After hearings, the Karnataka High Court has moved to reserve its official decision regarding the “hijab row”, upholding the interim ban prohibiting students from wearing Islamic head coverings on school grounds.

What started as the local protest of Muslim students advocating for their right to wear headscarves on campus in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state has erupted into an international incident – the outcome of which sets a dangerous precedent for the expressive rights of India’s Muslim minority going forward.

On February 11, America’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussein, condemned the Karnataka government for the ban on headscarves in classrooms. The Ambassador’s tweet marked the first – and thus far only – official statement by a US government official on the hijab row case.

The “defining partnership” between the United States and India as articulated by President Obama, rhetorically rests on the stated foundation of shared liberal-democratic ideals. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a 2016 address before the US Congress, repeatedly valorised the shared commitments to liberty and freedom between “the world’s largest democracy” and “its oldest”.

Embedded in these stated beliefs is that of freedom of religious practice and expression, which is sanctified both in the United State’s First Amendment and in the Indian Constitution’s Article 25 and Article 26.

Muslims exclusively targeted

In this context, the message from the ambassador is clear: to maintain the continued affirmation of the US, the Modi regime ought not to strain its liberal-democratic ideological commitments – nor stray from its constitutional adherence to religious freedom.

Before the court, however, Karnataka Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi drew his interpretation that Article 25 and Article 26 protect “essential religious practices” only and not a religion in general. The advocate general’s arguments betray an unsettling double-bind for the future of Islamic expression in India.

If practices like hijab are deemed inessential to Islam, the Karnataka court suggests that they cannot be protected under the Constitution. If they are, however, proven to the standard of the court to be essential, they must still be quelled and driven out of the public sphere, Navadgi contends.

The advocate general has endeavoured to frame this as an issue of secularisation. He avoids specifying Islam or the Islamic in favour of broad claims about the place of the “religious”. Schools, he argues, are and ought to be secular institutions, where students come to learn – not to express their religion. Religion, by contrast, must be “restricted to” only those “spheres which legitimately appertain to religion.”

Only hijab, though, has come under fire in these hearings. Neither turban, nor bindi, nor saffron scarf – which was donned by students in direct counterprotest of their Muslim peers – has been brought up before the High Court. Navadgi claims to advocate for broad secularism of the Indian educational system, but directly demands only Islamic clothing be policed in schools.

What Navadgi identifies as secularisation – what we may read as the restriction and expulsion of Islam from the public sphere – is, the advocate general argues, a prerequisite to building a “strong and consolidated” India. These secular claims, however, when levying the force of the state against only Muslims, are not secular at all, but merely anti-Muslim.

A protest against the recent hijab. Photo credit: Anushree Fadnavis/ Reuters

The targeted restrictions on hijab reveal, too, a gendered component to the case. The court’s decision to ban the predominately woman-worn hijab and not, for example, the all-gender turban demonstrates a specific discriminatory push by the Karnataka government to control and limit the lives of Muslim women and girls.

Notably, in the recent case where Karnataka’s Mount Carmel College cited the High Court’s interim ban to demand a Sikh student remove their turban, the student involved was female. The reverberations of state action against hijab fall onto the backs of women, in particular, non-Muslims included.

This runs in direct contrast to the narrative the BJP has been attempting to construct of themselves as feminist liberators of “oppressed” Muslim women–oppressed, they claim, by Islam itself.

Growing authoritarianism

While Modi has taken to the podium warning of the threat of his Opposition finding “new ways to block the rights and development of Muslim women” and “trying to trick Muslim sisters to push them back in their lives”, and while his National General Secretary has given statements splitting the Muslim population into those BJP-supporting “rational voices” who are “outspoken” against “certain practices” over and against “anti-reformist” Muslims, Senior Advocate Poovayya argued before the High Court that Muslim girls are “shackled” to the Hijab by Islam.

This self-valorisation by the BJP rings hollow as, beneath the rhetorical sheen of feminist liberation, the party carries out a campaign of violence and repression against the country’s population of Muslim women.

The police are mobilised to violently subdue female Muslim protestors. Meanwhile, the regime allows a growing authoritarian and visibly misogynistic Hindu nationalist base – within government and without – to harass and assault Muslim women, even publically call for their mass sterilisation, with impunity. Laws that restrict Islamic expression and practice continually mount – the Karnataka court’s Hijab ban is only the latest in this pattern.

The Modi regime has numerous times made a point of aligning itself with the liberal principles of American and European democracy, and this framework pervades the Indian legal sphere. In the Karnataka hearings as well, Advocate Srivatsa cited the decisions of the “European courts” as precedent to justify the Hijab ban.

In the same courthouses, as these principles are flaunted, however, they are betrayed in practice, in the issuance of legal orders that restrict the freedom of religious practice and expression of Muslim girls.

The United States, through Ambassador Hussein, has reaffirmed its own stated adherence to freedom of religion. Actions betray rhetoric, however, as the Modi regime exemplifies, and the US stands now at a crossroads. The US may transcend platitudes and apply real political pressure against India, or it may continue to issue mere words of dissent against India’s Muslim repression, and turn – if not a blind eye – an idle hand to the growing existential threat facing India’s Muslims.

Mehmet Ali is a researcher at the Indian American Muslim Council, a Washington DC-based advocacy group.