India hijab row: Muslim students plan Supreme Court appeal against Karnataka headscarf ban

The headscarf is 'not an essential part of the Islamic faith', judge says

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A group of students plan to appeal against Tuesday's ruling by an Indian High Court that the traditional hijab is not a critical part of Muslim religious practice, their lawyer has said.

Muslim students had petitioned the Karnataka High Court to declare the hijab as part of their essential religious practices, after a row erupted in the southern state over the use of religious symbols in schools and colleges.

The court dismissed three petitions and upheld a government ban on the headscarf.

Wearing of hijab is not essential religious practice of Islamic faith,” said Chief Justice Rituraj Awasthi. "The school regulations prescribing a dress code for all the students as one homogenous class, serve constitutional secularism.”

The petitioners will challenge the ruling before India’s top court, Mohammad Tahir, one of the lawyers of the petitioners, told The National.

“I am sad with the verdict. The High Court has rejected the rights of the individuals,” Fathima Usman, one of the students involved, told The National.

The court had earlier passed an interim order banning any religious clothing in education institutions and reserved its ruling on February 25 after daily hearings for nearly two weeks.

Before Tuesday's verdict, the state had banned large gatherings for a week in several parts of the state including capital Bengaluru "to maintain public peace and order".

The row had sparked tensions in the communally sensitive state, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is in power.

The state government, however, hailed the verdict saying the court cleared all the confusion over hijab.

“We most respectfully welcome this decision,” Captain Ganesh Karnik, the spokesman of the Karnataka government, told The National. “The court has made clear that as far as the school discipline is concerned, it is not the choice of the individual but the discipline of the institution which matters most.”

The dispute began in December when six Muslim students at the state-run Women's Pre-University college in Udupi district were barred from entering classrooms while wearing hijabs, on the grounds that they were breaching college uniform rules.

The ban sparked protests by Muslim students outside their college campus, demanding that they be allowed to attend regular classes.

The students took their case to court, arguing that the headscarf was part of their fundamental right under the constitution, which guarantees the right to profess, practice and propagate religion.

Several other petitioners filed pleas before the court against the ban, while some teachers and students refused to attend classes in schools and colleges without the headscarf.

The protests intensified and spread to several schools and colleges in the state after the government reiterated its ban on hijabs in early February while briefly ordering educational institutions to shut down over fears of violence.

Tensions soared after hundreds of Hindu students wearing saffron scarves — a colour used by hardline Hindu nationalists — rallied at campuses and on the streets to counter Muslim female students demanding the right to wear the hijab.

The students marched chanting "Jai Shri Ram", a traditional Hindu salutation that has in recent years become a war cry, and heckled some hijab-wearing students.

Several incidents of stone-pelting were reported in the region and police used tear gas to disperse crowds.

The issue soon snowballed into a national political controversy and several opposition political leaders accused the government of allowing the situation to go out of hand.

But the state government run by Mr Modi’s party defended the decision, saying that educational institutions have the right to prescribe and enforce the wearing of uniform, including a no-hijab policy.

Many leaders from the governing party have equated the students’ demands with “the Taliban” and suggested that Muslim women intending to wear the hijab should study at madrassas — the Islamic seminaries.

A few suggested that those intending to wear hijab should migrate to India’s arch-rival Pakistan – rhetoric often used by right-wing Hindus against Indian Muslims.

Many opponents of the hijab ban say prohibiting the headscarf is part of the ruling right-wing BJP’s Hindu majoritarian agenda that has created fears of marginalising the country’s religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

The country’s 200 million Muslim population has witnessed increased attacks since Mr Modi’s landslide election win in 2014 and his return to power in 2019 with a bigger mandate.

Dozens of Muslims have been killed or injured since 2014 by Hindu mobs over cow slaughter, a sacred animal for many Hindus.

Updated: March 15, 2022, 12:05 PM