A series of religious
laws promoted by India’s ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist party in the
southern state of Karnataka, including a ban on the wearing of hijabs, is
raising concerns the divisive measures will stoke sectarian tensions more prevalent
in the country’s north.

Prime Minister
Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently banned wearing the hijab
in classrooms in Karnataka, the only one of India’s five southern states it
rules. A proposal to make religious conversions largely illegal is being
considered by the local legislature.

The moves have become
an issue of contention involving India’s Muslim minority. Opposition parties
and many political analysts accuse the BJP of fomenting tensions in Karnataka
to consolidate its appeal to majority Hindus, like they say it has elsewhere in
the country.

Modi’s office did not
immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

The BJP has denied
that Karnataka’s Feb. 5 hijab ban, a recent bill aimed at mainly preventing
conversion of poor Hindus to Christianity and Islam, and a 2021 law prohibiting
the slaughter of cows – considered sacred in Hinduism – were designed to pander
to the majority community.

“The hijab
controversy started as a very localised issue that could have been nipped in
its bud”, said Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist who has taught in

“I’m keeping my
fingers crossed as to what would be the repercussions of a verdict on the
issue,” Shastri added, referring to a petition in the high court seeking
to overturn the hijab ban.

“Is it going to
further damage the social fabric in the state?”

Read: In hijab row, critics say
India’s BJP looking for votes in southern state

Karnataka’s capital
is the cosmopolitan hub Bengaluru, a city of about 12 million people that is
the centre of India’s booming IT industry.

The school ban on the
hijab fanned protests by some Muslim students and parents around Karnataka
earlier in the month. There were also counter-protests by Hindu students draped
in saffron-coloured shawls.

There was no violence
but such tensions are a hot-button issue in India, where Muslims account for
about 13% of the country’s 1.35 billion people. India has experienced several
deadly Hindu-Muslim riots since independence in 1947, but hardly any of them in
the south.

BJP’s Karnataka
spokesperson Ganesh Karnik blamed Muslims for seeking what he called a
different identity by insisting on wearing the hijab in class, and said the
dispute could unite Hindus.

“They look at
every issue as a victim,” said Karnik. “If they take a stand, the
Hindu community will also take a stand. Our young girls and boys will be
disturbed (thinking) why are they being given a special privilege?”

He said the BJP was
confident of retaining power in Karnataka state elections next year and then
expanding further in the region.

“We are expanding,
we will rule more southern states. If not today, tomorrow, if not tomorrow, the
day after,” Karnik said.

In Uttar Pradesh
state in the north, home to more than 200 million people and the bellwether of
national politics, a long-running dispute between Hindus and Muslims over a
religious site has become the central issue in ongoing state elections in which
Modi’s BJP is seeking to retain power.

Catch them young

Muzaffar Assadi, a
political analyst who teaches at Karnataka’s University of Mysore, said the
hijab issue targets youth who would be 18 and eligible to vote in time for next
year’s state election and the national election, which is due in 2024.

“They are
potential voters, so you just rake up the issue, create a wedge and ultimately
you have a base for the next election,” said Assadi.

Muslims say the hijab
row is another example of their marginalisation since Modi first took office in
2014 on a platform of good governance and a strong Hindu identity.

Modi has defended his
record and says his economic and social policies benefit all Indians.

Analysts and
opposition leaders say the vitiated political environment in Karnataka could
dent Bengaluru’s appeal as a favoured destination for migrants and expatriates.

“Karnataka is a
very diverse state and people have lived here in harmony for long,” said
Abdul Majeed, state chief of the Social Democratic Party of India that mainly
fights for Muslim causes.

“But electoral
politics is threatening communal harmony day by day. In this age of social
media, everyone is watching what is happening in Karnataka.”


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