Hijab: “Freedom” and “Rights” Under Cover

Hijab: “Freedom” and “Rights” Under Cover

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The Hijab row in Karnataka seems to be stirring more political hornets than enlightening us about the religious sanctity or its social relevance in a secular state in the modern context. A basic online search on ‘hijab’ tells us that the Quran, the Hadiths, and a few other classical Arab texts define the term ‘hijab’ simply as a partition or a curtain that is mostly attributed as a modesty headgear worn by Muslim women, although it is not required by law even in staunch Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. A headgear is generally worn by both men and women in Saudi Arabia (mostly royals) perhaps owing to the extreme climate conditions or as a status symbol. Countries like France, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, and Turkey, with the greatest share of Muslims in their population,  have also banned the burqa in public schools, universities, and government buildings/offices. Syria and Egypt have banned the face veil (some partially, some entirely) in universities, and many other nations are considering legislating this ban as it upsets uniformity and is seen as a self-inflicted discriminatory apartheid that seeks to be distinct and separate while openly making a political Islamic statement.

Fundamental Rights or Religious Fundamentalism?

In the Indian context, the concern about this increasingly fervid and politically engineered religious fetish stems from the fear of Islamist expansionism. This new variant of religious symbolism is signaling difference, marking out others as infidels. This is worrying especially when there are increased number of “Love Jihad” cases that are coming to light.

Back in the 1970s and 80s Indian cinema was dominated by Muslim artists, especially women who would go to any length in donning bold, glamorous attires. Most rich and educated Muslims in colleges and office spaces abhor the burqas and hijabs as a regressive practice and steer clear of it. So, what explains this “emblematic minoritarianism” that these Muslim students from poor and middle-class backgrounds are pitching so fervently, to the extent of going to courts and filing petitions? That this is happening when numerous populist schemes have been doled out to them by successive governments and for elevating the status of these very Muslim women? Despite the willingness to be inclusive, this case of demanding a reversal of that social scaling in the name of religious choices is indeed a matter of concern not only for policymakers who generously dole out privileges but also for the Hindu society at large to safeguard their girls from being preyed upon.

Whether the hijab is a fundamental right or whether it is a mark of religious fundamentalism is now a political battle – especially now when even toddlers are being wrapped up in hijabs. This surely is alarming for Hindus as this new trend of veiling up clearly marks out Hindu girls and women as targets for Muslim lotharios trained to trap them and convert them, and in a calculated bid to win in the demographic games.

Islamic fundamentalism and a secular Hindu-majority tolerant state makes for an interesting case study. We do not know if we have already become a “practical project” of the Islamists intent on making the world Muslim. In this essay, I will make a brief attempt at contextualizing one of the episodes from the Indian independence movement to understand and explain the political dynamics and the role of Islam as a political instrument and its continuing impact in contemporary Indian society.

Islam as a Political Instrument — History and Continuity

K M Munshi, who was deputed as India’s Agent General to Hyderabad before the ‘Police Action’ by the Indian state makes some interesting revelations in his book, “The End of An Era,” and takes us through the arduous journey of integrating Hyderabad with India by plucking it out from the rabid grip of Islamists, and the many difficulties, hostilities, treacheries that they endured in the process. I have used several excerpts from his book to show how many aspects of those times seem to be recast and remolded in newer forms today but with the same vigor and same aspirations.

The Nizam’s rule in Hyderabad would have long been thrown out by the Marathas, had the East India Company not maintained them in their own interest. The Great Revolt in 1857 shook the British hence the British Crown kept the Nizam in power as a potential mercenary backup in the event of a country wide anti-British protest. The Nizams were pampered and maintained by the British Crown as a counterweight against militant Indian nationalism. As a result, the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was under the control of the British resident was allowed to function as an irresponsible potentate and was given a freehand in brewing fascist communalism, alienating and exploiting Hindus by treating them as an inferior race and consolidated his power by converting Hindus en masse to Islam.

Although all state and military control was in the hands of the British, the Nizam of Hyderabad was hypnotized by the British into believing that he made all the difference and that he held a special position in India. But when the possibility of transfer of power from the British to the Indian hands loomed large, sections of political Muslim groups could not reconcile to the idea of being ruled by Hindus. Demands such as separate electorates, a balance of Hindu-Muslim provinces in the federal government, and a claim to equality of representation with Hindus (50:50) had already found expression which the British fueled by giving active support through legal recognition.

During the negotiations prior to the ‘Police Action’ to get accession of Hyderabad, the Nizam, despite the administration and everything else being under British control, failed to realize that he was a puppet being played by the British, and he continued to entertain ambitious dreams about his ‘kingdom’, while Sardar Patel’s team tried hard to gain accession peacefully. the British ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds. The attitude of rabid religiosity blocked the progress towards freedom for several years. The Nizam’s army was commanded by General El Edroos, who was initially close to the Ittehad (modern-day AIMIM — All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) and just when the divide was pushed to the edge, he left without taking any sides.

K M Munshi, who was the Agent General deputed in Hyderabad before the ‘Police Action’, mentions in his book that in Nizam’s Hyderabad, 86 percent were Hindus and 12.5 percent Muslim, 1.5 percent Christian. The rural population was 95 percent Hindu, but 95 percent of the state police and military forces were Muslim, 75 percent of state officials were Muslim, high offices were held only by Muslims, and the Hindu officials were mostly in the lower ranks and were spied upon. Hindus lived in constant fear and did not dare to point a finger at Muslim officials or the Nizam, as their status, security, and everything else depended on their rulers’ favors. They were subject to harassment, threats and violence, and prevented from building or repairing any of their temples that were subject to desecration, and they could not take out processions or pray in Muslim areas.

The Razakars ran a school of espionage and propaganda. Some of the trainees, in the guise of Brahmin priests, would instigate and lead local Hindus to attack a mosque and then as retaliation the Razakars would kill and plunder Hindu villages. Mass conversions were state sponsored. The Deendars engaged in rabid proselytizing, and the head of this religious sect posed as the avatar of Channa Basaveshwar Qible, the founder of the Lingayat sect to woo the Lingayats into Islam.  Some Siddiqui lieutenants declared themselves as Hindu divinities – Vyaasa, Sri Krishna, Narasimha, and Veerabhadra. So, in effect, they tried both the wild and the mild ways. And then there were modern-day poet eulogists like Sarojini Naidu, steeped in the traditions of the Muslim aristocracy in Hyderabad, who heaped praises and eulogized the Nizam and sang odes to him.

But back then it was a one-way route, and there was no question of taking sides or award wapsi. Those who demanded 50:50 representation never implemented the same formula in their Islamist states. The puppetry formula of the British through the Nizam by fostering Ittehadi dreams for state dominance through the tool of Islam was in line with the plans of the Muslim League, both of which aimed at rendering Hindus to underdog status. It was the same formula that Gandhiji offered Hindus: lay down to be ravaged upon. It was the same formula that Manmohan Singh proffered when he said that minorities had the first right on India’s resources. It is more or less the same formula that is constitutionally legislated through various minority schemes, rights, grants, personal law liberties and such other privileges, to counteract and check any formidable nationalistic consolidation.

Munshi notes that – “The Hyderabad that the Nizam inherited had at that time 7,000,000 who spoke Telugu, 4,000,000 spoke Marathi, 2,000,000 spoke Kannada and only the ruling class spoke Urdu till a policy of Urduizing the state was undertaken by the Nizam, with the hope of establishing an independent Islamic state.”

For his obedient subservience, the British masters were pleased. The Nizam received a privy purse of 5 million rupees a year and sundry allowances from the state as well as an annual income of 25 million more from sarf-i-khas, a large chunk of state money which he treated as his private property. This was the extent to which the Nizam was pampered by the British to carry out a culture clash in the largely Hindu dominant region because Hyderabad was geographically an important bifurcating point between the North and South for the British.

After the 1857 Great Revolt (the English call it “mutiny”) the British feared that the Southern states and provinces may rise up to join hands with their North Indian counterparts in the event of a call for national unity. Hence an oppositional, despotic rule that would subdue the majority was deemed necessary by the British. Though the British allowed a long leash for their puppet, they had complete control over individuals and institutions, and that is the reason the demographic transition from Islamification to Christianization was so smooth after Hyderabad was acceded.

If Lord Mountbatten was appointed to appease Indians, Sir Walter Monckton busied himself supporting the Pakistan proponents. Monckton always insisted upon Lord Mountbatten that no pressure must be exerted on the Nizam to give up his sovereignty. And Lord Mountbatten repeatedly pledged himself not to be party to the Nizam’s accession to India by means other than gentle persuasion. It was amidst this kind of hostility from within and without that Sardar Patel and his men went on to accomplish this extraordinary feat of integration.

On the night of August 14th at a farewell banquet given to the last of the British Residents, the Nizam said: It is still my desire and the desire of Hyderabad to remain within the Family of the Nations of the British Commonwealth…. After all these years of friendship, I am confident that the ties which bind Hyderabad to Great Britain will not be severed. In his reply, Mr. Herbert, the out-going British Resident said, I join with Your Exalted Highness in the hope that a new relationship between Hyderabad and Britain may soon be created and prove as enduring as that which is passing away.

The Resident did not rest content with words, and he ensured that most of the Residency files were destroyed and three military barracks – two in Secunderabad and one in Aurangabad were handed over to the Nizam’s government. The Hyderabad Residency and considerable military equipment belonging to the Government of India were handed over to the Nizam’s government either for inadequate price or for none. The Hakimpet Aerodrome was similarly given up, much like how the American troops and NATO forces left Afghanistan recently with millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft and armored vehicles and sophisticated defense systems in the hands of the Taliban.

While the business of raising mercenary armies and carrying out guerilla warfare continues to be a thriving colonial tool even in modern times for their political and economic expeditions, we continue to hear about the military coups in West African countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea today, and the reason cited is “Islamist radical uprisings” — with no questions asked by anyone. This is not to negate the radical ideology of Islam but to point out how radical ideologies are encouraged and abetted by the wily West;  nor is this about ignoring religious bigotry of supremacist faiths, as have too have played their deadly part in Africa. There is a despotic radical political ideology masquerading as religion, and its adherents are willing to weaponize it as a political tool. But it is for Indian Muslims to reflect on how and why Islam is introduced and spread in weak countries: incidentally, the majority of migratory refugees are Muslim, as if they are some kind of war indemnity that countries are obligated to fulfill. Today, the native mullahs, with local and international support, are doubling up for the Nizams, the Ittehadis, the Muslim Leagues, or for that matter any other modern day mercenary army with fancy names like Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

The ancient Assyrians were ruthless political and military warlords and strategists who, after conquering lands,  made sure to displace the natives and infused people of supremacist cultures in the conquered lands to bring about cultural changes. People were periodically forced to migrate so that the natives lost touch with their culture or were forced to integrate and adopt whatever was imposed upon them as their own, and the new converts carried it forward even more fervidly. This political ploy was adopted by several Semitic rulers in subsequent periods. And it always started as a minority culture that received state protection and eventually went on to exterminate the original, open, liberal majority populations and their cultures.

‘Uniform’ Order for Equality and Integrity

Two decades ago the hijab was unknown and few women donned the burqa among the college-going Muslim women who roamed around freely in the most fashionable modern outfits in places like Cairo, Beirut, Kabul. But the obligation of imported faiths has always kept their loyalties fixated with a Qibla compass that looks to the Middle East for all their inspiration. A little pondering as to why the Emir of Dubai (an Islamic state) received divorce settlement orders from a UK court, or why an Islamic Pakistan is kowtowing to communist China. This would help us understand the nature of this political, religious, cultural, demographic dynamic. The Talibanic protocols that young women so enthusiastically want to guard in the name of religious compulsions or choice, although no liberal feminists or women activists have dared to call this out as regressive, is therefore curious. The insistence on donning the hijab remains less of a personal religious choice and more of a politico-religious enforcement. Yes, it is true that people should be allowed religious choices, but those choices should govern our activities inside our homes and in personal spaces.

There are various arguments one can make but the fix lies in understanding the root cause of the fetish for overt/ outward religious symbolism of supremacist faiths. Whether it is hijab mongering, street praying, or Rahul Gandhi’s recent concoction of “union of states,” or Mahua Moitra’s rancid insinuations, or a multinational brand’s solidarity with Pakistanis, the commonality in the pattern of attacks are all aligned with the idea of two or more Indias within the Indian state. Some of these tactics may also be used to mischievously drag a neutral India into war, inspiring local jihadists, and undermining society. The West has tried it in different places, finding that hiring unofficial insurgent sidekicks is a cost-effective foreign policy to save their soldiers from suicidal Muslim “soldiers of Allah”. This is the reason we see many Indian Muslims joining ISIS only to have their lives snuffed out in the promise of a notional heaven, somewhat similar to a typical medieval era Church practice of the ‘sale of indulgence’ — where the papal dispensation of souls after death could be secured by paying cash to the church!

Today, these Abrahamic ideological kith and kin are sent as refugees into one country or the other to quarrel with and destroy the local cultures, to disintegrate and create more nations. And, yes, more nations mean more lines of borders to guard, more rat races to win and emerge strong and supreme, more military weapons to procure, and more business at the end of the day. Many African converts today who do not see through these supremacist imperial designs for political and economic hegemony have ended up as handmaidens of the old colonial powers or the news slaves of China, reduced into drug peddlers or insurgent rebels or coup agents or forced labor. Perhaps a little reading and reflection about one’s roots and casting aside dangerous and deadly religious-political baggage may really help reduce conflict in this world. Until then the state may revisit the minority-targeted doles and reconsider if they are indeed necessary as no amount of pandering through social populism seems to work.

K.M. Munshi, “End of An Era: Hyderabad Memoirs”
Hijab definition from Wikipedia and Urdu Post
J. Merriman, “A History of Modern Europe”
H. G. Wells, “A Short History of the World”

Mayura Rao

Mayura Rao is a freelance writer, blogger, a history and travel enthusiast interested in culture, philosophy, and politics. She blogs at