On March 15th, a high court in southwest India ruled in support of banning hijabs in public colleges and high schools. What started as a school policy dilemma in Udupi in December last year has become a precedent-setting issue in India.
Ritu Raj Awasthi, Chief Justice of the High Court of Karnataka, said they have reached the opinion that the “wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice.” “We are of the considered opinion that the prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to,” he added.
He also said that the government has the “power to prescribe uniform guidelines,” Al Jazeera reported.
The ban on wearing hijab inside government classrooms was ordered by Karnataka last month. The ban sparked wide protests by Muslim students and parents to express their disagreement and to counter the protesting Hindu students who are supportive of the ban.
Students who petitioned the initial order argued that their right to wear hijab is guaranteed under the Indian constitution. They also contended that wearing a hijab is a fundamental practice of Muslim women.
Awasthi’s latest comments effectively banned any petitions that will challenge the court’s ruling.
The ruling is a bitter disappointment as Karnataka is a province ruled by the ultra-conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many BJP members, including high-ranking officials, have anti-Muslim views.
Last month, a BJP MLA in Bihar called for Muslims to be stripped of their voting rights and “treated as second-class citizens.”
Anas Tanwir, the lawyer who represented the students, called the ruling “disappointing and erroneous. “I believe it is a wrong interpretation of the law,” Tanwir told Al Jazeera.
Tanwir argued that the issue is not about essential religious practice; it “should have been whether the authorities had the power to pass such orders.”
The Students Islamic Organisation of India, an organization representing thousands of Muslim students, feared that Karnataka’s ruling could signal other states to follow suit.
Musab Qazi, the organization’s national secretary, said they don’t want the ruling to set a precedent. “The court verdict might embolden more states to ban it,” she added.
Tanwir and the other opposition to the court’s ruling are set to bring the case to India’s Supreme Court.