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India's top court split on ban on hijab in schools

October 13, 2022

More judges on India's top court would now be asked to decide whether a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in educational institutions stands. A lower court's ruling against the hijab already sparked an uproar.

Activists of a Students Federation of India (SFI) hold placards during a protest against the hijab ban in school and colleges
Many students have taken to the streets to protest the hijab ban in Karnataka stateImage: Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

A panel of India's Supreme Court judges failed on Thursday to rule on whether students can wear the hijab in classrooms.

The two-judge bench delivered the split ruling after hearing petitions filed by a group of Muslims against a high court's judgment in the southwestern Karnataka state.

In February, the court in Karnataka banned people from wearing clothes that disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges.

It sparked protests by Muslim students and their parents, as well as counter-protests by Hindu students.

On Thursday, one Supreme Court justice dismissed the appeal and the other said the high court order was wrong and wearing the hijab was "just a question of choice."

They referred the matter to the chief justice who would set up a larger bench to further consider the case.

India's hijab row

The row began at the start of the year when a government-run school in Karnataka's Udupi district barred students wearing hijabs from entering classrooms.

It led to protests throughout the district and gained national prominence on February 8, after a video showing a college-going Muskan Khanstanding up to right-wing Hindu activists outside her college campus.

At the time, she told DW she had yelled, "Allahu Akbar" (God is great in Arabic) in the face of "Jai Shri Rama" (Hail Lord Rama in Hindi) chants by other men.

Hindu students also started showing up in saffron scarves to protest against students wearing the hijab.

Authorities closed schools and colleges and moved classes online for a while to quell the protests before the case was referred to court.

Why the case matters

The Karnataka state ban does not extend to other Indian states, but the Supreme Court ruling could set a precedent for the rest of the country.

Muslims are the biggest minority group in India, accounting for 13% of the population of 1.4 billion, the majority of whom are Hindu.

What's behind tensions in India's Karnataka?

Violence and hate speech against Muslims have increased under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Hindu nationalist party, which also governs Karnataka.

Critics of the hijab ban say Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could benefit from the controversy ahead of a state election due by May next year.

The BJP, which draws its support mainly from Hindus, says the ban has no political motive.

lo/fb (AP, Reuters)