Fr. Cedric Prakash: 'The hijab row has nothing to do with religion'
by Alessandra De Poli

Schools in Karnataka have been closed for three days after riots broke out against the ban on wearing the Islamic veil in class. The riots spread throughout the country at the same time as the opening of polling stations in Uttar Pradesh. Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash: "It is a political manipulation, the wealth of India lies in its diversity".

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - "The hijab has always been worn, the issue that has emerged in recent days has nothing to do with religion or with India's plurality". Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and human rights activist who grew up in Mumbai and now lives in Gujarat, tells AsiaNews.

In recent days, the State of Karnataka has decided to close schools and universities for three days after violent protests broke out against the ban on wearing the hijab. The incident started in a high school in Udupi, one of the three districts in the state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, enjoys great popularity.

The school had decided to ban girls from wearing the hijab in class, allowing them to wear it in the rest of the campus. The headmaster had stated that teachers need to see the faces of female students and that it is necessary not to discriminate in respect of the uniform.

After other institutions started to impose the ban, female students objected. Left outside the school gates, they marched with their male classmates in protest. It did not take long for the unrest to spread to the rest of India, where religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, feel increasingly threatened by the BJP and its ultra-nationalism.

The cry of 'Jai Shri Ram' (Glory to Lord Rama) by the Hindus was answered by 'Allahu Akbar' (God is the greatest) by the Muslims. Several students staged counter protests wearing saffron shawls, considered the colour of Hinduism. However, when stone-throwing and fires started, a colonial-era law was imposed prohibiting gatherings of more than four people.

The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and religion, a view confirmed by Fr Prakash: "Given my legal undestranding I can confirm that this ban will stand up to scrutiny". After a petition filed in the Karnataka High Court, the matter is also being discussed in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, while the case is being evaluated, an interim order has been issued not to wear religious clothes in educational institutions, which may reopen.

"It is clearly a manipulation," continued the priest, a member of the Society of Jesus. "The colours do not belong to any religion, and the veil is also a cultural rather than religious issue. In the past, Hindu and Christian women wore the veil to go to the temple, to church and when visiting the elderly. In the past Muslim women instead mostly wore it to the mosque to pray and not in every day activities".

What India has experienced in recent years is therefore a progressive polarisation: Hindu nationalism has become increasingly threatening and minorities have felt the need to defend themselves.

"Fascism works the same way in all parts of the world: just take a minor issue and make it a national case to distract people from the really important issues, like growing poverty, unemployment and pollution in the cities. Now it is the hijab, before it was the love jihad or the anti-conversion law," explains Fr Prakash.

"Minorities are demonised and their reaction can only be one, a closure on themselves. Muslims now prefer to send their children to the Islamic madrasa and give them a more fundamentalist education, minorities are then ghettoised by the majority and voila, we have a fascist state'.

In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and the BJP's stronghold, the polls opened yesterday for the Legislative Assembly elections. The electoral process, which will soon open in four other Indian states, lasts one month because it is divided into seven stages. The 403 members of the local Lower House are elected every five years.

Almost 2,000 kilometres separate Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, "but with social media there is no distance", continues Fr Prakash. "Videos and memes immediately go viral and influence the electoral process throughout the country.

"At the moment, it is too difficult to say whether the BJP will remain in power or not," says Fr Prakash. "The party is trying to woo farmers and other sections of society but it is also trying to buy people and it uses violence and manipulation. On the one hand on social media a strong opposition is also being created, but in the poor and marginal areas none of this comes, there is only state TV".

"India's roots are in pluralism," concludes the Jesuit priest. "We as a minority do not want to disappear and we will not disappear. We do not want to be fragmented. India is made up of hundreds of different languages, traditions and foods. Those who want to impose a single identity on all the others are fascists, but I believe that we can be a nation and a people by creating a wider democratic space and maintaining diversity, which is the real wealth of this country".