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Karnataka hijab ban: Plea for interim directions mentioned again, Supreme Court to take a call on its listing

The plea for interim directions was mentioned last month before the Chief Justice’s bench to allow aggrieved Muslim girls, who failed to get any relief as the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on October 13 last year, to appear for their exams. Meanwhile, incidents of Muslim girl students being denied entry into colleges have become frequent.

TODAY, the Chief Justice’s bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud and comprising Justice P.S. Narasimha, agreed to listing a plea for interim directions to permit Muslim girl students to appear for exams at pre-university colleges in Karnataka, after it was mentioned by advocate Shadan Farasat. However, the court has not given any date on its listing.

These girls have lost an academic year as they were not permitted to enter their colleges wearing the hijab due to an order by the Karnataka government issued last year that essentially allowed educational institutions in the state to set a dress code for its female students that bars donning the hijab.

The Karnataka government’s order was challenged before the High Court of Karnataka, which upheld it. Subsequently, several petitions were filed at the Supreme Court challenging the ban. The Supreme Court’s division bench of Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia delivered a split verdict, referring the matter to a larger bench of the court.

A three-judge bench to hear the challenges to the split verdict is yet to be constituted. Till then, status quo has been maintained in Karnataka in relation to the government order, which continues to be in place.

In January, a plea for interim directions was mentioned by senior advocate Meenakshi Arora before the bench of CJI Dr. Chandrachud also comprising Justices V. Ramasubramanian and J.B. Pardiwala. The bench had agreed to consider its listing.

Arora told the CJI about the violation of the right to education of girl students and that the hijab ban has jeopardised their education, as many of the girl students have been compelled to take admission at private institutions. The CJI said that he will now look into the matter and list it before an appropriate bench.

A recent study by the human rights body, People’s Union for Civil Liberties — Karnataka, titled ‘Closing the Gates of Education: Violations of the right of Muslim women students in Karnataka’, found that the hijab ban has resulted in the dropout of more than 800 girl students in Karnataka. Over 400 girl students have been denied entry to or suspended from college and missed classes because of it.

Similar hijab ban imposed in Uttar Pradesh

These requests come at a crucial time when similar incidents are taking place in different colleges where Muslim girls clad in the hijab or the burqa are denied entry into colleges.

In January, the Hindu College in Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh denied entry to Muslim girl students clad in hijab and burqa. The students alleged that the college administration compelled them to remove their headscarves at the entrance of the university. According to the college administration, they were not allowed to wear headscarves as per the dress code for students prescribed by the college.

About Supreme Court’s split judgment

The operative part of the Supreme Court’s judgment stated, “In view of the divergent opinions expressed by the bench, the matter is placed before the Chief Justice of India for the constitution of the appropriate bench.”

Justice Gupta’s judgment observed that the Karnataka order was to ensure parity amongst the students in terms of uniforms. As per his judgment, it promotes uniformity and encourages a secular environment in schools. Thus, it was in accordance with Article 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution.

Further, he wrote that restrictions on freedom of religion and conscience have to be read in conjointly with other provisions of Part III of the Constitution. Thus, the state law has primacy over the proposed right to freedom of religion, if the State wants to regulate secular aspects connected to religion.

Whereas Justice Dhulia, while rejecting the need to determine whether the practice of wearing hijab constituted an essential religious practice within Islam, emphasised the right to freedom and dignity of the individuals.

According to him, discipline in schools is necessary, but not at the cost of an invasion of privacy and dignity of girl students who were asked to remove their hijab at the school gate. He ultimately concluded that the invasion of their privacy and the attack on their dignity is a denial of secular education, and thus a violation of their rights under Articles 19(1)(a) (right to freedom of speech and expression), 21 (right to life and personal liberty) and 25(1) (freedom of religion) of the Constitution.