The Karnataka High Court on Wednesday referred the plea of girls from Udupi district to be allowed to wear Hijab in schools to a larger bench, as the state government decided to ban any protests around educational institutions in the state for two weeks.
The hijab controversy, spotlighting girls from the Muslim community in coastal districts of the state, which have a sizeable minority population, has riveted the nation’s attention. As a counter to the girls wearing hijabs, some male students started attending schools sporting saffron scarves in Udupi and other districts, the colour identified with the Hindu religion. Authorities forbade scarf-wearing students from entering the premises of the educational institutions as well. The ensuing standoff only ensured that the agitation quickly spread to six other districts of Karnataka, with reports of violence from one district.
This has led to a raging debate on whether the Hijab should be allowed in educational institutions or not. There are strong views in favour of the right of the girls to wear hijab to schools saying no law forbids them from doing so. The counter view is that the school dress should not identify the religious identity of the student and, therefore, there should be a uniform dress code.
Congress leaders such as Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have backed the hijab wearing girls saying that what one wears is his or her personal choice. On the other hand, BJP leaders including parliamentary affairs minister Prahlad Joshi, who comes from Karnataka, has backed uniform dress code.
As the issue has reached courts, it would be interesting to see what the law says about it. The Constitution is silent on whether religious dresses can be worn to schools.
Article 19 (1)(a) says all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression. The Supreme Court in several orders has defined reasonableness to this freedom and has allowed states to impose restrictions to maintain public order conditional to review by the Apex Court.
Article 25 of the Constitution maintains that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practise and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality and health. The provision also allows the State to regulate or restrict any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.
The Supreme Court in its orders have upheld right of the person to propagate his religious beliefs and has maintained that action cannot be taken on students for their religious beliefs. The top court in the past has pointed out that keeping a beard was not essential part of Islam and Tandav Dance was not essential part of Anand Margi faith.
In light of these constitutional provisions and apex court orders, the Karnataka high court will have to decide whether hijab is part of Islamic practice or not.
The Kerala high court, however, steered clear of the question whether hijab is an essential religious practice protected under Article 25. Therefore, the final order of Karnataka high court would have bigger political and religious implications.