The Karnataka High Court on Tuesday dismissed petitions filed by a section of Muslim students from the Government Pre-University Girls’ College in Udupi, seeking permission to wear the hijab inside the classroom, saying the headscarf is not a part of the essential religious practice in the Islamic faith.
“The prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction, constitutionally permissible, which the students cannot object to,” a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi further noted.
Karnataka Primary and Secondary Education Minister B C Nagesh welcomed the order and described it as “landmark.”
“We are of the considered opinion that wearing of Hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith,” Chief Justice Awasthi, who headed the full bench of the High Court, said reading out a portion of the order.
The other two judges in the panel were Justice Krishna S Dixit and Justice J M Khazi.
The bench also maintained that the government has the power to issue an impugned order dated February 5, 2022 and no case is made out for its invalidation.
By the said order, the Karnataka government had banned wearing clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges, which the Muslim girls had challenged in the High Court.
The bench also rejected the plea to initiate a disciplinary inquiry against the college, its principal and a teacher.
“In the above circumstances, all these writ petitions being devoid of merits are liable to be and accordingly are dismissed. In view of the dismissal of the writ petition, all the pending applications fell into insignificance and are accordingly disposed off,” the bench said in its order.
Minister Nagesh welcomed the order. He tweeted, “I welcome (the) Landmark judgement of Hon’ble Karnataka High Court on School/College uniform Rules. It reiterated that the law of the land is above everything.”
On January 1, six girl students of a college in Udupi attended a press conference held by the Campus Front of India (CFI) in the coastal town, protesting against the college authorities denying them entry into the classroom wearing the hijab.
This was four days after they requested the principal permission to wear the hijabs in classrooms, which was not allowed. Till then, students used to wear the hijab to the campus and entered the classroom after removing the scarves, the college principal Rudre Gowda had said.
“The institution did not have any rule on Hijab-wearing as such and no one used to wear it to the classroom in the last 35 years. The students who came with the demand had the backing of outside forces,” Gowda had said.
The demand by a section of girls in the Udupi Pre-University College to wear the hijab inside their classrooms erupted into a major row after some Hindu students turned up in saffron shawls, with the issue spreading to other parts of the state, even as the government insisted on a uniform norm.
Subsequently, the institutions were shut for a few days before the court directed their re-opening, while directing students not to insist on wearing any cloth on campuses of educational institutions which can instigate people, till the matter is resolved.
Challenging the February 5 order of the government, the girls had argued before the bench that wearing the Islamic headscarf was an innocent practice of faith and an Essential Religious Practice (ERP), and not a mere display of religious jingoism.
Invoking Article 25 of the Indian Constitution before the bench, senior counsel Devadatt Kamat, who appeared on behalf of the Muslim girls from Udupi pre-university college, said the article speaks about ‘freedom of conscience’.
Kamat had also argued that wearing Rudraksha or putting a Nama (Tilak or vermillion on the forehead) was similar innocent faith as people who put it feel protected by the divine and a connect with the creator.
The petitioners also contended that the restriction violated the freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(A) and Article 21 dealing with personal liberty.
However, state Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi rejected the argument and said the right to wear the hijab did not fall under Article 25 of the Constitution as argued by the girls. He also said there was no restriction on wearing the hijab in India, with reasonable restrictions subject to institutional discipline.
He even contended that the girls were seeking a declaration to make the hijab mandatory. Once the declaration is affirmed by the court, it will become binding on every Muslim woman to wear it or else they will be branded as anti-religious.
“The consequence of the demand to declare Hijab as an essential religious practice is huge because there is an element of compulsion or else you will be expelled from the community,” Navadgi had told the court during the course of the hearing.
The counsel appearing for the Udupi Government Pre-University Girls’ College, its principal and a teacher, S S Naganand, contended that the prayer of the Muslim girls regarding the institution’s authorities was unusual and that there was a fine line of distinction between religion and culture.
Naganand also told the court that the parents of the Muslim girls, who want the hijab to be permitted on the college campus, requested the teachers to ensure that their daughters are not involved in singing, dancing, music and extra-curricular activities.
“Now a different context is given to the whole thing. I don’t know whether they mean the Muslim girls should not sing with their classmates. If the national anthem is sung, they should not sing? Is it against Islam?” Naganand had argued.
During the course of the hearing, the Karnataka High Court also took note of the role of the Campus Front of India (CFI), after Naganand submitted that the hijab row was started by some students owing allegiance to the student body.
The senior counsel said the organisation was spearheading and drumbeating in favour of students demanding wearing of hijab in class-the rooms. Accordingly, Advocate General Navadgi made the government’s submission regarding the CFI in a sealed envelope.
The court was also informed that some teachers were threatened by CFI activists in Udupi and an FIR was also registered against them.