On February 16, pre-university colleges in Karnataka reopened amid mass protests regarding the use of hijabs in class. These demonstrations began last December, when a government-run college banned students from attending class while wearing headscarves.
The hijab ban had ripple effects, with pre-university colleges in the Udupi and Kundapur districts adopting similar regulations in January. Students who could no longer attend these institutions filed a petition to overturn the ban. As of today, the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore is handling the issue.
Authorities started the hijab row on the premises that it interferes with public order, and that there should not be any demonstrations of faith in the classroom. Rudra Gowda, principal of a pre-university college, alleged that no one wore hijabs in classrooms before December: “For the last 35 years there was no hijab in college. We allow them to wear it but not inside the classroom. During class hours, all students are allowed in uniform with no hijab. Only after December 27, they said they wanted to wear the hijab in the classroom.”
Furthermore, Karnataka’s government strengthened its claim under the Education Act of 1983, as in Section 133 it states that “the government reserves the right to issue appropriate guidelines to ensure maintenance of public order.”
On the opposite side, Muslim collectives in the region allege that the ban violates freedom of expression and profession of religion. Hijab-wearing students have been banned from school premises for over two months. For these students, refraining from wearing hijabs seems like the only solution. Campus Front of India, a student organization, has supported the students’ protests and battled legally on their behalf.
Legally, the Indian Constitution (Article 25) recognizes freedom of profession, practice and propagation of religion. Counter-arguments include that this right is subject to public order, which is put into question during the hearings.
This veto is part of a long-standing religious conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities that have existed since the partition of India. Karnataka has a Hindu majority, with a 13% Muslim minority, and relations between the two communities have always been tense. The ruling, far-right, Hindu “Bharatiya Janata Party” (BJP) seconded the hijab ban.
The BJP is politically motivated by the next regional elections in Karnataka, seizing the opportunity to create a wedge between the region’s two religious groups. One of their goals is to use religion to appeal to young Hindu voters before the election in May 2023. At the same time, the party hopes to escalate religious tensions throughout the region, securing as many seats as possible in government. This is not a new strategy for the BJP, as previously demonstrated by their anti-Muslim campaigns during the Delhi riots of 2020.