Hijab Ban and the Political Apathy of the Indian Middle-class

By Anushka Singh

The recent events of curbing women’s right to wear what they want to and express themselves have been talked about extensively in the popular upper-class academic circles. The Hijab Ban in the Karnataka State has stimulated many prime-time debates. But the issue soon died a lonely death. There was no popular, long-drawn public outrage, protests or even discussion among the common middle classes, otherwise known as the backbone of all political protests and dissent against the State. Is this political apathy of the middle classes just an unconscious act of self-preservation and general lethargy or an active set of practices based on the ideology of exclusion and alienation of certain groups?

The Karnataka High Court recently upheld the government order that banned Muslim girls and women from wearing headscarves in the state- schools and colleges. The Court explained that wearing a hijab is not an essential religious practice under Islam thus one cannot argue that the ban is curbing one’s religious freedom which is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. 

The controversy began when a preparatory school for girls in Udipi forbade several Muslim students from entering their classes while wearing hijabs. The school’s ban on hijab was then attested to by the state government. This led to protests and unrest spreading across the state. Soon the issue was taken to the high court which finally upheld the ban across the state. 

Although the issue got plenty of media coverage from the beginning, it was not sustained for long. The protests against this ban in the capital were also not particularly impactful. The issue was debated profusely in academic circles across the country with academicians and university students taking the forefront.  However, any debates and protests, even those in favour of the ban, were only restricted to certain political circles, whether the student wings of the right-wing parties or the saffron-clad BJP politicians. Overall, the Indian middle-class remained silent, neither getting involved in the dispute nor overtly subscribing to the divisionary ideology. Here we investigate the reasons for the sidelining of this issue. And the lack of citizen participation in the political domain thus failing to keep a check on the legislative, executive and judicial powers invested in the state by the people themselves.

I argue that this political apathy displayed by the middle classes is not an unconscious act of self-preservation and general lethargy, but rather an active set of practices based on the ideology of exclusion and alienation of certain groups. Author Leela Fernandes argues that the new middle class does engage in political activism, it is just that this activism is no longer carried out through formal political institutions. Fernandes historicises this apathy or newer form of political participation of the Indian middle class(PDF) “India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform” – by Leela Fernandes. “During the 1980s and 1990s, the growing assertiveness of subaltern social groups led to the political alienation of the middle class from formal democratic politics. The middle class retaliated against the mobilisation of lower-class groups by mobilising politically. The resurgence actually took on the form of a politics of distinction, embodied as middle-class support for Hindu nationalism or opposition to the expansion of caste-based reservations in state-sector jobs and educational institutions.” Thus this new form of political activism is more focused on keeping a check on and challenging the rights of subaltern groups and minorities, rather than engaging with state institutions. 

This form of political participation thus takes on the appearance of a lack of involvement in the politics of the nation when on the contrary it is a very conscious and active form of participation on the part of the new middle class. This new middle class, although not a monolith, functions on the traditional ideas of class mobility and hierarchies, each group trying to outdo the other. Thus the active subversion of a traditionally underrepresented group whether based on their class, caste, or religious identity takes place through politics of distinction. This is executed in ways such as preaching ‘bourgeois activism’ of clearing squatter settlements as part of the purification of public spaces, promoting western clothing in school uniforms as markers of secular ideals, etc. Thus the right to the city and public spaces becomes exceptional, accorded only to those who fit the popular markers of a dominant identity. This form of citizenship is termed ‘consumer citizenship’ by Fernandes, which is marked by a shift from worker’s rights to consumer’s rights. Thus, the new middle class is said to be “engaged in an attempt to reclaim Indian democracy from demands of groups such as unions, subordinated castes, and Muslims.”

This new form of political activism with an intent to alienate the underrepresented and minority groups from achieving their political rights explains the non-involvement of the Indian middle classes on an issue such as the Hijab ban in Karnataka. The politics of exclusion can be seen operating on several levels in this case as well. The different social identifiers on the basis of which this exclusion takes place are gender, caste, class, religious identity, language, etc. 

Starting by looking at the category of religion, one can see that the treatment of religious minorities as secondary citizens is a common characteristic of an exclusionary majoritarian society. The marginalisation of Muslim bodies through various state and non-state actors such as the saffron-clad Hindu students defending the law or the proto-state actors such as the police. Often the police operate with ‘assumed’ or ‘hidden’ sanctions by the state which are not necessarily legal – e.g. unauthorized arrests, assumptions of lawbreaking, etc.

The intersection of gender and religious identity results in Muslim women being double as likely to be targeted and marginalised. Their gender identity plays a huge role in such subjection. Historically, women’s education has already been a point of contention in patriarchal societies. The increasing visibility of women in male-dominated spaces, especially those that have an already marginalised religious identity in India, makes them more prone to such harassment and marginalization. 

Finally, the issue of geography affects the reactions the ban received. . There is a great distinction in how issues of the so-called ‘Hindi-heartland’ of the North are dealt with as compared to areas not belonging to this focal point. The negligent treatment of the peripheries, be it the North-Eastern states, or the carelessly used term ‘the South India’ for a large territory encompassing several states and districts is not just political but also cultural. This kind of otherisation based on area and language is another category based on which the issue of the hijab ban was sidelined by the media and popular opinion. 

Thus, such an intersection of various marginalities furthers political exclusion and alienation of these people from the popular political discourse. The intentional exclusion of their stories and problems from popular politics thus revalidates the idea of them being peripheral and insignificant. What this verdict banning hijab has done is that it has further normalised such exclusion of certain people against the rest. This incident cannot be seen in isolation from the other trends in our society as politics is not isolated from the ideas and trends of the people. Thus, this verdict does not only render invisible the Muslim women from popular politics, but also from the larger society. And as discussed in this article, this isolation and alienation is not an unintentional consequence of their minority status or the result of the malicious intent of a certain state or non-state body, but it is a much more deliberate and a socially embedded form of exclusion. It is present in the simple everyday transactions in our society, and events like this are just a culmination of such everyday acts of exclusion rendered visible. Thus, this political non-involvement of the urban middle class is a resounding statement about which bodies are considered as part of the national consciousness, representative of the national citizenry, and which are not.

Anushka is a third-year Undergraduate at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a Major in History and a minor in Sociology and Anthropology.

Image credits – BBC

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