In modern India, apparel alternatives signal a deepening spiritual divide

In a movie that has considering that gone viral on social media, a team of adult men get on a dusty avenue in India’s southern Karnataka point out.

Carrying saffron-colored flags and matching scarves, the males chant loudly in unison as they taunt their targets: Muslim girls in hijabs who continue to be huddled in a person corner of the street.

The visual confrontation involving their black and blue Islamic clothes and the raging sea of saffron — a coloration intently linked with Hinduism — is symbolic of deepening divisions in the place brought about, in element, by the rise of Hindu nationalism.

What started out in January as a tranquil demonstration by 6 Muslim pupils protesting for the right to use hijabs in their point out-run college has morphed into a bigger movement described by gender, religion and clothing. And the arrival, months later, of counter demonstrators clad in saffron is indicative of the blurring strains involving the Indian condition and faith.

The orange-yellow hue, found as a image of divinity in Hinduism, has been brazenly adopted by the far-appropriate Hindutva motion and, in latest years, progressively politicized. The motion seeks to homogenize Indian society all around Hindu values.

For India’s Muslims, meanwhile, the hijab has develop into a symbol of resistance from the wave of Islamophobia spreading across the country, as females putting on the religious garment protest in various towns and cities in support of the college students.

“I started off covering my head a few several years back as a protest against crimes versus Muslims,” explained 23-yr-previous Muslim activist Afreen Fatima in a cellphone job interview. She had been demonstrating in her hometown of Allahabad in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

“But now, it has turn out to be a spiritual obligation for me. It really is an assertion of my identity. I am an Indian Muslim and I am not likely any where.”

A symbol of resistance

The hijab, an Islamic scarf, is worn by tens of millions of Muslim gals close to the earth as a sign of modesty and privacy. But in some international locations the garment has confirmed controversial, with critics depicting it as a symbol of oppression or arguing that it is incompatible with secular values.

In 2004 the French federal government banned religious garments, which include the hijab, in condition educational institutions. Seven yrs afterwards France turned the very first place in Europe to ban all face-covering garments in public areas, with policymakers describing the transfer a make a difference of national id and security.
Other European international locations have because followed match with equivalent restrictions, nevertheless the varieties of veil permitted — and the place they can be worn — differ.

In India, however, the hijab is neither banned nor limited in public areas, and the proper to practice one’s religion is confirmed below the country’s secular structure. But, like somewhere else in the planet, Muslim females can encounter backlash and discrimination for choosing to use a single.

According to Indian poet and activist Nabiya Khan, Muslim ladies are “imagined in an Islamic veil and viewed as submissive” for the reason that they do not “in good shape the feminist narrative of the liberal elite.”

“I put on (a) hijab mainly because I want to,” she reported by way of WhatsApp. “It serves me a spiritual and religious importance. It brings me closer to my god.”

Muslim students leave their school in Udupi, Karnataka, after they were denied entry on February 16, 2022.

Muslim learners depart their college in Udupi, Karnataka, immediately after they had been denied entry on February 16, 2022. Credit history: Stringer/Anadolu Company/Getty Images

The conflict in Karnataka began just after a small group of hijabi pupils were denied entry to their lecture rooms in the coastal metropolis of Udupi, in accordance to the petition they later submitted in the state’s best courtroom. In early January, the women staged a protest exterior their authorities-run university, demanding they be permitted within. But their lecturers refused.

Their demonstration prompted rival protests from correct-wing Hindus carrying saffron scarves and flags (these as individuals captured in the aforementioned video clip), chanting a religious Hindu slogan in assist of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Get together (BJP) and demanding the ladies get rid of their head coverings.

The clashes proliferated as a result of Karnataka, with the point out ordering a three-day closure of all high schools and faculties in early February. Authorities in the state’s capital, Bengaluru, also banned protests exterior faculties for two weeks.

Karnataka’s schooling minister B.C. Nagesh claimed he supported banning the hijab in academic establishments. Citing the state’s mandate on spiritual attire, the CNN affiliate CNN News-18 that Karnataka’s government “is incredibly business that the college is not a platform to practice dharma (religion).”

But activists say the hijab row operates further than a gown code, claiming it truly is just the hottest in a broader crackdown on India’s minority Muslim inhabitants given that Key Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP arrived to electrical power practically eight a long time in the past.

The BJP did not answer to CNN’s ask for for remark or to allegations that it advocates Hindu nationalism and is employing the hijab row for political obtain. When asked about the hijab controversy throughout a meeting with reporters in February, India’s Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, advised CNN the make any difference was for Karnataka’s authorities to deal with.

Muslim women in Mumbai protest against the Karnataka government on February 13, 2022.

Muslim females in Mumbai protest against the Karnataka authorities on February 13, 2022. Credit: Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times/Getty Photographs

Karnataka has now handed legislation that, critics say, is rooted in Hindutva ideology. Past calendar year, the condition banned the sale and slaughter of cows, an animal regarded sacred to Hindus. It also introduced a controversial anti-conversion monthly bill, which makes it more difficult for interfaith partners to marry or for men and women to transform to Islam or Christianity.

For Fatima, the hijab row is just the most up-to-date move from authorities to quell Muslim voices.

“This movement is us combating for our religion, identity and religious flexibility,” she stated. “By wearing our hijab and taking this stand, we are telling Hindus that we are not likely to back again down.”

In just one of the most hanging scenes from the February stand-off, a hijab-wearing Muslim pupil, Muskan Khan, does precisely that. In one more movie, which also went viral, Khan is witnessed being accosted by males as she will get off her scooter to hand in a university assignment.

They heckle her, demanding she consider off her hijab. But alternatively of complying, Khan shouts back “Allahu Akbar” — that means “God is terrific” in Arabic — and punches her fist in the air.

Her lifted fist has develop into an icon of defiance. In an act of solidarity, scores of Muslim women of all ages have altered their Twitter profile shots to a silhouette of Khan’s elevated fist, even though her likeness has appeared on placards and posters at demonstrations.

Ashish Bagchi is one particular of a lot of designers and artists who have shared illustrations inspired by Khan on social media. His image depicts her strolling with her head held significant as saffron-tinted arms — consultant of the Hindu ideal — encroach on her.

Ashish Bagchi's illustration depicts saffron-tinted arms surrounding Muskan Khan, who has become a symbol of resistance against the proposed hijab ban.

Ashish Bagchi’s illustration depicts saffron-tinted arms surrounding Muskan Khan, who has turn into a image of resistance in opposition to the proposed hijab ban. Credit score: Ashish Bagchi

Bagchi’s personalized political performs, which look on his Instagram and Twitter, existing a narrative of India’s shrinking freedoms.

“What seriously moved me was the way she stood her floor,” he claimed. “What stood out for me was these adult males shouting and brandishing her with their saffron stoles. Regrettably, the saffron color now symbolizes a individual political ideology.”

The politicization of color

The coloration saffron has roots in Hinduism — a single of the world’s oldest religions — and signifies peace. About 80% of India’s 1.3 billion persons are Hindu, and the color is noticed draped on idols in the temples, tied around the neck of cows and utilized as road decorations throughout festivals.

Hindu holy men take a dip in the Ganges River during the religious Kumbh Mela festival, in Haridwar on April 12, 2021.

Hindu holy adult men get a dip in the Ganges River throughout the spiritual Kumbh Mela competition, in Haridwar on April 12, 2021. Credit history: Dollars SHARMA/AFP/Getty Visuals

But at any time considering that the BJP swept to power with a Hindu nationalist agenda in 2014, the shade has become ever more politicized. Modi and his compatriots are frequently noticed donning saffron-hued outfits and accessories at election rallies, whilst supporters wave the party’s flag (which is largely saffron) or other equally colored ones.

“The appropriation of saffron is a way of signaling that the get together is not just political, but deeply rooted in faith,” reported Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at India’s Ashoka University, in a cellular phone job interview.

A crowd at a rally for Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 3, 2019 in Kolkata, India.

A group at a rally for Primary Minister Narendra Modi on April 3, 2019 in Kolkata, India. Credit score: Atul Loke/Getty Illustrations or photos

“The shade serves the intent of a ‘uniform’ and gives BJP supporters a feeling of unity and commonality.”

The BJP’s Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of India’s most populous point out, Uttar Pradesh, is one superior-profile figure who is just about often found dressed head-to-toe in the shade. Arguably one of the most polarizing figures in Indian politics, Adityanath — a former Hindu priest — is acknowledged for his provocative rhetoric versus Muslims.
Yogi Adityanath at the inauguration of the Awadh Shilpgram Cultural Centre and Marketplace in Lucknow, India, on March 19, 2021.

Yogi Adityanath at the inauguration of the Awadh Shilpgram Cultural Centre and Marketplace in Lucknow, India, on March 19, 2021. Credit: T. Narayan/Bloomberg/Getty Illustrations or photos

And although not every single Hindu that wears the colour espouses Hindu nationalism, when politicians dressed in saffron make statements towards the country’s minorities, it emboldens significantly-correct groups to do the same, in accordance to historian Aditya Mukherjee.

“The religious symbolism utilized by the Hindu right now is a total inversion of what Indian culture is. They have presented the shade a different this means,” said Mukherjee.

“This is not what the Hindu faith stands for. And it really is absolutely not an natural and organic sensation coming from many Hindu Indians.

“It is a incredibly scary instant for India,” he extra, referring to how extremists have carried out violent assaults towards Muslims.

It is symbolic, probably, that as saffron gets to be an ever more frequent sight in community lifestyle, the hijab’s position in India has now been thrown into dilemma. Karnataka’s Substantial Court has finished deliberating about whether educational facilities can ban headscarves or not, and a ruling is anticipated soon. In the meantime, its interim buy to prohibit all spiritual clothes in instructional institutes with an current costume code or uniform, nonetheless stands.

For the activist Fatima, eliminating the hijab is “like asking our gals to strip.”

“It is fathomably disturbing. It is unethical,” she said, adding that she will not be “silenced” by the rising Hindu ideal.

“The alternatives we as Muslims have to desire justice are extremely few. Muslim women of all ages have it even worse. We do not have the privilege to continue to be silent. We will assert our identification even additional.”

Prime impression caption: College students and activists maintain banners though shouting slogans during a demonstration in Karnataka right after Muslim students had been instructed not to don hijabs in schools.