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Indian court upholds ban on Muslim headscarf in classrooms in Karnataka state amid religious tensions

Muslim students arrive for classes as a policewoman stands guard outside a government school for girls after a recent hijab ban in India's southern state of Karnataka on Feb. 16, 2022. (Sunil Kataria/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — Educational institutes in southern India’s Karnataka state can ban the hijab, a court ruled Tuesday in a closely watched case that sparked widespread protests in India amid deepening religious tensions.

The ruling from the Karnataka high court came after Muslim students challenged a ban on headscarves in some educational institutions in the state, calling it a violation of their rights. The state government, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), argued that wearing a hijab is not an essential practice of Islam.

On Tuesday, judges agreed with the government’s contention that the hijab is not essential in Islam and ruled that students cannot object to uniforms prescribed by schools. A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi said that the “prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction, constitutionally permissible.”

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The order is likely to be challenged in India’s top court in the days to come, but it raised worries that it could set a legal precedent for other states. India is home to 200 million Muslims, who make up nearly 14 percent of the country’s population.

The case dominated domestic headlines and political debate earlier this year in India, a Hindu-majority country governed by a secular constitution. Critics of the BJP say the rights of religious minorities are increasingly under attack as Modi has consolidated power, and they view the hijab ban in Karnataka as another sign that intolerance toward Muslims is rising across India.

BJP leaders hailed the verdict and asked students to abide by the order, but opposition leaders disagreed with the judgment.

At a news briefing, female students who had petitioned the court called the verdict an “injustice.”

“We had so much hope in our judicial system, in our society and constitutional values,” one of the petitioners said. “But we feel we’ve been betrayed by our own country.”

The petitioners said they would not take off the hijab to attend school, raising the prospect that the order would cause female Muslim students to drop out.

Idrees Hoode, vice president of Muslim Okkuta, a federation of Muslim organizations in the state, said nearly 250 female students had stopped attending school because of the ban even as the hearings were underway. With annual exams due later this month, the group organized online classes for them.

“We were conducting online classes so that preparations for the examinations were not disturbed,” Hoode said. “Now I’m not even sure if these children will be allowed to write examinations.”

The controversy first surfaced in December, when a number of hijab-wearing students were barred from entering classrooms by a government school in Udupi, a coastal town in Karnataka, triggering protests. Soon Hindu students, in some instances organized by Hindu nationalist groups, counterprotested by wearing saffron scarves — associated with Hinduism — in schools, resulting in tense standoffs between groups of students.

More schools barred hijab-clad Muslim students from attending classes, and the state government closed schools.

Some Muslim teachers were also caught up in the ban. Chandini Naz, an English teacher at a government school in Karnataka, resigned from her job in February after the institute asked her to remove her hijab in the classroom for the first time in her three years of teaching there.

Naz said it was “unfair” to make people choose between faith and education. “How does wearing the hijab hinder anyone?” she asked. “How does it affect education?”

The issue has continued to be highly polarizing. Officials in Bangalore, the state capital, banned gatherings and protests for a week ahead of Tuesday’s ruling. Udupi, where the issue surfaced, ordered schools and colleges to remain shut Tuesday.

In recent years, BJP-led governments in New Delhi and in state capitals have passed many laws seen as targeting Muslims — including rules preventing the slaughter of cows (which are sacred in Hinduism) and making it hard for interfaith couples to marry.

There has been a rise in anti-Muslim hate speech at large public rallies in recent months. Many perpetrators — including influential Hindu priests — have not faced consequences.

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While headscarves have been a matter of fierce debate in countries such as France, hijabs are not banned or restricted in India, whose secular constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

Wearing religious symbols in public is common in different communities. Many Sikhs wear turbans, Hindu men often sport a saffron mark on their foreheads and Muslim men wear skullcaps. Hindu women in rural communities, particularly in the north, often cover their heads or veil their faces with a long scarf — not dissimilar to the Muslim head or face coverings. A recent survey by Pew Research Center found that 6 in 10 Indian women wore head coverings outside their homes, including Hindu and Sikh women.

An interim order by the court declared that no religious clothing would be allowed in schools until the court ruled on the matter, during which time several students were not allowed to sit for exams for wearing a hijab.

Aliya Assadi, 17, a Muslim student and one of the petitioners, who was barred from attending classes at her all-girls secondary school in Karnataka, has worn hijabs since the age of 7. While her Hindu classmates were initially supportive, she said, their attitudes changed as the controversy grew.

“It breaks my heart to see my classmates and friends change so fast and speak on communal lines,” she told The Washington Post in February. “It simply makes me cry.”

Calling the hijab issue a pretext to create a “climate” of fear, columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express: “This debate is not about competing visions of secularism. It is about finding every pretext to institutionalize state sponsored cruelty.”

Mohit Rao in Bangalore and Shams Irfan in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.