Allowing girl students to wear hijab to educational institutions may also be viewed as an opportunity for children at an impressionable age to learn about diversity that India is all about, the Supreme Court observed on Wednesday as it continued hearing the Karnataka hijab ban cases.
According to a bench of justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia, while uniformity in dress code could be the prime argument of the Karnataka government, it cannot be ignored that allowing diversity in a classroom can make children culturally sensitive.
“One can also say, this is an opportunity of being exposed to diversity. We have students from all cultures, religions…look at diversity of the country, be culturally sensitive towards them,” remarked the bench, as it heard lawyers on behalf of the state government and some teachers from Karnataka supporting the hijab ban.
When senior advocate R Venkataramani, appearing for a teacher, argued that he would rather want a school free from all distractions of this kind, the court replied that it all depends on the perspective.
“How will you prepare the students when they go out of the schools? When they face the world, they will face the great diversity of the country…diversity in culture, diversity in dress, diversity in cuisine. So, this can also be an opportunity to prepare them. It can be an opportunity to inculcate some values. That can also be a perspective,” it observed.
During the proceedings, the court also asked the law officers representing the Karnataka government to explain on what basis hijab was sought to be pitched as a reasonable restriction to fundamental right to practice religion.
“There are three grounds, public order, morality and health. On what ground are you restricting [hijab]? Under which head are you restricting it? Is it affecting public order, or someone’s health or morality?” it asked Karnataka advocate general Prabhuling K Navadgi.
Navadgi, on his part, retorts that the state is not targeting any particular religion, but was simply acting to ascertain discipline in educational institutions. “Right to wear a dress of one’s own choice will not automatically become a fundamental right. Every fundamental right can be restricted in a manner known to law…an assumed right that wearing hijab is a protected under the right to expression is to be viewed with caution and cannot be easily accepted,” Navadgi added.
He contended that everything mentioned in the Quran could not be regarded as an essential religious practice, since such an assumption would prove impractical. “The dominant purpose of the government order is to enforce a dress code and discipline. It may have an incidental effect on some other subject,” Navadgi maintained.
Additional solicitor general KM Nataraj, also appearing for the Karnataka government, said that the state has neither prohibited nor promoted any religious activity, but only ensured equality among children in the schools.
At this point, the bench commented that the net effect of the February order by the government was to prevent girl students from wearing hijab. The ASG replied: “The state has not said don’t wear hijab. We respect hijab, we respect shawl, everything…It is a simple case of discipline in an institution. No religion or person has been discriminated against. All have been treated equally.”
Senior advocates Venkataramani and V Mohana represented two teachers from Karnataka, supporting the state’s mandate to prescribe uniform in educational institutions.
Meanwhile, Navadgi also submitted a charge sheet in the court into the criminal case registered by local police to probe an alleged conspiracy by Popular Front of India and others to spark off social unrest in the state by instigating Muslim girls to wear hijab.
While justice Gupta had in the morning session asked the state to put the charge sheet on record, justice Dhulia later questioned why the Supreme Court should look into it. “Why should we consider it? Let law takes its own course as far as this is concerned. The high court had just made an observation. Let’s leave it at that,” justice Dhulia told Navadgi, who submitted that the charge sheet has been submitted before the bench.
The court is likely to reserve its judgment on Thursday after concluding the hearing.
The petitioners before the Supreme Court include girl students, women’s right groups, lawyers, activists and Islamic bodies, who have challenged the March 15 Karnataka high court judgment. A full bench of the high court, on March 15, declared that wearing a hijab is not mandatory in Islam. It upheld the ban on the headscarf imposed by the state government in schools and colleges through a February 5 executive order which led to massive protests and counter-protests across the state and in several other cities across the country. It also held that the state government was empowered to mandate uniforms in schools.
In its judgment, the high court also favored a “speedy and effective” investigation into the stoking of the hijab controversy in Karnataka, suspecting some “unseen hands at work to engineer social unrest and disharmony in the state”.