The Karnataka High Court issued an interim order on Thursday temporarily restraining all students in the state, “regardless of their religion or faith,” from wearing Bhagwa (saffron shawls), scarfs, hijab, religious flags or the like in classrooms until it issues a judgment on the merits on five petitions submitted by female Muslim students of Government Pre-University College (“PU College”) in the city of Udipi. The interim order only applies to educational institutions that have a dress code or uniform mandate.
The dispute began last month and has now evolved into a state-wide altercation with national ramifications. It started when the students were denied entry in PU college, a state-run educational institution, for wearing a hijab (headscarf) in classrooms. The principal of the college allegedly did not allow students to wear a hijab and compelled them to adhere to a uniform dress code. Eventually, protests started on both sides with female Muslim students wearing a hijab at one end questioning the arbitrary and unfair nature of the prohibition barring them from exercising their freedom of expression and Hindu students donning saffron scarves at the other end protesting the entry of hijab-adorned Muslim students inside the college campus.
The female Muslim students subsequently filed petitions challenging the hijab-ban. Last week, the Karnataka Department of Primary and Secondary Education invoked § 133(2) of the Karnataka Education Act to issue a Directive validating the hijab ban. Furthermore, the Directive took the additional step of mandating a dress code of its own in the event that an educational institution does not prescribe one and stated that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.”
Since the Directive was issued, violence erupted in parts of the state and a video surfaced showing an individual climbing up a pole and replacing the Indian national flag with a saffron flag symbolic of the Hindu religion. Another couple of videos also surfaced showing hijab-adorned Muslim students being harassed and cornered by saffron-clothed and saffron-flag-waving individuals. In one of them, the individuals were shouting “Jai Shri Ram”—i.e. “Praise Lord Ram,” (Ram is considered one of the major deities of Hinduism).
Fearing further sparks of violence, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai ordered closure of all schools and colleges for three days beginning February 8. They are now scheduled to partially open on Monday for all grades up to grade 10. Bommai is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the national ruling party of India, which many allege has an inclination towards far-right Hindu nationalist sentiments. He has requested students not to insist on wearing any religious attire or display any religious symbols or flags in campuses until the matter is resolved by the Karnataka High Court.
However, the state high court’s interim order has itself sparked controversy and Devadatt Kamat, lawyer for the Muslim students, filed an appeal with the Supreme Court challenging the order. The Court declined to consider the matter presently with Chief Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana warning Kamat to “not spread these things to larger levels…We also know what is happening there in the state as well as in the hearings also. And you also have to think over whether it’s proper to bring those things to Delhi, national level issues and all that.”
Whatever the Karnataka High Court decides is indeed likely to become “national level issues and all that,” if it has not already, because of the constitutional implications affecting freedom of religion and expression. It is also likely to have consequences for other religious groups such as Sikhs where the men often wear turbans to schools as part of an accepted nationwide accommodation afforded to them for as long as modern schools have been in existence.