Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has urged Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi to take steps to revoke the ban on hijab imposed by the previous Karnataka government, and rightly so. Congress professes to be a secular party and has opposed government’s interference in religious matters. And when the previous BJP government imposed a ban on head covering in schools, Congress had taken a stand against this. Now the same party has introduced attire regulations for upcoming recruitment exams of various boards and corporations in the state. The directives include bans on head coverings and electronic gadgets inside examination halls, sparking a debate on individual freedoms and cultural considerations. What is shocking is that the Congress government is doing it. The party has always trumpeted its secular and inclusive values and which it wears on its sleeve to differentiate itself from the BJP’s alleged majoritarian agenda. But in power, the party is doing what it criticizes in opposition. And it is these lapses that detract from the party’s secular credentials.
Unlike the BJP, the Congress has invariably peddled an ambiguous politics which allows it to straddle the conservative-liberal divide. Though the Congress has also indulged in soft Hindutva, the drift of its politics has been by and large secular. But it is also true that in recent years the party has become apologetic about secularism, lest it be seen as Muslim appeasement in the country. With Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra last year, however, this perception changed a bit. Congress finally showed some assertiveness about pursuing an inclusive political agenda. Ever since, Congress has won two successive state elections, one in Himachal, another in Karnataka. It already rules in Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. It remains to be seen whether the party retains Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. Its performance in Madhya Pradesh will be also keenly watched.
But by failing to stand up for secular and inclusive values, the Congress’ return to the centre stage will change nothing, least of all for the minorities. On the contrary, the BJP in recent past has embarked on an outreach to marginalized sections of minorities. And considering that the Hindutva party takes its politics seriously, minorities may find little reason to doubt its initiative.
So, for the Congress to carry conviction, it has to put its professed ideals into practice. Congress government in Karnataka which has banned Hijab should reevaluate its policy, and aim for inclusivity without compromising the integrity of the exams. The state has to navigate this delicate balance, the focus should remain on upholding values of diversity and individual expression while maintaining standardized examination protocols.
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