‘If dupatta, bangles not banned, why single out Muslim girls?’ Student asks HC

The petitioner's counsel told the High Court that MLAs being part of College Development Committees is a death knell to democracy and separation of powers.
Muslim students wearing a hijab with the Karnataka High Court in the backdrop
Muslim students wearing a hijab with the Karnataka High Court in the backdrop

Muslim girl students are being singled out and are being kept out of class purely on the basis of religion, a student petitioner's counsel, Ravivarma Kumar, told the Karnataka High Court on Wednesday, February 16. The Karnataka High Court bench of Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S Dixit and Justice JM Khazi continued hearing submissions from the petitioners on whether wearing hijab is a fundamental right and whether it's an essential religious practice, and senior advocate Ravivarma Kumar is representing a student petitioner in the case. 

Ravivarma Kumar made three broad submissions before the court. Firstly, he said that the Karnataka government order authorising College Development Committees (CDC) to prescribe uniforms is illegal, as the CDC can only ensure academic standards are maintained, it cannot discipline students. "CDC has no power to prescribe uniforms,” he submitted. 

He added that under the CDC, an MLA has been given administrative powers. The Udupi college committees where the issue first started are headed by the sitting MLA for the constituency. “But this is a death knell to democracy and to the doctrine of separation of powers. An MLA is part of a political party, and will have a political ideology. Can students’ welfare be entrusted to political ideology?” Ravivarma Kumar submitted before the bench.

Secondly, the counsel submitted that the Muslim students are being singled out and there are many others who cover their heads with dupatta or wear religious symbols — like Sikhs wear turbans, Hindus wear bangles, but the Karnataka government order only mentions Muslim students. 

“Why are only hijabs chosen for this hostile discrimination? Is this not because of their religion? Why pick out these Muslim students? A dupatta is not banned, a bangle-wearer is not sent out, a Christian girl wearing a cross is not sent out, why only these girls? This is a violation of Article 15," senior advocate Kumar asked. 

“No other religion has been addressed in the Karnataka GO. Why only hijab? Is it not discrimination based purely on religion? The students have not been heard, there was no prior given. They have just been shut out of classrooms,” he added. 

Kumar’s third submission was that the goal of education is to promote plurality and diversity, and a classroom should reflect diversity in society. “The purpose of a classroom is to promote diversity, not uniformity or homogeneity. It should be reflective of diversity in society,” he submitted.

“If a Sikh wearing a turban can be in the Army, why can’t a student wearing a headdress be allowed inside a class?” Kumar said while concluding his submissions. Kumar asked the High Court to set aside the Karnataka government order mandating uniforms and banning the wearing of hijab. He asked the court to take judicial note that students are being kept out of class and are being denied an education, saying that this will be very draconian and “doomsday for their educational career.”

After Kumar’s submissions, senior advocate Yusuf Muchhala also made submissions before the court. He said the Karnataka government’s order suffers from “manifest arbitrariness” and on that basis, it should be set aside. Before such an order, the senior advocate submitted, the parents and students should have been consulted. Citing that the government order also mentions the opposition by other students, Mucchala said that the order is partisan.

He added that the students are being forced to choose between the right to practice their faith and their right to education, and so the order violates fundamental rights. 

“The Muslim students are being put to a Hobson's choice — they are being asked to choose between faith and education. This violates fundamental rights. One fundamental right cannot denude the other,” Muchhala submitted.

Before the hearing was adjourned to Thursday, February 17, counsel Ravivarma Kumar said an application has been filed before the court seeking a clarification on the court’s interim order, and seeking to allow the students to use a dupatta the same colour as the uniform to cover their head and return to the class. Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi sought two days’ time to file objections to the application. The High Court has granted the two days. 

The court will continue to hear petitions on Thursday, February 17, at 2.30 pm. Here’s what happened in the previous hearings in the Karnataka High Court:

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