafting the manifesto for the Congress ahead of the 2024 general elections in India.

Sharan Setty (Sharan K A) is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @sharansetty2.

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