The school is our first door to the outside world and other people. Stepping out from the closed and familiar environs of home, family or community, one’s first brush with the world begins with school life. We come to know that we live in a world to be shared with others who are different from us in every respect: class, caste, creed, colour, character, language, looks, ways of talking, dressing, eating or praying. We understand and respect that others too have equal rights in this world. School is the first nursery of citizenship, tolerance, diversity and democracy. In short, it is where one begins to learn how to live and let live in society.
Until a few years ago, it was taboo at schools to ask fellow students their religion or caste. Particularly so, in societies like Kerala, which have evolved into modernity through historic anti-caste social movements. Thanks to the proud legacy of these movements which saw its many leaders cut off their “caste tails,” two generations born after Kerala came into being believed it was anathema to flaunt caste in their names. But things have changed even in Kerala, where too the clock appears to have moved backward. Religious and caste identities are now badges to flaunt. Hindu parents are keen to burden their toddlers with Sanskrit/Vedic names and caste tails. Christian elites who once found it fashionable to give their children non-Christian first names have returned to conservative religious nomenclatures. Muslims have given up their traditional Malayali Muslim names and resorted to esoteric Arabi monikers. Ditto with other external religion-caste markers like attire etc. The Gramscian hegemony, consensus and common sense created by the Kerala renaissance was clearly on the way out.
This “return to roots” is the first step in identity politics. To oppose others - particularly if they are less in numbers- carrying the markers of their identity is the next. This begins indirectly, but assumes more direct and even violent forms soon. Hijab is a small piece of cloth but has often been a fierce bone of political and social contestations in various countries. In the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Muslim enforces other Muslims to wear the hijab and abaya. In Hindutva-dominated India, the fundamentalist Hindu tries to force Muslims to abandon hijab. A symbol of repression in one context could be a sign of resistance in another. It is the failure to see the shifting meanings and historicity of symbols that makes some secularists squirm at seeing the hijab-wearing Bibi Muskan Khan shouting Allahu Akbar. But in today's Karnataka, it is the cry of the hunted. Remember how Swastika, the sign of goodness of Vedic times turned a symbol of extermination in Hitler’s hands. Even, “Jai Sriram” which is predatory in the land of Hindutva could be a chant of revolt under Taliban. Bhakti poets and Sufi singers defied authoritarian kings through devotion to god. Inquilab Zindabad and Allah o Akbar rose simultaneously at Lahore in 1986 when Iqbal Bano sang publicly the banned Pakistani Left-wing poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz''s nazm, "sab but uṭhvāe jāenge…. bas nām rahegā allāh kā" (when all idols crumble, only Allah's name remains) which terrified the oppressive Zia-ul-Haq regime.
This sinister identity politics is even more dangerous when it makes its way into the children and schools where we learn the first lessons to live together irrespective of differences. Hence the hijab controversy rocking Karnataka and the moves in other states to bring in curbs on wearing it will be dangerous to India’s unity. Strangely, Hindu markers like a bindi on the forehead or the colourful threads around wrists appear just “normal” with any school uniform but not a hijab. It is also interesting that those who had cried hoarse and hit the streets about “aacharam” being trampled upon by a court verdict in Sabarimala are now advising others the need to give up the aacharam of wearing hijab, swearing by what was always the worst word in their lexicon- secularism! The Uniform Civil Code is already on the anvil.
Though the hijab controversy now remains within the confines of Karnataka and some other states, it will not be a surprise if it makes its way to even Kerala, notwithstanding its more inclusive social and political structures. It should not be forgotten that Kerala is where the landmark cases related to the topic have taken place and that are being constantly referred to during the ongoing controversy.
Since the issue is once again before the judiciary following the Karnataka government’s February 5th order proscribing hijab in educational institutions, it is likely to reach the Supreme court soon. On a plea by senior counsel Kapil Sibal seeking the Supreme court’s intervention, Chief Justice N V Ramana said he was awaiting the Karnataka High Court’s examination of the issue. This would eventually bring up again the controversial ‘essentiality test’, i.e, to decide whether wearing hijab constitutes an “essential religious practice” or not. Even the Sabarimala case pending before the nine-member Bench also may lead to a debate whether proscribing the entry of women of menstrual age is an essential practice or not.
One of the most significant verdicts by the Supreme court restraining the state from enforcing a practice considered anathema by a religious sect too had its origin in Kerala. The petition filed by a Kerala-based family following an international religious sect called “Jehovah’s Witnesses'' against singing the national anthem was upheld by the Supreme Court. It was long ago, in 1986, when ultra-nationalism had not gripped the nation’s institutions. The petitioner, V. J. Emmanuel of Kadaplamattom near Pala, was an English professor at the KE College, Mannanam of Kottayam district. He had filed the case on behalf of his three children -son Bijoe, daughters Binu and Bindu- against their suspension from NSS High School at Kidangoor near Kottayam. They were suspended for refusing to join the singing of the national anthem at the school’s morning assembly. They refused to sing because it was against their religious tenets.
Emmanuel decided to fight and filed a petition against suspension in the Kerala High court. But both the single and division benches dismissed the petition. Emmanuel did not relent and went to the Supreme Court, where Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy upheld him on 11 August 1986 in a historic judgement. (Bijoe Emmanuel Vs State of Kerala). The apex court said that making the students sing forcibly was a violation of their fundamental right to expression. Justice Reddy pointed out that since the students stood up respectfully while the anthem was sung, there was no question of dishonouring the national anthem as was alleged. The verdict has been hailed universally as upholding the citizen’s fundamental rights.
There was an interesting political angle to the controversy. Students belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing to sing was first reported in a local newspaper. Though the school management did not bother much, it was taken up in the assembly by V C Kabeer, a Congress(S) MLA with the opposition Left Democratic Front. T M Jacob, Education Minister in the then United Democratic Front ministry headed by K Karunakaran, ordered an official inquiry. Though the inquiry found no disrespect from the students, the District Education Officer insisted that the students should sing. On July 25, 1985, the government suspended all the 9 children from the sect from the school.
After the Supreme Court ordered in his favour, Emmanuel sent his students for only one day to the school only to prove his point. Following this, all the children stopped going to school and completed their education through home schooling. Emmanuel passed away in 2020 at the age of 78.
Called a “rarest of rare” judge by Justice K T Thomas, Chinnappa Reddy who had fought to protect individual freedom even during the Emergency, expired in 2013.