Sometimes I get the feeling we’re living in one of those Philip K. Dick style science fiction films where free will and freedom of expression is always inversely proportionate to technological advancement. Wendy Doniger has been writing books about Hinduism for ages, so why haven’t any of her books been pulped before 2014, around the same time the government told cord blood banks they wouldn’t have to pay service tax to preserve stem cells and after the time that we launched a rocket to Mars. Surreal.

In India’s fastest growing city, we still read about hijab hatred, burqa bans and pogonophobia. In a classic example of the last, Bangalore Mirror reported recently that the Karnataka high court reprimanded the National Cadet Corps (NCC) for their fear of beards. I’m serious.

Apparently, a group of students has been fighting a court battle for the past year against a senior NCC officer for not allowing them to take an examination because of their beards; and then, for allowing them but withholding the certificates until they are cleanshaven. The lawyer for the NCC argued that only Sikhs were allowed their beards in the armed forces. If Sikhs can, why can’t Muslims, the judge wanted to know. The NCC side had to request more time to answer that one and finally decided instead to accept the court’s logic.

Everyone once in a while, some school will join the melee by announcing a hijab ban. In the most creative excuse I’ve heard so far, one Bangalore school said earlier this month that they wanted to ban head scarves and burqas to prevent “kidnapping of schoolchildren by burqa-clad miscreants".

I decided to see if the Islamic Information Centre’s national toll-free line, prominently advertised outside my neighbourhood mosque, had any insights. The toll-free number for non-Muslims promises to “remove misconceptions about Islam" and calls are answered by articulate, educated, extremely polite men who respond in English, Hindi and Telugu. When I finally manage to interrupt Mohammed Mahmood’s sonorous soliloquy on compassion, universal brotherhood and embryology in the Quran, I ask him what he thinks of the global debate on the hijab.

Mahmood, who runs his own home store, when he’s not volunteering to answer calls, quotes the hijab-wearing Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman. When journalists questioned the way she dressed, she replied that man began covering up as his intellect evolved and what she was wearing represented the highest level of thought and civilization, and not regression.

Fair enough and I thanked Mahmood for his time but personally I believe, such battles are most effectively subverted with humour. When a provincial political party in French-speaking Quebec, Canada, said last year that it would not allow public servants to wear religious “headwear" like turbans and hijabs, one Ontario hospital had the perfect answer to this bizarre form of policing. The recruitment advertisment for Lakeridge Health read simply: “We don’t care what’s on your head, we care what’s in it." The young woman pictured in the ad wore a stethoscope and a hijab. Now that’s what I call a fitting response.

Close