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How India’s Hijab Protests Could Bolster the BJP

Modi’s party faces a test of power in state elections. The latest intercommunal flare-up could stoke the base.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Muslim women hold placards in India.
Muslim women hold placards in India.
Muslim women hold placards during a demonstration in Karnataka in Bengaluru, India, on Feb. 7. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Protests in India over hijabs in schools continue, Indonesia upgrades its air force, and U.S. President Joe Biden calls on Americans to leave Ukraine.

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Will Banning Hijabs Help the BJP Win Votes? 

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Protests in India over hijabs in schools continue, Indonesia upgrades its air force, and U.S. President Joe Biden calls on Americans to leave Ukraine.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Will Banning Hijabs Help the BJP Win Votes? 

Tensions between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities have flared this week following the state of Karnataka’s decision to ban the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in educational institutions. The rule, already a point of protest in recent weeks, was brought to the fore this week when a viral video of a Muslim woman being harassed by a mob of Hindu men on her way to college forced the closure of schools and colleges for three days in a bid to bring calm.

The hijab ban, which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argues is simply a way of keeping religious symbols out of the classroom, has been attacked by activists who see it as another way the Hindu nationalist BJP seeks to degrade Muslims in the country. A legal challenge to the ban is currently under consideration by Karnataka’s high court.

The episode is the latest flash point over Muslim identity in a country with rising Hindu nationalist sentiment. Although India is home to 200 million Muslims, they make up just 14 percent of the overall population.

They have been targeted by several moves in recent years, including a 2019 citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims as well as laws that discourage interfaith marriages. Anti-Muslim sentiment has also boiled over into mob violence: 56 people were killed, 40 of whom were Muslims, during riots in New Delhi in March 2020.

Neighboring Pakistan has lodged a diplomatic protest over the hijab ban, summoning the Indian chargé d’affaires in Islamabad to convey its “grave concern.” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi took it further, saying the ban was part of an “Indian state plan of ghettoisation of Muslims.”

The unrest in Karnataka is likely to fuel the BJP in its efforts much farther north in Uttar Pradesh. India’s most populous state holds state assembly elections over the next few weeks, considered a major test of the BJP’s grip on power. The campaign has already carried barely veiled anti-Muslim undertones, with Uttar Pradesh chief minister and BJP member Yogi Adityanath saying the election would come down to the “80 percent versus 20 percent,” a statement considered a swipe at the state’s roughly 20 percent Muslim population.

Without addressing the hijab controversy directly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday told a rally in Saharanpur, India, that the BJP stood with Muslim women who were victims and chastised opposition leaders for “trying to trick Muslim sisters to push them back in their lives.”

For FP columnist Sumit Ganguly, the hijab controversy could become another way for the BJP to drum up votes with an electorate attracted to anti-Muslim rhetoric and help the party avoid tough questions on its economic record. “This is the old ‘bread and circuses’ … except theres no bread and only circuses,” Ganguly said.

And while life for Indian Muslims becomes tougher in a country increasingly hostile to them, it’s unlikely the United States or other countries with a professed commitment to safeguarding human rights will go beyond rhetoric in their attempts to steer India’s leaders to a more conciliatory path. Ganguly said India’s unique geopolitical value as well as the prospects of a revived economy post-pandemic mean the Indian government is set to get a pass.

“A huge number of countries are just going to look the other way, simply because they will be salivating at the prospect of the Indian market,” Ganguly said.

For now, the only thing that appears capable of making the BJP soften its approach is an election loss. Current polls indicate the party has little to worry about.


What We’re Following Today

High inflation. European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde has warned that interest rate hikes would only “stall the economy,” as high inflation increases external pressure on the bank to raise rates. Speaking to German media, Lagarde said rate rises would do little to shift structural problems in supply chains and energy distribution that have contributed to the inflation spike. Lagarde said the bank would revisit the issue in March. “If necessary, we will act. But that only goes step by step,” Lagarde said.

In the United States, St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard sounded a different note, calling for an increase in interest rates of a full percentage point by July.

Ukraine tensions. Russian and Ukrainian officials said they failed to bridge differences of interpretation of the 2015 Minsk agreement in the latest round of Normandy format discussions alongside French and German officials on Thursday. Ukraine’s representative at the talks, Andriy Yermak, said he hoped the group would “meet again very soon” to continue negotiations. “Everyone is determined to achieve a result,” he added.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has advised U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine, saying “things could go crazy quickly.” In an interview with NBC News, Biden ruled out committing U.S. troops to Ukraine. “That’s a world war. When Americans and Russians start shooting one another, we’re in a very different world,” Biden said.


Keep an Eye On

COVID-19 in Africa. Africa’s COVID-19 outbreak is moving away from the pandemic phase and into a period of long-term management, Matshidiso Moeti, the Africa director for the World Health Organization, said on Thursday. “We think that we’re moving now, especially with the vaccination expected to increase, into what might become a kind of endemic living with the virus,” Moeti told a briefing. Although just 11 percent of Africa’s adult population is vaccinated, supplies are finally catching up; 672 million vaccine doses have been delivered to the continent, with 96 million doses arriving in January alone.

Indonesia’s new air force. Indonesia is set to revamp its air force after moving two separate deals with France and the United States forward to supply advanced fighter aircraft. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of up to 36 F-15ID planes, a step toward a final deal. France’s agreement was more concrete, as Indonesia agreed to purchase six Rafale fighter jets with another 36 jets to follow. The new $8.1 billion deal will be joined by agreements on submarines and ammunition that would make Indonesia France’s No. 1 arms customer in the Asia-Pacific.


Odds and Ends

A million-dollar painting in the care of an art gallery in Ekaterinburg, Russia, has been sent away for restoration after it was defaced by a security guard who decided to draw pairs of eyes on two of Anna Leporskaya’s faceless “Three Figures.”

“His motives are still unknown, but the administration believes it was some kind of a lapse in sanity,” said Anna Reshetkina, the exhibition’s curator, of the guard, who has since been fired. Despite the painting’s high value, the costs of restoration are expected to amount to 250,000 rubles (or around $3,300).

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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