Hijab a practice of faith, not display of religious jingoism: Students to Karnataka HC

The petitioner’s counsel also requested the High Court to reconsider its interim order restraining students from wearing religious attire in classrooms, submitting that it suspends their fundamental rights.
Muslim students wearing hijab in front of a picture of the Karnataka High Court
Muslim students wearing hijab in front of a picture of the Karnataka High Court

The Karnataka High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice J M Khazi and Justice Krishna M Dixit continued hearing arguments in the batch of pleas filed by students against the hijab ban on campuses. Senior advocate Devadatt Kamat, appearing for a student petitioner, completed his submissions on Tuesday, February 15, and said Article 25 speaks about 'freedom of conscience' and that this term has a lot of depth. "The essence of Article 25 is it protects the practice of innocent faith and not a mere display of religious identity or jingoism,” Kamat submitted. 

Kamat requested the High Court to consider allowing the students to attend classes with headscarves and reconsider its interim order, and submitted that it suspends their fundamental rights. "We are a secular state. We are not like Turkey where there is negative secularism," he said. 

The senior counsel also cited a judgment from South Africa, the Sonali Pillai case, where the court had ruled in her favour, allowing her to wear a nose ring at school. Sonali had challenged her school's order restricting her from wearing a nose ring. The school had claimed that if they allowed it, the school will become 'a parade of the horribles,' but the court held that this argument had no merit, and that “the possibility of abuse should not affect the rights of those who held sincere beliefs.”

Senior advocate Ravivarma Kumar, who is representing another student petitioner, also began his arguments before the High Court. He submitted that the college development committee is not authorised to decide on uniforms, as stated by the state government. 

“College development committee is a non-existent body under the statute. It is an extra-legal authority which has now been endowed with the power to prescribe the uniform, contrary to the scheme of the Karnataka Education Act,” he submitted. 

The High Court was also informed that its interim order was being misused by authorities, and hijab-wearing students and even teachers, at institutions where there is not a mandated uniform, are also being stopped at the gates. However, the court noted that the affidavit about the same was filed by a counsel, and not a petitioner or party, and rejected it on technical grounds. The court will continue hearing the case on Wednesday, February 16, at 2.30 pm. 

Last week, the Karnataka High Court bench had issued an interim order, restraining students from wearing any kind of religious clothing, be it a headscarf or saffron shawls, to high schools and colleges, till the case is being heard in court. However, the HC said that this applies only to those institutions which have a dress code that disallows the hijab. The HC had also allowed high schools and colleges to open. The bench observed that the main objective of the case should be to ensure students can attend schools.

After a brief shutdown by the government as anti-hijab protests were turning violent, high schools reopened in Karnataka on Monday, February 14, and many Muslim students who came to attend classes were asked to remove hijabs at the entrance.

A single bench of the Karnataka High Court had been hearing pleas against the hijab ban, when Justice Krishna Dixit transferred the matter to a larger bench. Justice Dixit said that there are some constitutional questions of seminal importance, as there is an aspect of personal law involved in the issue, and hence a larger bench may be constituted to hear the case. The matter was then referred to the three-judge bench.

The hijab row started at the end of December last year when a few students wearing the hijab were barred from a government pre-university college in Udupi. The hijab-wearing students protested against this, and to counter this some Hindu students in colleges in Kundapur started coming to their institutions wearing saffron scarves. The saffron protests spread to other parts of the state. The Karnataka government then banned both hijabs and saffron scarves, and said that till an expert committee decides on the issue, all students must adhere to the uniform.

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