The Karnataka High Court on Thursday, February 10, restrained students from wearing any kind of religious clothing, be it a headscarf or saffron shawls, to high schools and colleges as it is still hearing the case. A bench, comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S Dixit and Justice JM Khazi, was hearing the Muslim students’ pleas against the ban on hijabs in educational institutions. The High Court said it will issue an interim order that high schools and colleges in the state — which were asked to stay closed till Friday, February 11 — should reopen but nobody should be allowed to wear any kind of religious clothing.
“We will pass an order that lets institutions start. But till the matter is pending, these students shall not insist on wearing religious cloth, be it hijab or saffron cloth. We will restrain everyone. Let there be peace and tranquillity,” Chief Justice Awasthi observed.
The bench observed that the main objective of the case should be to ensure students can attend schools. Though the petitioners asked for interim relief stating that disallowing the hijab will be in contravention of the students’ fundamental right’, the Chief Justice said it is a matter of a few days and adjourned the hearing.
Appearing for a student petitioner from an Udupi college, senior advocate Sanjay Hegde pointed out that the Karnataka Education Act does not prescribe a uniform, nor does it prescribe any penalty if a proper uniform is not followed. “There is no provision for uniform, there is no penalty, and if the uniform is not worn/incorrectly worn, there is no prescribed penalty. Even if there was, the High Court could have seen if it would have been proportionate to keep students out of class,” he submitted. He added that the matter of uniform should not be left to the college committee to decide. “This is a question of a student's dignity and integrity. Dr BR Ambedkar was made to sit separate when he was in school. After so many years of the Republic, there should not be any segregation,” he added.
Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi, appearing for the state government, had submitted to the court that ever since this row erupted, there is another set of students who are wearing ‘bhagwa’ or saffron shawls, and that this has led to a disturbance in educational institutions.
Senior advocate Devadatt Kamat, appearing for students from a Kundapur college, sought interim relief and asked the court to allow the students to wear a headscarf of the same colour as the uniform. Citing the state government’s order that status quo should return and that students must wear a uniform, the counsel said, “The state is playing by fire. In the GO, it says that the headscarf is not part of religious practice. Is fundamental right hostage to college committee?” he asked. “The Karnataka government’s GO suffers from total non-application of mind,” he added, stating that the judgments cited by the government in the order do not apply to this case.
The court will continue hearing the case on Monday, February 14.
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.
In the previous hearings, the counsel for the petitioners had submitted that wearing the hijab is an essential religious practice. The Karnataka government counsel argued that the students must adhere to the dress code mandated by the educational institution, and cited previous judgments to say that the hijab is not an integral part of religious practice.
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 started coming to the college wearing saffron scarves. The Karnataka government then banned both, and said that till an expert committee decides on the issue, all students must adhere to the uniform.
Earlier on Thursday, a plea on the hijab row was also filed before the Supreme Court. However, a bench headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana said that the Karnataka High Court is hearing the case and should be allowed to make a decision. “Let the high court decide. Why should we look into it immediately? Let the high court hear the matter,” the CJI told senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who sought an urgent hearing by the SC.
The row spread to other educational institutions in different parts of the state, and the protests took a violent turn in some places. Then the state government ordered the closure of all high schools and colleges in Karnataka for three days due to rising tensions over the issue.