How India is Working to Squash Religious Freedom and Deny Human Dignity

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By: Huzaifa Shahbaz, CAIR National

In recent weeks, the world has witnessed the Indian government’s hateful attempts to exclude Muslim women from society by banning young women from wearing the hijab to school.

The ban on Islamic headscarves motivated thousands to protest the grotesque infringement on civil rights by the Karnataka state, which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The video of Muskan Khan, a hijab-wearing Muslim student, standing strong as she was heckled and threatened by a far-right Hindu mob wearing saffron scarves at a college in Karnataka state has been viewed tens of thousands of times.

Rashad Hussain, the American ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, slammed the hijab ban in a tweet stating it would “stigmatize” and “marginalize” women and girls. Despite the massive outcry, authorities shut down schools and colleges for three days.

For many who have been following India’s descent into authoritarianism and fascism, these measures come as no surprise. India is a dying democracy competing with European nations to squash the religious freedom and human dignity of Muslims.

In December 2021, Hindu nationalists held a three-day religious convention in Uttarakhand in which speakers openly called for the killing of Muslims. In the same month, BJP chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar backed Hindu nationalists in the Haryana state for harassing Muslims and demanded they stop praying in public spaces. And earlier this year, Indian police arrested Aumkareshwar Thakur, the man suspected of creating an app that put up photos of more than 80 Muslim women for “sale” online last year.

These disturbing measures are part of India’s larger campaign to quash religious freedom and deny human dignity to Muslims. The banning of hijab is not only an act in violation of Article 25 of India’s constitution, but it is an attempt to deprive Muslim women of the most sacred relationship they have — that is — with their creator. By stripping away the hijab, the state is sending a clear message to Muslim women that their religious beliefs, culture, well-being, and freedom of movement will not be respected. Moreover, this dangerous measure presents the hijab as a threat to society, placing a target on the back of thousands of Muslim women who exercise their constitutional right to practice their faith in dignity.

Through these actions, the BJP has assured that Islamophobic policies will be the cornerstone and motivation of their political agenda. In an interview with TRT World, Afreen Fatima, a student leader and activist from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, said, “The Muslim community is facing rising intolerance and is facing direct attacks on religious freedoms in India. And it is to do with the fact that the BJP government in India supports anti-Muslim sentiments and is extremely Islamophobic.”

Fatima is right. Hate crimes against Muslims are increasingly on the rise in India. In August 2021, the Indian newspaper Siasat published a list of hate crimes ranging from physical assaults to forcing Muslims to chant Jai Shri Ram, or “Glory to Lord Rama.”

No student should be forced to choose between her education and her right to practice her faith. Despite the ongoing threats to Indian Muslims, the thousands of Muslim women who are marching in the streets of India against the anti-Muslim policies of this majoritarian state have inspired hope and renewed resistance. It is incumbent upon the rest of us around the world to call out and stop the BJP government’s discriminatory policies and dangerous actions before they escalate into something even more disastrous.

Huzaifa Shahbaz is the National Research and Advocacy Coordinator with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. He can be reached at hshahbaz@cair.com

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