The Karnataka hijab row raged on for the fourth day in the Karnataka High Court on Wednesday, with the Chief Justice hearing the arguments of petitioners who have opposed the legal restrictions on wearing religious headwear in educational institutions.
Ravi Varma Kumar, the former advocate general of Karnataka, presented his case before a full bench of the Court on behalf of one of the petitioners by asserting that in the absence of state-mandated uniforms, the attempt to impose restrictions on headwear-clad Muslim girls and to prevent them from attending classes amounted to “religious discrimination”, which is in contravention to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution.
Kumar asked the judges of the bench to clarify the reasons behind singling the hijab out as an unacceptable expression of religious association, when there are innumerable religious symbols, such as bangles, turbans, crosses, bindis, etc., on display at all times and in all spheres of Indian life.
“Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians have their religious symbols. I only want to highlight the plurality and diversity that exists in our society. Why has only the hijab been chosen for this hostile discrimination? Is it not because of religion?” Kumar enquired of the court. “This is only because of her religion that the petitioner is being sent out of the classroom. A bindi-wearing girl is not sent out. A bangle-wearing girl is not. A Christian wearing a cross is not touched. Why only these poor Muslim girls? This is a violation of Article 15 of the Constitution,” he further said.
Kumar also highlighted the implications of this “potentially devastating” process of social exclusion. “If people wearing the turban can be in the Army, why can a person choosing to wear a religious symbol not be allowed to attend classes? Universal education is desired, particularly the education of girls in our society. The court may take judicial note of the fact that among girls, Muslim girls are the least educated and the least represented in classrooms. If they are shut out on the grounds of such discriminations, that would amount to a draconian decision and would spell doom for their education”, he implored.
He later indicated that the crux of his argument was the belief that the aim of education is to empower plurality, instead of imposing uniformity.
Senior advocate Yusuf Muchhala, who argued on behalf of the Udupi college students, said that any government order that seeks to obstruct hijab-wearing girls from attending classes is tantamount to what is judicially recognised as “manifest arbitrariness”. It also violates the “doctrine of proportionality” that exists in law, he added.
Theses arguments emerge in the backdrop of seething communal tensions over the Karnataka hijab row, where attempts to curtail the wearing of Islamic headwear have sparked controversy and outrage that have spread to different parts of the country.
While it has not specifically defined the symbols it intends to cover, the Karnataka High Court has imposed a temporary ban on the donning of “all religious symbols” in schools as it considers the headscarf ban.