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Indian court upholds state headscarf ban in schools, could set national precedent

Indian court upholds state headscarf ban in schools, could set national precedent

Female students wearing headscarves arrive to attend classes as a female policewoman stands guard outside a government girls’ school following the latest headscarf ban, in the town of Udupi in the southern state of Karnataka, India, February 16, 2022. REUTERS/Sunil Kataria

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An Indian court on Tuesday upheld a ban on the wearing of headscarves in classrooms in the southern state of Karnataka, a ruling that could set a precedent for the rest of the country, which has a large Muslim minority. .

The ban imposed by the state last month sparked protests by some Muslim students and parents, and counter-protests by Hindu students. Critics of the ban say it is another way to marginalize a community that accounts for about 13% of India’s Hindu majority 1.35 billion people.

Karnataka Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasti said in the ruling: “We believe that the wearing of the veil by Muslim women does not constitute part of the basic religious practice of the Islamic faith.”

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He said the government had the power to set standard guidelines, and dismissed several petitions challenging the ban ordered by Karnataka.

“We believe that the school uniform is just a reasonable constitutionally permissible limitation that students can’t object to,” Ousta said.

Ayesha Emthias, a third-year university student in the Karnataka district of Udupi where the protests began, said she will either drop out of her government-supported college or opt for a correspondence course. She said her fellow Muslim students are planning to do the same.

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“We can’t take off the veil, we won’t take it off,” she said. “We have our fifth semester exams next month. We’ll have to sit outside of that unless things change by then.”

Before the ruling, Karnataka authorities announced the closure of schools and colleges and imposed restrictions on public gatherings in some parts of the state to prevent potential unrest.

National primacy

Last month, Federal Home Minister Amit Shah said he would prefer students to wear school uniforms rather than any religious attire. Currently, there is no law or central rule on school uniforms across the country, but Karnataka’s ruling may prompt more states to issue such guidelines. Read more

The Islamic Students Organization of India, which represents thousands of Muslim students across the country, said their concerns were that Tuesday’s ruling would encourage more states to ban headscarves in the classroom.

“We do not want it to set a national precedent, and we want to set it aside,” said its national secretary, Mosab Qazi. “The court’s ruling may encourage more states to ban it. So in all likelihood, we will head to the Supreme Court.”

Karnataka, home to the tech hub of Bengaluru, is the only southern state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and state assembly elections are held next year.

Critics say the BJP could benefit from the divide between Hindus and Muslims, although the party says the headscarf ban has nothing to do with their political ambitions. Read more

‘Very disappointing’

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The students who challenged the ban in court said that wearing the hijab is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian constitution and a fundamental practice of Islam. Reuters was not immediately able to contact the competitors.

Muslim politicians, including former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, described the ruling as “extremely disappointing”.

“On the one hand, we talk about empowering women, but we deprive them of the right to simple choice,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s not just about religion, it’s about freedom of choice.”

Karnataka state ministers told reporters that Muslim female students who stay away from class in protest of the ban should respect the ruling and attend school.

The ban led to protests in some other parts of the country as well and drew criticism from the United States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

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(Krishna in Das reports) Additional reporting by Devgyot Ghoshal and Sunil Kataria. Editing by Christopher Cushing and Shri Navaratnam

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.