India's highest court will hear an appeal against the banning of the hijab in schools and colleges, amid a growing debate that Tuesday's judgment by a high court was an attack on Muslim religious practices in the constitutionally secular country.
N V Ramana, the Chief Justice of India, said on Wednesday the petition will be listed when the court reopens after Holi, the Hindu festival of colours, which this year starts on Friday.
Petitioners had moved the apex court late on Tuesday after the Karnataka High Court upheld a government ban on the wearing of the hijab, ruling that the traditional Muslim headscarf was not an “essential practice of Islamic faith”.
A lawyer of the petitioners had urged the top court to hear the appeal on an urgent basis and said that without a hijab, aggrieved Muslim women students were at risk of missing classes.
But the CJI-led bench said: “We will post the matter after the Holi vacations.”
The legal row began after six Muslim female students approached the Karnataka High Court in January, challenging a government order banning the hijab in schools and colleges.
The government had said the ban was imposed as the headscarves broke uniform rules of the institutions.
The petitioners, who were later joined by other aggrieved students, claimed that the government order breached their constitutional rights that guarantee freedom to practise one’s religious faith.
But the court dismissed their pleas on the ground that the students were mandated to wear uniforms prescribed by the institutions.
The complainants called the judgment “baseless”.
“We were hopeful of being granted our constitutional rights but the High Court’s decision is baseless … I will continue my fight for the hijab because it is my identity,” said Aliya Assadi, one of the petitioners.
The judgment has sparked a public debate, particularly among India’s minority Muslim community, members of which claim that the ruling is a direct attack on their religion.
The petitioners had also argued that the ban violated several provisions of the constitution, including Article 15 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race or caste, and Article 19 that guareentees freedom of expression.
Asaduddin Owaisi, president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and a vocal Muslim politician, said the ruling penalised Islamic practices.
“One religion has been targeted and its religious practice has been banned," Mr Owaisi tweeted. "Article 15 prohibits discrimination based on religion. Is this not a violation of the same?”
Several activists and legal experts criticised the verdict, saying it disrespects the practices of a particular religion.
“The individual dignity and dignity of a particular community have to be respected," Sanjay Parikh, a Supreme Court lawyer, told The National. "The hijab is an additional dress like Hindu girls put on a bindi. Escalating it to such a proportion was wrong.”
A bindi is a coloured dot worn by Hindu women on the centre of their forehead.
Mr Parikh was among 700 lawyers and other signatories of an open letter on the interim hijab ban by the Karnataka High Court in February.
The controversy began in December when six Muslim students of state-run Women's Pre-University college in Udupi district were barred from entering their classrooms wearing the hijab over claims they were breaking the institution's uniform rules.
The ban sparked protests by Muslim students outside their college campus, demanding that they be allowed to attend regular classes.
The rallies intensified and spread to other parts of the state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which reiterated its ban order on the hijab in early February, while briefly ordering educational institutions to shut down over fears of violence.
Scores of Hindu students wearing saffron scarves — a colour used by hardline Hindu nationalists — demonstrated in campuses and on the streets to counter Muslim female students demanding the right to wear the hijab.
They marched chanting "Jai Shri Ram" — a traditional Hindu salutation that has in recent years become a war cry — and in some cases heckled hijab-wearing Muslim students.
Several incidents of stone-pelting and police using tear gas to disperse crowds were reported in the region as the issue triggered a nationwide furore.
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 attend madrassas — the Islamic seminaries.
Many activists believe the judgment will further embolden the right-wing Hindus in a country where Muslim minorities have been feeling threatened since Mr Modi came to power in 2014.
“Even the interim order became a pretext for publicly humiliating Muslim girls and women by demanding that they strip off their hijabs publicly at school-college gates as a condition for entrance,” Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist, told The National.
Since Mr Modi’s ascent to power, India’s estimated 200 million Muslims have faced increased scrutiny from the Hindu nationalist government and radical groups linked to its ideology.
Several states ruled by Mr Modi’s party have passed strict laws for cow protection — an animal sacred to many Hindus — banned Muslim prayers in public spaces and criminalised interreligious marriages.
Mr Parikh said the court judgment would have far-reaching consequences on the social fabric of the country as it could open the floodgates for legal challenges on religious practices of other communities, including Hindus.
“The society survives by respecting views of other religions and dignity,” he said. "Because that is not happening, the insecurity is surfacing. If it continues, this will further divide society."