Hijab row: Sylhet teacher in hiding for a month over ‘false’ allegation

Some are making it an issue by mixing lies with the truth on Facebook, says local UP chairman

A Hindu teacher in Golapganj upazila of Sylhet has been in hiding for the last one month after being framed in a smear campaign that turned his request to remove the niqab (veil on face) into “forced removal” and defamation of Islam.

The campaign, spearheaded by a classmate of the girl in question on Facebook, sparked an uproar on social media and among locals as the teacher was accused of making derogatory remarks about the Islamic attire for women during a class on March 15.

The outrage prompted the authorities to form two probe bodies – one under the school governing body and the other by the upazila administration. But the teacher had to flee the area for safety.

“Things have become complicated... I took leave,” said Sunil Chandra Das, acting principal of Bhadeswar Nasir Uddin High School and College, where scarf is part of the uniform for female students.

Also Read- Hijab controversy: Student’s allegations found false

He refused to comment further on the incident, saying that the matter was under administrative investigation. He said he hoped that a proper investigation would reveal the truth.

Was he framed?

Several teachers of the institution told Dhaka Tribune that Sunil Chandra had been framed by a vested quarter.

“Our investigation is at the final stage. We’ll submit the report soon,” said Upazila Secondary Education Officer Abhijit Kumar Pal, a member of the three-strong committee formed by Upazila Nirbahi Officer Golam Kabir.

“Some people are making it an issue by mixing lies with the truth on Facebook,” said Union Parishad Chairman Shamim Ahmed, also head of the five-member probe body formed by the school.

Shamim declined to disclose the findings and recommendations of the report, submitted on April 10.

Governing body President Masum Chowdhury said that they were waiting for the report of the other probe body. “I haven’t seen the report yet. I’m in Dhaka now.”

“We never received any complaint against the teacher,” he added.

Also Read- Hijab row: Naogaon schoolteacher Amodini Pal was framed

Sunil Chandra joined the century-old institution as an assistant teacher in 1995 and later became its headmaster in 2009. He has been serving as acting principal since 2015, when he introduced the college section.

In 2019, he organized the centenary celebration of the school with participation of thousands of former and current students. 

What happened on that day?

On March 15, the day in-person classes resumed after a two-year pandemic-induced shutdown, the school authorities arranged special classes for the SSC candidates of 2022 to mitigate learning losses.

As the mathematics teacher, Amin Uddin, was absent on that day, Sunil Chandra went to take the class.

While explaining the importance of oxygen and the use of face masks, he asked the students to take a deep breath. However, a girl objected to remove her niqab to complete the task.

“Teachers are like your parents. You can take off the niqab considering me to be your father,” said Sunil Chandra, according to some students and parents.

The girl then accepted the request and took part in the experiment with the class. 

But when she went home and informed her parents about the matter, her mother complained to the governing body president over the phone. On the other hand, her father Abdul Halim posted a status on Facebook seeking justice for the teacher's treatment of his daughter, sparking outrage among the locals. 

In the aftermath, many others joined Facebook discussions on the matter and demanded the acting principal be punished, accusing him of making derogatory remarks about niqab and hijab (head scarf), and forcing the student to remove her niqab.

As the locals were fuming, Sunil Chandra along with several teachers and members of the governing body went to the girl’s house that night and apologized to her father Abdul Halim. 

After resolving the conflict, Halim posted another Facebook status, warning against false and fabricated posts and comments on the incident. 

“Such campaigns are shameful. The teacher was discussing the use of masks in the class. There was nothing about removing my daughter’s niqab,” his post read.

Meanwhile, a video message of another unidentified girl wearing a burqa and niqab spread on Facebook. The girl, claiming to be a classmate of Abdul Halim’s daughter, said that the teacher had forced her friend to take off her niqab that day.

The video stoked the anger among some locals, who did not believe the clarification by Abdul Halim.

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On March 20, UP Chairman Shamim Ahmed called a meeting on the college premises where the locals demanded stern punishment for Sunil Chandra.

“Some people are trying to fish in troubled water,” said a teacher, who accompanied Sunil Chandra to Abdul Halim’s house on March 15. 

Part of a smear campaign? 

This is the first of nearly half a dozen “hijab controversies” that took place across the country since then – notably in Chittagong and Naogaon – where school teachers have been harassed and assaulted on false charges of flogging girls for wearing the hijab.

Headmaster Tushar Kanti Barua of Jorarganj Bouddha High School in Mirsarai, Chittagong has submitted a temporary resignation as per the instructions of the school committee.

On March 29, he was physically assaulted by four relatives of a girl at the school as she had complained of being beaten up on the field after the PT class for wearing the hijab.

Later, a probe body found that Tushar Kanti had spoken to three female students after the class and Lamia, the eighth-grade student, was not there. She was late for school that day.

The social media campaigns regarding this incident also went viral like the one in Sylhet’s Golapganj.

The assistant headteacher of Daul Barbakpur High School in Naogaon’s Mohadevpur, Amodini Pal, came under fire as some students and guardians staged demonstrations and vandalized the school over the alleged defamation of the hijab. 

On April 6, Amodini and her colleague Badiul Alam disciplined some 16-18 male and female students, including a Hindu girl, of the eighth, ninth and tenth grades after the assembly, according to the local UNO.

But the incident was later diverted in a planned manner and turned into a “hijab controversy”, to evince that Muslim girls are barred from wearing the religious attire due to opposition by a Hindu teacher of the school. 

Meanwhile, a newly-floated organization of Dhaka University students fighting against “hijabophobia” has demanded freedom of wearing the hijab on campus anytime, anywhere, and ensuring space for offering prayers for female students. 

From a press conference on March 31, the students said they started surveying female students of the university on the hijab issue in January.

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On March 21, Mahila Anjuman, the women’s organization of Rajarbagh Darbar Sharif that promotes religious extremism – as revealed by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), demanded the use of the biometric system for identifying Muslim women who wear the veil.

From a media call at the National Press Club, they also demanded keeping female officers and employees in government offices for the convenience of veiled women.

A retaliation?

Apparently, the demand for an end to harassment of Muslim women for wearing Islamic attires has gained a footing in Bangladesh since March. 

Such allegations against and assaults on Hindu teachers may grow further as a retaliation to the ongoing anti-Muslim campaigns in Karnataka and other states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Many Muslim students of schools and colleges in Karnataka’s Udupi city have been demanding freedom of wearing the burqa and hijab despite being opposed and heckled by the Hindu male students, who wear saffron shawls, leading to court hearings.

On March 15, the Karnataka High Court upheld the government’s decision on enforcing dress codes in educational institutions, which means a ban on wearing religious attire – saffron stoles, scarfs and hijabs – in classrooms.

The Indian court ruled that the right to wear a hijab is not constitutionally protected; hijab is not an essential practice in Islam; prescribing a uniform is an institution's right; and that the state order is not discriminatory, although it could have been better drafted.

Meanwhile, Bengaluru police chief Kamal Pant has come under fire for removing loudspeakers from mosques, temples and churches as part of a drive against noise pollution, with critics alleging that the state government was persecuting the minority Muslims. On April 5, he also said that the drives would continue as per a court order to curb pollution.

The same day, the proscribed Islamist group al-Qaeda released a new video of its chief Ayman Al Zawahiri praising Muskan Khan, who confronted a mob that heckled her for wearing the hijab.