Karnataka: Lone Congress Muslim Woman Candidate Strong Anti-Hijab Ban Defender

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Kaneez Fathima is facing a tough fight with BJP’s Lingayat leader Chandrakanth Patil in Gulbarga North constituency. She has nine Muslim rivals including JD(S)’s Nasir Hussain Ustad

Team Clarion 

NEW DELHI — The lone Muslim woman candidate fielded by Congress in the Karnataka elections, Kaneez Fathima, wears a hijab in public and is a strong opponent of the ban on hijab for Muslim girls in educational institutions.

Fathima led last year’s huge protests in Gulbarga over the ban on hijab in educational institutes by the Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government. The government’s decision barred Muslim girls from state-run colleges for insisting on wearing hijab. Fathima also was at the forefront of women’s protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2020, media reports said

“It is our right to wear hijab. In independent India, we have our freedoms. We do not question people about their clothes. Girls must not be prevented from going to colleges over this issue,” Fathima had said at the peak of the hijab controversy in the state raked up by Hindutva fanatics fully supported by the BJP government in the state and at the Centre.

A social activist and a champion of women’s rights, especially Muslims, Fathima was catapulted into electoral politics a few months before the 2018 assembly polls, when her husband Qamarul Islam, a minister and six-term local MLA, died.

Fathima faces a stiff challenge from the BJP’s Chandrakanth Patil, a Lingayat youth leader who lost the 2018 election to her by just 5,940 votes, even as she has also nine Muslim rivals in the Gulbarga North seat, including the JD(S)’s Nasir Hussain Ustad.

In her election speeches, Fathima highlights the Congress’s pledges for the polls and urges locals to vote for her and not others who, she charges, merely claim to be the “protector” of the interests of the people of the constituency, 60 per cent of whom are Muslims.

The JD(S)’s lone Muslim woman nominee, Sabina Samad, is in the fray from the Kapu seat in the Udupi region. The BJP has not fielded a Muslim candidate in any of the state’s total 224 seats.

In March this year, three days before the announcement of the state polls, the Congress lost its traditional hold over the Gulbarga City Council with the BJP winning the mayor’s post despite the Congress becoming the single largest party in the 2021 civic polls.

In the 55-member Council, the Congress won 27 seats, BJP 23 and JD(S) four. With 32 votes (including votes of the MPs, MLAs and MLCs in Kalaburagi) required to clinch the mayoral position, the Congress was pipped by the BJP by a vote despite its alliance with the JD(S).

A blame game between Congress and JD(S) ensued. There was even a suggestion that it was the absence of the Congress president and Rajya Sabha MP Mallikarjun Kharge that sealed the deal for the BJP. Kharge had been the Lok Sabha MP from Gulbarga during 2009-19. 

While canvassing door-to-door and at other places, Fathima pleads for unity among the Muslim electorate. “Our disputes should not result in yielding benefits for others. My effort is to bring everyone together. Qamarul Saheb took everyone together,” she tells Muslims perceived to be opposed to her.

Fathima’s close aide, Abrar Sait, said although there were several candidates, the real challenge was from the JD(S) candidate. “When she entered politics she was inexperienced. The Congress leaders asked her to contest after Qamarul Saheb died. She practices a decent brand of politics and does not stoop to calling people names. She is liked for this reason,” he was quoted as saying.

Mohammed Qiwamuddin Junaidi, an advocate who, in 2018, fought the election from Gulbarga North as an Independent, said: “She (Fathima) has kept the tradition of Muslim-Hindu unity in the region that was started by Qamarul Saheb. We give sherbet to Ram Bhakts during Ram Navami even as we observe roza (fast) during Ramadan. If they are opposed to hijab then we have a leader who wears hijab and works to keep the unity among communities.”

However, reports quoted a local bakery owner Mohammed Irfan as saying that some doubts were being created about the Gulbarga North MLA in the constituency. “She has a tough fight on her hands,” he said.

The BJP, which is hoping to gain from the division of Fathima’s Muslim votes, is highlighting her “failures” in addressing issues in the Hindu localities in the constituency.

Of a total of 187 women candidates (seven percent of all) for the Karnataka polls, the JD(S) has fielded women nominees in 15 seats, followed by the BJP at 12 and the Congress at 11, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has fielded the maximum number of women candidates at 17.

There are altogether nine Muslim women candidates (five per cent of all women candidates) in the fray, including one each from the Congress and JD(S) and several Independents.

While the Congress has fielded a total of 11 Muslim candidates in this election, the JD(S) has given tickets to altogether 23 Muslim nominees. The AAP has fielded 17 Muslim faces in all, but none of them is a woman.

The Muslim community makes up over 12 per cent of Karnataka’s population. In the outgoing state assembly, there are 7 Muslim MLAs, all from the Congress.

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