#HijabRow: Karnataka state gov't maintains its stand in SC, argues it is not touching on any religious practice

A Bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia presided over the hearing. The state government maintained its stand with respect to its decision 
File photo of Supreme Court | (Pic: Express)
File photo of Supreme Court | (Pic: Express)

The matter regarding the Karnataka government's decision to ban hijabs in classrooms was heard in the Supreme Court today, September 21, in continuation to yesterday's arguments. While the government has refused to lift the ban, the Apex Court heard a batch of pleas challenging this government order, dated February 5, 2022.

A Bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia presided over the hearing. The Karnataka government maintained its stand in the court with respect to its decision. The government stated that it has not touched any "religious aspect" in the hijab ban row and that the restriction on wearing the Islamic headscarf is limited to the classroom, as per a report by PTI.

The counsel appearing for the government emphasised that the state has only ordered that educational institutions can prescribe uniform for students which are "religion neutral". The state government also clarified that there does not exist a ban on the hijab even beyond the classroom on the campuses.

Karnataka's Advocate General (AG) Prabhuling K Navadgi said that countries like France have prohibited hijab and the women there have not become any less Islamic. He argued further that unless it is shown that wearing the hijab is compulsory and an essential religious practice (ERP), one cannot get protection under Article 25 of the Constitution, which deals with freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.

"We do not place restriction on wearing hijab outside school. There is no restriction even in the school campus. The nature of restriction is only inside the classroom," the AG said. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) KM Nataraj, who also appeared for the state, added that the petitioners' entire case is based on a right, which they claim is an absolute right.

"Let me make it very clear at the beginning. The state has not touched any religious aspect or religious issue. Much hue and cry is made by saying that hijab is banned. Let me clarify, hijab is not banned and the state never intended (to impose one) as such," the ASG said, adding that school was a secular place.

He maintained that the state has neither prohibited nor promoted any religious activity. "You will not permit them if they wear hijab?" the Bench asked him. "The state's decision is not based on any religion and it only says educational institutions can prescribe uniform," the advocate responded.

"Will you permit a girl wearing a hijab inside the school, yes or no?" the Bench persisted with its query. To this, Nataraj replied that the concerned schools will have to decide that, depending upon the uniform they have prescribed. "The question would be, even if we presume that it (the hijab) is not an essential religious practice, then what kind of practice it is and to what extent the court can go into it?" the Bench asked further in the course of the hearing.

The AG, who referred to a previous verdict delivered by the Apex Court, argued that every activity related to religion cannot necessarily be called an essential religious practice. "Today, we have a large number of sisters and mothers belonging to the Islamic faith who do not wear hijab, who as a matter of their choice do not wear hijab. We have countries like France which have prohibited wearing of hijab," he said. "But in both these situations, when a woman does not wear hijab, she does not become any less Islamic," Navadgi said further, adding that Islam continues to flourish in countries which have banned hijab. 

The Bench observed that arguments raised on behalf of the petitioners is based on the belief that whatever is mentioned in the Holy Quran is mandatory and sacrosanct. "We are not experts in Quran. But this court in at least three instances have said every word in the Quran may be religious but not essentially religious," Navadgi said, while referring to some previous verdicts of the Apex Court.

The AG denied the submissions advanced by the petitioners' counsel that the state has acted against one community. "We have lots of material to show to your lordships the kind of schemes and programmes the government has for minority children," he said. Meanwhile, Senior Advocate R Venkataramani, who appeared for a teacher, said that they want a free and unhindered atmosphere where teachers can communicate with the students without a "wall of separation".

To this, the Bench asked, "Hijab creates a wall of separation?" Venkataramani replied that schools must be essentially free from all these elements where even a slightest distraction will be an impediment in free transmission of knowledge. The Bench observed there could be a different perspective where a teacher may say, "This is an opportunity. Look at this diverse country, we have students of all cultures, all religions, be culturally sensitive towards them."

"There are students who are very soon going to get out of the school walls and they will be facing the world in this rich and diverse country. In a way, it is an opportunity to inculcate some values. That can be a perspective," the court said. The arguments will continue on Thursday, September 22.

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