India’s top court has delivered a split verdict on petitions challenging a judgment that upheld a ban on the hijab in educational institutions in southern Karnataka.
A group of students had appealed to the Supreme Court against a Karnataka High Court ruling in March.
This declared that the traditional hijab was not a critical part of Muslim religious practice. This followed a months-long row in the coastal state in December last year over religious symbols in schools and colleges.
Justice Hemant Gupta said that wearing a hijab was not a part of essential religious practice under Islam and dismissed the appeals.
But Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia allowed the petition, saying the high court had taken a “wrong path” and that wearing the scarf was a “matter of choice”.
“A girl child in [many] areas does household work and chores before going to school and are we making her life any better by [banning the hijab]," Mr Dhulia asked.
Mr Gupta on Thursday said the matter should be referred to a larger bench of more than two judges
"In view of divergent opinion, let the matter be placed before the Chief Justice of India for appropriate directions," the bench said.
Karnataka’s Education Minister, BC Nagesh, welcomed the verdict, saying women worldwide are demanding not to wear a hijab and burqa, a reference to the continuing protests in Iran.
“As a democratic government, we welcome the decision of the Supreme Court. There has also been an anti-hijab movement across the globe, following the developments in Iran, and women are against wearing the hijab,” Mr Nagesh said.
But the students’ lawyer, Mohammad Tahir, said that the verdict has placed them in a stronger position after Mr Dhulia’s comments and hoped that the higher bench will deliver a verdict in the students’ favour.
“I am happy that some judges acknowledged and made observations which have been our line of arguments that it is a choice of a student … our community got involved because of the divisive policy of the government,” Mr Tahir told The National.
“But after today’s split verdict, we are on a better footing now and the verdict will be in our favour,” he said.
The controversy over the hijab began in December when six Muslim students at the state-run Women's Pre-University college in Udupi district were barred from entering their classrooms while wearing a hijab.
There were claims that they were breaking college uniform rules.
The ban sparked protests by Muslim students outside their college campus, demanding that they be allowed to attend regular classes.
The aggrieved students took their fight against the ban to the courts, saying the headscarf is part of their fundamental right under the constitution that guarantees 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 in campuses and on the streets to counter Muslim female students demanding the right to wear 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 students.
Several incidents of stone-throwing and police using tear gas to disperse crowds were reported in the region as the issue triggered a nationwide furore, with several opposition political leaders lashing out at the government over the ban.
But the state government defended the decision, saying that the educational institutions had the right to prescribe and enforce the wearing of uniforms, including a no-hijab policy.