‘Public agitations’ cannot make what is not religiously obligatory an essential aspect: Karnataka High Court on Hijab

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Ruling that wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith, the Karnataka High Court today observed that "what is not religiously made obligatory...cannot be made a quintessential aspect of the religion through public agitations or by the passionate arguments in courts."

Tabling the judgment, the bench of Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi and consisting of Justices Krishna Dixit and JM Khazi dismissed the plea(s) challenging the alleged ban on wearing the Hijab at Pre-University colleges in Udupi district of Karnataka.

Court rejected petitioners' contention that the girl students have the freedom of conscience guaranteed under Article 25 and observed that "there is no evidence that the petitioners chose to wear their headscarf as a means of conveying any thought or belief on their part or as a means of symbolic expression. Pleadings at least for urging the ground of conscience are perfunctory, to say the least."

Court said, "if a person who seeks refuge under the umbrella of Article 25 of the Constitution has to demonstrate not only essential religious practice but also its engagement with the constitutional values...It’s a matter of concurrent requirement. It hardly needs to be stated, if essential religious practice as a threshold requirement is not satisfied, the case does not travel to the domain of those constitutional values."

Notably, Court added, "Whichever be the religion, whatever is stated in the scriptures, does not become per se mandatory in a wholesale way. That is how the concept of essential religious practice, is coined. If everything were to be essential to the religion logically, this very concept would not have taken birth."

Further, examining the argument raised by the counsel for the petitioners that 'the Quran injuncts Muslim women to wear hijab whilst in public gaze', Court observed, " There are numerous dimensions of understanding the usage of the hijab: visual, spatial, ethical and moral. This way, the hijab hides, marks the difference, protects, and arguably affirms the religious identity of the Muslim women."

Court noted, "The Holy Quran does not mandate wearing of hijab or headgear for Muslim women. Whatever is stated in the above sūras, we say, is only directory, because of absence of prescription of penalty or penance for not wearing hijab, the linguistic structure of verses supports this view."

Furthermore, regarding petitioners’ contention that ‘a classroom should be a place for recognition and reflection of diversity of society, a mirror image of the society (socially & ethically)’, Court held that the contention in its deeper analysis is only a hollow rhetoric.

Court said, "Though the basic human rights are universal, their regulation as of necessity is also a constitutional reality. The restriction and regulation of rights be they fundamental or otherwise are a small price which persons pay for being the members of a civilized community."

"There has to be a sort of balancing of competing interests i.e., the collective rights of the community at large and the individual rights of its members," Court stressed.

Therefore, noting that there was absolutely no material placed on record to prima facie show that wearing of hijab is a part of an essential religious practice in Islam and that the petitioners have been wearing hijab from the beginning, Court dismissed the petitions. 

Court held, "Petitioners have miserably failed to meet the threshold requirement of pleadings and proof as to wearing hijab is an inviolable religious practice in Islam and much less a part of ‘essential religious practice."

Lastly, rejecting petitioners' demand to initiate an inquiry against the school and principal for imposing such a restriction, Court held that the prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to. 

Court reasoned that “it is impossible to instill the scientific temperament which our Constitution prescribes as a fundamental duty vide Article 51A(h) into the young minds so long as any propositions such as wearing of hijab or bhagwa are regarded as religiously sacrosanct and therefore, not open to question."

"The school regulations prescribing dress code for all the students as one homogenous class, serve constitutional secularism, " Court concluded. 

Case Title:  X Vs State of Karnataka