‘The hijab is not an essential religious practice’, the Karnataka High Court ruled today as it backed the ban on hijab in classrooms, challenged by a group of Muslim students in a row that spread to many districts since protests began at a school. A Full Bench of the High Court comprising of three judges held that a uniform prescription for all students would promote a sense of “constitutional secularism” within the institution. Also, the court held that prescribing a dress code for the students did not offend “constitutionally protected category of rights when they are ‘religion-neutral’ and ‘universally applicable’”.
By quoting passages from the Quran in the 129-page order, the status of hijab as an obligatory religious practice was argued. “There is sufficient intrinsic material within the scripture itself to support the view that wearing hijab has been only recommendatory if at all it is. What is not religiously made obligatory therefore cannot be made a quintessential aspect of the religion through public agitations or by the passionate arguments in court,” the order says.
Also, Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi-led full bench said, “We are of the considered opinion that wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in the Islamic faith.” The bench further added, “We are of the considered opinion that the prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to.
Hijab Row: How it Started?
The hijab row began in December 2021 when six students of Udupi Women’s PU College staged a protest as college authorities did not let hijab-clad girls inside the classroom.
Following that protest, on January 03, Hindu students of Government College in Koppa, Chikmagalur, staged a protest demanding permission to wear saffron scarves if Muslim girl students were allowed to wear hijabs. On January 14, female Muslim students in Udupi accused their college principal of not allowing them to attend classes. On January 31, the case reached High Court as students from Udupi Women’s PU college requested interim relief from HC to attend classes wearing hijab. Following the lawsuits, many colleges shut their gates to students wearing Hijab.
Karnataka High Court Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, on February 09, constituted a full bench to hear the Hijab row. The other judges were Justice Krishna S Dixit and Justice JM Khazi. The irony of the Indian judicial system hit its peak when Supreme Court refused to list a plea seeking transfer of hijab row petitions from the Karnataka High Court to the apex court on an urgent basis. During this period many schools and colleges were shut down and when they re-opened, multiple videos of students reprimanded for wearing hijab emerged. On February 25, the Karnataka High Court reserved its judgment in the hijab row after a marathon hearing in the case.
As the actual petition was in demand of a constitutional right to practice one’s religion, by citing a 2018 judgment of the Kerala High Court, the judges noted that the protection of fundamental rights to practice a religion must be in concurrence with “constitutional values” that protect the dignity and individual freedom.
Udupi is one of three districts in Karnataka’s coastal region – a region considered sensitive for communal violence. It is also a stronghold of Mr Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The protests initiated in December soon spread to other colleges in the state governed by the BJP. In consequence, Hindu students started wearing saffron shawls in the classrooms – Symbolising Hindu religion which amplified the communal violence eventually attracting international attention.
Critics of the decision say that the ruling will further divide the Hindus and Muslims. BJP has denied any such opinion but the empirical data and the statements of BJP leaders point in the opposite direction. Last month, India’s federal minister Amit Shah said he preferred students sticking to school uniforms instead of any religious attire. However, there is no central law or rule on school uniforms across the country, but the Karnataka ruling could prompt more states to issue such guidelines.