State Hasn't Banned Hijab, Says Karnataka AG; If Institutions Permit, Will You Object? High Court Asks

Mustafa Plumber

21 Feb 2022 12:07 PM GMT

  • State Hasnt Banned Hijab, Says Karnataka AG; If Institutions Permit, Will You Object? High Court Asks

    A Full Bench of the Karnataka High Court today continued hearing Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi on behalf of the State, in the petitions filed by Muslim girl students, who have challenged the action of a government college in denying their entry for wearing a hijab (headscarf). Today is the 7th day of the hearing before the Full Bench.When the hearing started, the bench led by the...

    A Full Bench of the Karnataka High Court today continued hearing Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi on behalf of the State, in the petitions filed by Muslim girl students, who have challenged the action of a government college in denying their entry for wearing a hijab (headscarf). Today is the 7th day of the hearing before the Full Bench.

    When the hearing started, the bench led by the Chief Justice sought a clarification from the State regarding its stand on banning hijab. This arose in view of the AG's submission that the Government Order dated February 5, which has been challenged in the writ petitions, does not prescribe any ban on hijab and that it is only an "innocuous" order which asks students to follow the uniforms prescribed by their institutions.

    "What is your stand?Whether hijab can be permitted in institutions or not?", the Chief Justice raised a pointed query.

    "The operative portion of the GO leaves it to the institutions", the AG submitted.

    "If institutions permit hijab, you have objections?", the CJ asked further

    "If the institutions are to permit, we would possibly take a decision as and when the issue arises...", the AG responded.

    "You have to take a stand", the CJI reiterated.

    "It is argued that they may be permitted to wear the same colour headdress as permitted in uniform prescribed by the college. We want to know the stand of the state? Suppose if they are wearing duppata which is part of uniform, can it be allowed?", the CJ asked further.

    "My answer is that we have not prescribed anything. The Order , it gives complete autonomy to institution to decide uniform. Whether students be allowed to wear dress or apprarel which could be symbol of religion, the stand of the state is.. element of introducing religious dress should not be there in uniform. As a matter of principle, the answer is in preamble of Karnataka Education Act which is to foster secular environment", the AG said.

    It may be recalled that on the last hearing date (February 18), the AG had conceded that the GO could have been worded in a better manner and the references to hijab could have been avoided.

    "On a better advise, these could have been avoided. But that stage has passed," the AG had submitted then. The AG had also said that the draftsman of the GO went "over enthusiastic" by referring to unity and public order in it.  

    Why should Court decide on Article 25 if state has not banned hijab? HC asks

    If that is the stand of the State, the CJ asked, whether it was necessary to go into the constitutional question if hijab was essential religious practice.

    The AG said that the question might be necessary as institutions can bar hijab. He submitted that in this case, the Udupi Pre-University College has taken a stand that we will not allow wearing of hijab in the institution. So, this issue might have to be gone into by the Court.

    "The second issue (ERP) might be necessary because of this. Let us say this institution is before your lordships. The question that would be posed can you prevent someone from entering the institution for wearing hijab.

    If lordships are to decide that wearing of hijab does not fall under Article 25, then it would be different for students and institution. The entire question revolves around whether wearing of hijab falls under Article 25."

    "In Feb 5 order (GO), we do not decide anything. I say so because, from Shirur mutt case it has evolved, State unless it is a secular activity should not involve in religious practises…If we had decided the hijab cannot be worn, it would have been seriously challenged on the ground that State has interfered in a religious matter."

    He relied on Justice DY Chandrachud's decision in Sabarimala case to submit that a Constitutional court has an important role to decide whether a religious practice can be permitted the protection under Article 25.

    "GO is innocuous and it is consciously so. This question, controversy would not have arisen. If petitioners would have come and said the college is not permitting us to wear hijab as a head scarf, it is different. But they want to wear this head scarf as a religious symbol."

    The Court pointed out that College Development Committees are not statutory bodies (as they are created under a Government Circular), and that private institutions may not be amenable to writ jurisdiction.

    Burden on Petitioners to show that wearing hijab is essential religious practice: AG

    Navadgi told the Bench comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S Dixit and Justice JM Khazi that wearing hijab is not an Essential Religious Practice and is thus not protected under Freedom of Religion under Article 25 of the Constitution. Further, it would not come within the concept of Freedom of Conscience under Article 25 of the Constitution.

    "Protection under Articles 25 & 26 of the Constitution is with respect to religious practice which forms an essential and integral part of the religion. Thus, a practice may be a religious practice but not an essential & integral part of practice. The latter shall not be protected by the Constitution," he submitted.

    The AG argued that the burden is on the petitioners to show that hijab satisfies all tests of essential religious practice. These principles are:

    1.The practise must be fundamental to the religion;

    2 If the practise is not followed, it will change the religion itself;

    3. Practice must precede the birth of religion. Foundation of religion must be based on that. It must be co-existent with the religion;

    4. Binding nature. If it is optional, then it is not essential. If wearing of it is not obligatory, then it is not essential.

    AG culled out these principles based on a reference to various Supreme Court precedents.

    He contended that petitioners have shown zero materials to show hijab is essential religious practice. He pointed out that the declaration which the petitioners seek would bind every Muslim woman to wear a hijab.

    "I am nobody to criticise. But I can say with some responsibility. In a case like this, where you want to bind every Muslim women, and which can gives rise to religious sentiments and division, you should have shown more circumspection to lay a foundation. You should have shown more circumspection and discretion seeking declaration before a constitutional court binding not only petitioners but everyone...Law is for all of us. The sentences, averments made by petitioners show nothing."

    AG argued that whenever reliance was placed on Quran to declare an Essential Rreligious Practice, in four cases SC negated. He illustrated:

    In the case of Mohd. Hanif Quareshi & Others vs The State Of Bihar, it was held that what is optional does not constitute ERP.

    In the case of Javed & Ors vs State Of Haryana & Ors, the Court denied the proposition that Quran protects plurality of marriages.

    In the case of Dr. M. Ismail Faruqui v. Union of India (Babri Masjid case) the Supreme Court negated the argument that praying in a mosque is an essential practice.

    In Shayara Bano case, it was held that Triple Talaq is not a part of Quran.

    Scope of Freedom of Conscience

    It is the State's stand that the question of Essential Religious Practice would not come within the concept of Freedom of Conscience under Article 25 of the Constitution.

    Justice Dixit pointed out that in the Constituent Assembly, there was a debate on whether to include "conscience" in Article 25. Dr. Ambedkar had suggested it to be included, saying even people who do not believe in God are also entitled to Article 25 protection.

    At this juncture, the Chief Justice opined that conscience and religion are two different aspects.

    "Different but mutually existing also," Justice Dixit said.

    AG then submitted the apprehensions exhibited by members of the constituent assembly on including religion as a matter of right, as it "may result in some religions placing their hegemony over others…They reached to consensus that we will control vide public order, morality and health."

    He that there was a telling statement made by Dr. Ambedkar in the assembly debates to keep the religious instruction outside educational institutions.

    Justice Dixit then remarked orally, "Secularism which the makers of our Constitution is not what akin to what American Constitution envisages. Our secularism oscillates between "sarva dharma sama bhava" and "dharma nirapekshatha". It is not a war between the Church and the State…Our Constitution did not enact what Karl Marx has said, that "religion is the opium of the masses""

    Practice must be essential to Religion

    The AG argued that the protection under Articles 25 & 26 of the Constitution is with respect to religious practice which forms an essential and integral part of the religion. Thus, a practice may be a religious practice but not an essential & integral part of practice. The latter shall not be protected by the Constitution.

    He referred to the case of Durgah Committee, Ajmer v. Syed Hussain Ali & Ors. (Ajmer Dargah case), where an Act taking away the rights of sufis from collections in Dargah was under challenge.

    He quoted the following excerpt from the judgment:

    "…in order that the practices in question should be treated as a part of religion they must be regarded by the said religion as its essential and integral part; otherwise even purely secular practices which are not an essential or an integral part of religion are apt to be clothed with a religious form and may make a claim for being treated as religious practices."

    It was further held in this case,

    "Even practices though religious may have sprung from merely superstitious beliefs and may in that sense be extraneous and unessential accretions to religion itself…Unless such practices are found to constitute an essential and integral part of a religion their claim for the protection under Art. 26 may have to be carefully scrutinized."

    He then referred to the case Commissioner Of Police & Ors v. Acharya J. Avadhuta, where the question was whether Ananda Margis can perform Tandava dance in public street. It was held therein that essential part of a religion means the "core beliefs" upon which a religion is founded.

    "Essential practice means those practices that are fundamental to follow a religious belief…Test to determine whether a part or practice is essential to the religion is to find out whether the nature of religion will be changed without that part or practice…If the taking away of that part or practice could result in a fundamental change in the character of that religion or in its belief, then such part could be treated as an essential or integral part," it was held therein.

    It was further emphasized that alterable parts or practices are not the 'core' of religion where the belief is based and religion is founded upon. It could only be treated as mere embellishments to the non- essential part or practices.

    In this vein, the AG submitted that there are three test to determine if a practice is essential religious practice : 1. Is this part of core belief? 2. Is this practice fundamental to that religion? 3. If that practice is not followed, will the religion cease to exist?

    "Article 25 has different sections. To establish right under Article 25, they should first prove religious practise, then that it is an essential religious practice, then that ERP does not come in conflict with public order, morality or health or any other fundamental right," he added.

    Food and dress should not be considered as Essential Religious Practices: AG argues

    The AG submitted that in AS Narayana Deekshitulu Etc v. State Of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court has said that food and dress should not be considered as Essential Religious Practices.

    "There is nothing which a man can do, whether in the way of wearing clothes or food or drink, which in not considered a religious activity. Every mundane or human activity was not intended to be protected by Constitution under the guise of religion," it was held therein

    AG pointed out that the Petitioners side had relied on the Shirur mutt judgement as if dress and food would automatically qualify as Essential Religious Practice. But this has to be understood in the light of the subsequent judgment which says a pragmatic approach should be taken, he said.

    He informed the Bench that during the Constituent Assembly debates, KM Munshi had said that we should put a foot down on all practices which will bring down the country and seek to narrow down religious practices. These statements were also quoted by the Supreme Court in Shayara Bano case.

    "We want to divorce religion from personal law. We are in a stage where we must unify our nation without interfering with religious practice. Religion must be restricted to spheres which are religious…Religion must be restricted to spheres which legitimately appertain to religion, and the rest of life must be regulated, unified and modified in such a manner that we may evolve, as early as possible, a strong and consolidated nation," Munshi had said.

    It was also held in that case that views of religious denomination, though significant are not determinative in essentiality of practice, the AG said. "A practice claimed to be essential must be mandatory and not optional," it was held.

    Alleged misuse of Interim Order

    Previously, Advocate Mohammad Tahir had alleged that the interim order of the Court restraining students from wearing any sort of religious clothes in classrooms was being widely misused to harass students and even teachers.

    Responding to the same, the AG today informed the Court that he has spoken to the Principal Secretary and a meeting will be convened soon.

    "I have spoken to Principal Secretary, education department and soon a meeting will be convened of all concerned. I assure court that report will be submitted to the court and to him. I assure all such instances will be taken care of."

    Case so far

    The Advocate General commenced his arguments last Friday. He stressed the following aspects: (i) wearing of hijab does not fall within the essential religious practise of Islam; (ii) right to wear hijab cannot be traced to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution; (iii) Government Order dated February 5 empowering College Development Committees (CDCs) to prescribe uniform is in consonance with the Education Act.
    Senior Advocate Devadatt Kamat appearing for the petitioners argued that wearing Hijab is an essential religious practice under Islam, and suspension of the same, even for a few hours during school, undermines the community's faith and violates their fundamental rights under Article 19 and 25 of the Constitution.

    Kamat heavily relied on a judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, in KwaZulu-Natal and Others v Pillay, which upheld the right of a Hindu girl from South India to wear a nose ring to school.

    Kamat also underscored that the declaration made by the State government that wearing of headscarf is not protected by Article 25 of the Constitution was "totally erroneous'. It was also submitted that the conduct of the State government in delegating to the College Development Committee (CDC) to decide whether to allow headscarfs or not is 'totally illegal'.
    Prof Ravivarma Kumar, Senior Advocate, appearing on behalf of the petitioners argued that the state is discriminating against Muslim girls, solely on the basis of their religion. He highlighted that the Government Order dated February 5 targets wearing of hijab whereas other religious symbols are not taken into account. This leads to hostile discrimination violating Article 15 of the Constitution.
    The Bench also heard Senior Advocate Yusuf Muchhala for the petitioners, who argued on the aspect of right to freedom of religion, contending that it is not necessary that a practice should be an 'essential religious practice' for attracting Article 25(1).

    "When the right is claimed under Article 25(1) and 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, what matters is the entertainment of a conscientious belief by individual. When right is claimed as a matter of conscience, it is not necessary to delve into the question whether it is an integral part of religion," he said.

    During the course of hearing, an oral request for mediation in the matter was made. Responding, the High Court had observed that mediation was possible only if both the petitioners and the respondents (State and College Development Committees) agree.
    The matter was first listed before a single bench of Justice Krishna S. Dixit, which referred the petitions to larger bench observing that "questions of seminal importance" are involved.

    The Full Bench, after hearing both sides passed an interim order restraining the students from wearing any sort of religious clothes in classrooms, regardless of their faith, till disposal of the matter.

    The Petitioners are students of Govt PU college. They claim that they were wearing head scarf, as part of their religious and cultural practice, over their uniform. However, the teachers and principal of the Respondent-college insisted that they remove their heads scarf.

    It is alleged that they are made to stand out of the class and this 'discrimination' is continuing since December 2021. They claim that a representation was made to the District Education Officer however, on January 1, the Principal called a meeting of the College Development Committee, which declared that petitioners should not wear headscarf. Following this, the petitioners were not allowed to attend classes and made to sit outside, which led to protests.
    An important question before the Court in this case is whether wearing of hijab is part of essential religious practise of Islam and whether State interference in such matters is warranted. The court is also called to consider whether wearing of hijab partakes the character of right to expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and whether restriction can be levied only under Article 19(2).

    It is the petitioner's case that the right to wear hijab is an essential religious practice under Islam, and the State is not empowered to interfere with such rights under Article 14,19 and 25 of the Constitution.

    Hijab Ban : How Can Girls Going To School Wearing Head Scarf Be Public Order Issue? Petitioners Argue In Karnataka High Court

    Meanwhile, the State has claimed that it's aim is not to interfere with the religious beliefs of any community but, is only concerned to maintain uniformity, discipline and public order in educational institutions.

    "The feeling of oneness, fraternity and brotherhood shall be promoted within an institution. In educational institutions, students should not be allowed to wear identifiable religious symbols or dress code catering to their religious beliefs and faith. Allowing this practice would lead to a student acquiring a distinctive, identifiable feature which is not conducive for the development of the child and academic environment," it submitted in a written reply.

    (Edited and compiled by Akshita Saxena)

    Live Updates of the hearing available here.

    Live Stream of the hearing available here:

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