Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah on Friday, December 22 said that he has directed that the ban on hijabs in classrooms be revoked in the state. The ban was imposed by the previous BJP government led by Basavaraj Bommai.
Siddaramaiah said, “No [restrictions]. You can wear a hijab. I have instructed [officials] that there will be no restriction from tomorrow (December 23) onwards. You can wear and eat whatever you want. It’s up to you… Your choices are yours and my choices are mine. It's that simple. I wear a dhoti and kurta, and you wear pants and a shirt. It’s your choice. What’s wrong with this?” Revoking the hijab ban was a promise made by the Congress party ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections.
Though the latest announcement by the Chief Minister has led to a political slugfest with the BJP opposing it, the moot question is whether the ban can be reversed without entering into further legal battles. The answer is: yes.
Senior advocate BT Venkatesh told TNM that deciding to implement or revoke such a rule is entirely up to the government in power. “In the past, the government defended banning hijabs in classrooms, but now that there's a new government, they have the authority to cancel that order. It's seen as an administrative decision.”
The hijab ban inside classrooms, instituted in February 2022 by the then BJP government, specifically targeted Muslim girl students. The order banned students from wearing clothes that “disturb equality, integrity and public law and order” in schools and colleges.
Citing section 133(2) of the Karnataka Education Act of 1983, the order said that the government has the authority to issue necessary instructions to schools and colleges to uphold public order. Furthermore, it said that in colleges affiliated with the Karnataka Department of Pre-University Education, students must adhere to the dress code specified by either the College Development Committee or the administrative supervisory committee. “In the event of the administrative committee not selecting a uniform, clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn," the order said.
The order further read, “The education department has noticed that in some education institutions, the boys and girls have started behaving according to their religion, which hurts the equality and unity.”
In March 2022, a Karnataka High Court bench dismissed student petitioners’ pleas against the hijab ban, ruling that wearing of hijab by Muslim women was not an “essential practice” under Islam. Soon after, this High Court order was challenged in the Supreme Court, and the matter is still sub judice. Anas Tanwir, an Advocate-on-Record for the Supreme Court who represented one of the petitioners in SC, said that withdrawing the hijab ban could be easily done by cancelling the government order since it was issued without the necessary legislative authority.
The Karnataka Education Act of 1983 and related rules, it is argued, do not grant the state government the authority to dictate student attire. Sections 3 (regulation of education) and 7 (government to prescribe curricula, etc.) of the Act empower the state government to regulate education matters but do not authorise the imposition of a uniform.
Anas contends that the government order from February 5, 2022, exceeded legal boundaries under Section 133(2) (powers of Government to give directions) of the Act. This section allows the state government to issue directions to institutions, provided they are necessary for carrying out the Act's purposes. Critics argue that the order obstructed the education of girl students instead of supporting the Act's objectives.
“We should keep in mind that the Karnataka government's announcement signifies an intention to lift the ban, not its immediate removal. We hope that the ban will be removed soon,” Anas said.
In the early days of January, the dispute over colleges imposing a ban was confined to Udupi and Chikkamagaluru. In protest, Hindu students had started wearing saffron scarves around their necks inside classrooms. With the issue snowballing into a controversy and protests spreading across the state, five girl students appealed to the Karnataka High Court against the government order. The HC dismissed their pleas, contending that wearing a hijab was not considered an essential religious practice of Islam. The matter is still sub judice as the Supreme Court in October 2022 had delivered a split verdict, and a larger constitutional bench to look into the matter hasn’t been formed yet.
According to the Muslim Okkoota, a union of Muslim organisations in Udupi, a total of 183 pre-university students were unable to take exams in 2022 as a result of the hijab ban. This accounts for 12.5% of the 1,446 Muslim female students enrolled in Udupi's pre-university colleges. The state government’s response in the monsoon session of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly 2022 revealed that a total of 1,010 hijab-wearing girls dropped out of PU colleges “because of the hijab ban and other reasons as well”.