Allowing students to wear religious symbols in educational institutions might help them get acquainted with the country’s diversity, Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia of the Supreme Court said on Wednesday at the hijab ban hearing, reported Bar and Bench.

A bench of Justices Dhulia and Hemant Gupta is hearing a batch of petitions challenging a Karnataka High Court order to uphold the state government’s ban on wearing hijab in educational institutions.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Dhulia made the remarks after Senior Advocate R Venkataramani, appearing for a Udupi college teacher, told the court that schools must be free from all religious elements to ensure that transmission of knowledge takes place “without any separation or walls”.

“I [the teacher] work in an environment where individual assertions of identity can be a hindrance,” Venkataramani said, reported Bar and Bench. “Only in their absence can you begin to respect them... Teachers’ hands will be tied.”

To this, Justice Dhulia responded that teachers could see wearing of hijab as an opportunity to tell students that the country is diverse and culturally sensitive and the practice of wearing religious symbols can be seen as an exercise.

“How will you prepare the students when they go out of the schools?” the judge asked. “When they face the world, they will face the great diversity of the country, in culture, in dress, cuisine...So this can be an opportunity to prepare them.”

Meanwhile, Karnataka Advocate General Prabhuling K Navadgi argued that everything mentioned in the Quran cannot be regarded as an essential religious practice, adding that such an assumption would be impractical.

“If every aspect of Quran, with great reverence, it may be religious but whether it is essential has to be seen on the court’s test,” he said. “Women who choose not to, don’t become less Islamic. If it is so obligatory and compulsory...this is one of the tests we may have to apply.”

He contended that there was nothing like absolute freedom.

“Let us say I wear hijab in a public place, but I am not allowed in school,” Navadgi said. “It only means that fundamental right is restricted in manner known to the Constitution.”

Earlier hearings

At the last hearing on Tuesday, Justice Dhulia had observed that the High Court should not have gone into the question of essential religious practice while deciding on the case.

“They [the High Court] have relied on a term paper of a student, and they have not gone to the original text [of the Quran],” Dhulia added. “Other side [the petitioners] is giving another commentary. Who will decide which commentary is right?”

In its verdict upholding the hijab ban, the Karnataka High Court had cited an essay titled “Veiled Women: Hijab, Religion, and Cultural Practice – 2013”. The essay written by Sara Slininger, a History student at the time, was the High Court’s basis to hold that hijab was at best a cultural practice.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Karnataka government, had also agreed that the High Court could have avoided looking into whether wearing hijab was an essential religious practice in Islam. He, however, had pointed out that it was the petitioners who had argued that hijab was an essential practice.

The hijab ban case

The Karnataka government’s ban came after in December and January, a group of Muslim students of the Government Women’s Pre-University College in Udupi city were not allowed to attend classes for being dressed in hijab. The students staged a protest, and similar demonstrations were held in other parts of Karnataka.

Hindu students and mobs of men protested against Muslim women wearing hijabs to educational institutes. At some colleges, Muslim students were heckled, while in another case, some men climbed up a flagpole to plant a saffron flag and broke into classrooms.

On February 5, the Karnataka government passed an order banning clothes that “disturb equality, integrity and public order”. The students then moved the High Court against the ban.

On March 15, the Karnataka High Court upheld the state government’s ban on hijabs in schools and colleges and held that headscarves were not essential to Islam.

Days after the High Court upheld the ban, a group of students moved the Supreme Court contending that they would miss their examinations due to the ban. However, NV Ramana, who was the chief justice at the time, refused an urgent hearing in March, saying that the hijab ban had nothing to do with examinations.