Since Monday, Chetan, a student of the Dr K Shivarama Karanth Government College in Bellare, 78 km from Mangaluru in Dakshina Kannada district of coastal Karnataka has been wearing a saffron scarf over his shirt to college. He is not alone. A rough count reveals some 50-odd students have adopted this sartorial accessory.
But it is not a fashion statement they are making. This is in protest against the college management's reluctance to stop the Muslim female students from wearing a burqa or a veil to the classroom. "We will keep protesting till our demands are met. Inside an educational institution, everyone is equal that is why you should have an uniform,'' says Chetan.
The students have found support from the ABVP. Its Dakshina Kannada district convener Ashwath Rao says his organisation is opposed to any kind of religious symbols on campus.
"The college management should ensure there is no religious divide between students. Do we keep any portrait of God inside the classroom? No, because here the professor is God. They should leave behind their religion at home. If there is no burqa, there will be no saffron scarf or shawl,'' says Rao.
The protest was surprising because the college has been in existence for over two decades and has not faced this kind of ire before. Of the 492 students in the college, there are 15 Muslim girls and four Muslim boys.
K Chandrasekhara, principal of the college said, "The students came to me with their demand. I have asked them to stop protesting till I speak to the Parents Teachers Association. But they have not paid heed to my request.''
College authorities suspect this protest is being remote controlled by outside elements and have appealed to BJP MLA from Sullia S Angara, who is associated with the college in his capacity as the area's legislator, to speak to the right wing groups. The management, however, is relieved that the students have not resorted to disrupting classes or raising slogans.
It is quite possible that the saffron agitation is in retaliation to the protest on Saturday by the Campus Front of India, the student wing of the Popular Front of India, an organisation that espouses the cause of the Muslim community and is active in Kerala and coastal Karnataka. Its members had protested against the decision of the Srinivas College of Pharmacy near Mangaluru to ban the veil and stop male students from sporting long beards.
While the students claimed the ban on the veil was new and not imposed during earlier academic sessions, the college said it wanted to ensure uniformity in how the students attend college.
BV Seetaram, editor of Mangaluru-based Kannada newspaper Karavali Ale says it is a tug-of-war going on in educational spaces in Dakshina Kannada district. "It is an attempt by both sides to push college managements into a corner. Both sides want to assert their religious identity and muscle power through their attire,'' says Seetaram.
He recalls that when France banned the burqa in 2010, right wing groups in the district tried to impose the same in Mangaluru, leading to communal tension. The district has always been a hotbed of vigilantism with frequent clashes taking place between rabid elements of both communities. Moral policing is rampant in Mangaluru that has reported several incidents of groups thrashing the member from the other community.
Hindu groups thrash a Muslim boy if he is seen with a Hindu girl and a Hindu boy will meet the same fate at the hands of Muslim groups, if seen with a Muslim girl. Hindu groups have often accused Muslim boys of engaging in love jihad.
In February last year, Mohammed Riyaz, a student of Mangaluru's Govinda Dasa college was abducted by a group of right wing activists and assaulted for close to three hours. His crime was clicking some pictures with his classmates, that included girls from the Hindu community. The pictures had been shared between friends over WhatsApp and had found their way into the phones of members of the Hindutva outfits. He was let off after being warned not to speak to Hindu girls.
The Muslim community tries the same tactics. Two years back, a group christened the Muslim Defence Force sent out messages through Facebook, asking Muslim women to 'unfriend' Hindu men on the social networking site.
Social activist Vidya Dinker says this is the Saudisation of Mangaluru at work where Muslims girls today will be denied an education if they do not wear the burqa to college. "Even some girls feels they will be spoken of badly by their own community if they don't wear the veil. What is happening is not surprising as the right wing groups are always looking to challenge Muslims and the burqa is the obvious target of choice,'' says Dinker.
The latest round of burqa versus the saffron scarf has the disturbing potential of further dividing an already communally polarised coastal Karnataka. With the younger generation also getting sucked into it, the exposed faultlines will only leave the region more naked and vulnerable.