Karnataka hijab ban: Supreme Court agrees to consider listing a plea for interim directions

A Supreme Court division bench had delivered a split verdict on October 13 on the question of the legality of the ban by the Karnataka government on the wearing of the hijab within classroom premises, and requested for the CJI to constitute an appropriate bench to decide the matter. 

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TODAY, the Chief Justice’s bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud and comprising Justices V. Ramasubramanian and J.B. Pardiwala, agreed to consider listing a plea for interim directions to permit Muslim girl students to appear for exams at pre-University colleges in Karnataka.

Last year, several petitions were filed at the Supreme Court challenging the ban on wearing the hijab in educational institutions in Karnataka. The entire controversy began when six Muslim girl students were denied entry into their classrooms in Udupi, in December 2021. The ban was based on the Karnataka Government Order on Dress Code for Students (GO), issued under the Karnataka Education Act, 1983. The ban was challenged before the High Court of Karnataka, which upheld it.

Today’s request was mentioned by senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, who told the CJI about the violation of the right to education of the girl students as they are not able to appear for their exams. According to Arora, the hijab ban has jeopardised their education and many of the girl students have even been admitted to private institutions. The CJI said that he will now look into the matter and list it before an appropriate bench.

This request comes at a time when the Hindu College in Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh recently 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.

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.

As far as the hijab ban in Karnataka is concerned, the girl students who had challenged the judgment of the Karnataka High Court before the Supreme Court through a special leave petition, failed to get any relief. A Supreme Court division bench, comprising Justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia, delivered a split verdict on October 13, 2022.

The operative part of the 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 Karnataka’s GO 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.