India court backs hijab ban, says headscarf not essential religious practice

New Delhi, Mar 15 (EFE),- An Indian court Tuesday upheld the southern Karnataka state’s ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves in schools because hijab “does not form an essential religious practice” in Islam.

The Karnataka High Court thus tried to end a row that erupted after Karnataka government schools and colleges barred hijab-clad Muslim girls from attending classes.

The ban sparked protests, boycotts, and the closure of educational institutes for days in the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled state.

“We are of the considered opinion that wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith,” Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi said in a live telecast of the proceedings from the court.

The court said the prescription of school uniforms was “only a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to.”

The regional government issued the order on Feb.5, banning clothes that “disturb equality, integrity and public order.”

The government’s order prompted several educational institutes to ban Muslim girls from wearing hijab even as women, practicing Islam, covering their heads and faces has long been a practice in India.

Students had petitioned the court, saying that wearing a hijab formed a part of essential religious practice in the Islamic faith protected under the Indian constitution.

The petitioners also challenged that the prescription of school uniforms was not legally permissible and violated the petitioners’ fundamental rights and privacy.

State government top lawyer Prabhuling K Navadgi said the “judgment marks a paradigm shift in the interpretation of Article 25 of the constitution.”

The article, which is at the heart of the hijab debate, says all persons “are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion subject to public order, morality, and health.”

“Whatever be the individual choices, ultimately institutional discipline prevails over individual choice,” Navadgi told reporters.

Critics of the BJP government said asking people what to wear and not to wear formed part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP’s policy of marginalizing minority groups.

The controversy over the use of hijab began on Dec.28, when an institute in Karnataka stopped the entry of several Muslim girl students wearing the veil, arguing that religious symbols would not be allowed in classrooms.

The girl students insisted on being allowed to enter wearing the hijab. The ban was extended to other institutes in the state.

The situation led to a spurt in religious tension in the state, with many Hindu groups supporting the ban.

The protests against the ban by Muslim students sparked counter-demonstrations by Hindu students in saffron-colored stoles around their necks. The saffron color is associated with Hinduism.

Although India is a secular country, tensions between the Hindu majority – who make up nearly 80 percent of the population, as to the last census in 2011 – and Muslims (14 percent), are not uncommon, especially in the regions governed by the BJP.

The nonprofit Human Rights Watch has consistently denounced a “systematic discrimination” against minorities in India, especially Muslims, through laws and other actions under the ruling BJP, whose ideology has allegedly infiltrated independent institutions. EFE


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