Six students in Hijab were banned from entering their classroom in a college in the Udupi district of Karnataka. They met the principal who expressed his helplessness in the matter. The students sat on dharna alleging that it was interference in their religious rights and asserting their right to dress. The video had gone viral on social media and debate started. In many groups, it led to provocative discussion. The issue spilled over to other colleges in Karnataka. The issue which could have been taken up locally or by the state education department has become a national one.
Section 133 (2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983 gives the state the power to “give such directions to the officers or authorities under its control as in its opinion are necessary or expedient for carrying out the purposes of this Act, and it shall be the duty of such officer or authority to comply with such directions”.
Under Article 25 of the Constitution, (1) all persons are entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. However, it is subject to public order, morality and health. (2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law. It has been explained that the wearing and carrying of Kirpans shall be deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion. In “N Adithayan v. Travancore Devaswan Board” (AIR 2002 SC. 3538) it was said, “Religious freedom is subject to public order, health, morality and other provisions of Part 3 of Constitution of India including article 17. Part III deals with the Fundamental Rights and Article 17 is about Abolition of Untouchability.
In a similar case, the father of two girls aged 8 and 12 had approached Kerala High Court complaining that his daughters were not being allowed by the school to wear a headscarf and full-sleeved shirts. The single bench headed by Justice Muhamed Mushtaq in the case (Fathima Tasneem v. State of Kerala of 2018) had held that collective rights of an institution would be given priority over the individual rights of the petitioner. It had said, “The petitioner cannot seek the imposition of their right as against the larger right of the institution.” The appeal was also rejected by the Division Bench.
In most of the groups, I am witnessing an emotional outburst on the issue of the hijab controversy in Karnataka. Posts with the judgment of Kerala High Court of 2016, without mentioning the further judgment of 2018, videos narrating half-truths are in circulation. The general narrative is that India has become a fascist state and the case of Karnataka is akin to what Nazis did with Jews. They ignore the basic between what the Nazis did and what is happening in India. In this charged atmosphere it is difficult to talk rationally. All these zealots do not realise that the issue of hijab cuts both ways.
Assembly elections in Karnataka are due to be held during May-July. Polarization will help Sanghis. It may also help BJP in the present UP elections. There are Muslim groups also ready to contest and want to attract Muslim votes. They do not hesitate to blow up the issue and provide fuel to Sanghis. A trap was laid in which some innocent girls stepped unknowingly. They were not capable of making it an all-India issue. Now both Sanghis and their counterparts among Muslims are ready to reap the harvest. If Sanghis are in large numbers, Muslim leaders are also in sizable numbers to provide fuel to Sanghis. They did not allow the issue to be resolved amicably at the local level or take it up with the education department within the framework of the existing law because many of them are themselves guilty of denying access to education, for many decades, to those girls who decline to wear hijab. Many of those who have been denied entry into their institutions without hijab are beneficiaries of government help in the form of land leases or certain grants. These people will never allow the matter to be resolved through court either. They know that it will not favour them as, unlike the Kirpan of Sikhs which has been given relaxation in the Explanation of Article 25, hijab is not considered an integral part of Islam.
Therefore, the emotional outburst and inflammatory videos from both sides are likely to go on to polarize. It suits both. Elections will be over but the scar will be there and students will remain polarized for a longer period.