Karnataka hijab row: Explaining how the controversy erupted and what’s next for student protesters

The Karnataka High Court upheld the ban that restricted students from wearing the hijab in classrooms. But the fight is far from over for student petitioners, who are ready to approach the Supreme Court

FP Explainers March 15, 2022 18:12:57 IST
Karnataka hijab row: Explaining how the controversy erupted and what’s next for student protesters

The Karnataka High Court said in its order that wearing hijab is not an essential religious practice of Islam. PTI

The Karnataka High Court (HC) on Tuesday upheld the ban on wearing the hijab in educational institutions. The hijab is not an essential religious practice in the Islamic State, the HC said in its order, as it dismissed a number of petitions challenging a ban on headscarves in the state.

The court was hearing writ petitions filed by Muslim students seeking permission to wear hijab in classrooms.

“We are of the considered opinion that the prescription of a school uniform is a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to,” the full bench comprising Karnataka chief justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S Dixit, and Justice J M Khazi.

The order comes a big blow to Muslim girls and women attending schools and colleges in the state. Thousands took to the streets after the hijab controversy stoked protests, which spread to other parts of the country, and forced authorities in Karnataka to keep educational institutions closed.
But where did it all begin and what next for the student petitioners?

Next stop Supreme Court

Soon after the order, the student petitioners in the case from the Udupi Women’s PU (pre-university) College stared the process of appealing against the verdict in the Supreme Court. “These girls have not lost hope in courts and the constitution,” tweeted Anas Tanwar, a SC advocate fighting the case for the students.

“Wearing the hijab is an essential practice in Islam. Karnataka HC’s verdict on the hijab is a bad judgment,” advocate AM Dhar, one of the petitioners in the case, told ANI, adding that he hoped “justice will prevail in the Supreme Court”.

What leaders are saying

Meanwhile, the Karnataka government has asked everyone to abide by the verdict and cooperate with them in implementing it. “Everyone should abide by the verdict of the three judges bench of the High Court… Maintaining peace and order in the society is of utmost importance,” Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai told reporters in Bengaluru.

“I appeal to the people, leaders of all communities, parents, teachers and students to accept the order and cooperate in imparting education to students, in accordance with the court order," he added.

The verdict, however, has been slammed by minority leaders. AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said that he disagreed with the judgment and hoped that it will “not be used to legitimise the harassment on hijab-wearing women”. In a 15-tweet thread, he further explained why the verdict was problematic.

Prominent Kashmir leaders Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah have also expressed their disappointment with the order. “On one hand, we talk about empowering women yet we are denying them the right to a simple choice. It isn’t just about religion but the freedom to choose,” former Chief Minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti wrote on Twitter.

Echoing her views, Abdullah said, “Regardless of what you may think about the hijab it’s not about an item of clothing, it’s about the right of a woman to choose how she wants to dress.”

Where it all began

The hijab row has now hit national and international headlines. But it all started with a protest by a group of six girls in Udupi, who were denied permission to wear hijab in the classroom in December last year. On 1 January 2022, the students of Udupi Women’s PU College held a press conference and criticised the ban.

Soon after, Udupi BJP MLA Raghupati Bhat, also the college’s development committee head, met with the students and parents and requested them to follow the college dress code. However, the girls were not ready to budge. They continued the demonstration and stood outside the classroom for three days and later approached the court. Soon reports started emerging from other educational institutions as they imposed similar curbs.

From the classroom to court

On 31 January, several writ petitions were filed in the Karnataka High Court by Muslim students, seeking the right to wear the hijab. In their petition, they contended that the Constitution granted them the right to profess, practise, and propagate their religion.

The protests intensified and spread to other parts of the state. Those supporting the hijab ban came face-to-face with youth sporting saffron scarves. The rising tensions led to suspension of classes in several colleges in Vijayapura, Koppa, Mangaluru, Kundapura and Udupi.

Protests intensify

In Chikkamagaluru, there was a stand-off between students supporting hijab-clad girls who wore blue shawls and their opponents wearing saffron. A video from Mandya, showing a burqa-clad student shouting out “Allahu Akbar” after allegedly being heckled by youth wearing saffron near her college went viral.

On 8 February, the Karnataka government declared a three-day holiday after campuses saw incidents of stone-pelting and the police used force to quell protests.

The first order

A full bench of the Karnataka High Court was constituted to look into the matter. On 10 February, they passed an interim order that restrained students from wearing the hijab, saffron scarves, shawls, or religious flags within the classroom until the final order was delivered.

The BJP government in Karnataka backed the verdict and the department of primary and secondary education asked schools and colleges to create a separate enclose for girl students to remove the hijab before entering classrooms.

On 23 February, the HC clarified that the restrictions on religious attire only applied to schools and colleges, which prescribe a uniform. Teachers were not bound by restrictions, it said in an oral clarification.

The fight is on

On 14 March, a day before the verdict, Section 144 was imposed across the state. In Bengaluru, all gatherings, protests, and celebrations in public places are banned from 15 March to 21 March.

On Tuesday, the court upheld the ban. But this controversy is far from over, as the petitioners have vowed to fight on. After the verdict, the Udupi students, who went to the HC, said, “If Dr Ambedkar was alive, he would cry at this. Education is our priority, the Constitution allows us right to profess our religion. We are shaken, we expected so much.”

With inputs from agencies

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