India’s Karnataka government on Tuesday ordered the closure of all educational institutions for three days after student protests over hijabs in schools and colleges.
Protests intensified after the state's high court heard a petition on the wearing of the traditional Muslim headscarves in educational institutions.
State chief minister Basavaraj S Bommai ordered the closures after widespread protests by students aligned to Hindu right-wing groups on campuses.
The latest round of demonstrations sparked tensions in a region where it is feared community sensitivities over the row could lead to violence.
“I appeal to all the students, teachers and management of schools and colleges as well as people of Karnataka to maintain peace and harmony,” Mr Bommai wrote on Twitter.
Videos on news channels and social media showed hundreds of students wearing saffron shawls – a colour associated with right-wing Hindu groups – marching and chanting slogans in opposition to protests by Muslim girls who were barred from classrooms over wearing the headscarf.
The controversy began in December in Udupi, but has intensified in recent days, with members from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition leaders sparring over the issue.
Several female Muslim students went to the Karnataka High Court against the ban order, claiming that it is a breach of their constitutional right to practise religion.
“This court requests the student community and the public at large to maintain peace and tranquility. This court has full faith in the wisdom and virtue of public at large,” Justice Krishna Dixit said as he adjourned the hearing to Wednesday.
The hijab row
The controversy over the hijab erupted in late December when six Muslim students at the state-run Women's Pre-University college in Udupi were banned from entering their classrooms for breaking uniform rules.
The students protested outside their classroom for three days, resulting in a row that gradually spilt over to other colleges.
Scores of male Hindu students turned up wearing saffron scarves to counter protesting students.
But by the first week of January, the protests had intensified and forced the college administration to allow the young women to attend classes, but in a different room.
On January 19, the college administration held a meeting with parents, government officials and the female students to solve the dispute, but there was no conclusion.
The next day, the young women began protesting outside the school, demanding that they be allowed to attend ordinary classes.
The state government set up an expert committee to resolve the problem and announced that all the students had to adhere to uniform rules until the recommendations came.
On January 31, one of the students filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court arguing that the hijab was a fundamental right as the Indian constitution allows the right to profess, practise and propagate religion.
On February 1, the students went to their college wearing headscarves but were asked to remove them. They refused and protested at the gates.
Since then, several colleges across the state have introduced the no-hijab policy.
At least 40 women were stopped at Bhandarkars' Arts and Science Degree College in the same district last Friday.
Videos of the students asking the principal to let them in caused outrage on social media.
Soon hundreds of students – male and female – came to the college wearing saffron scarves in protest against the Muslim women.
Videos of them chanting "Jai Shri Ram" – a traditional Hindu salutation that has in recent years become a war cry often raised by right-wing groups – caused a political furore.
On Monday, students from the Dalit community, who are from a low caste in Hindu society, wore blue scarves in solidarity with the women.
Since the videos of the hijab vs saffron scarves row went viral, a political battle has erupted.
The state government run by Mr Modi’s ruling party has supported the colleges, but on Saturday also banned clothes that “disturb equality, integrity and public law and order”.
The party’s leaders have equated the demands with “the Taliban” and suggested Muslim women intending to wear the hijab should go to madrassas.
The state education minister has claimed there are “hidden hands” behind the row.
But opposition parties blame the government for infringing on students' fundamental rights to education.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition party, said the government was robbing the girls of their future.