An Indian Supreme Court panel said on Thursday it was divided over a ban on hijabs in schools, and referred the matter to the chief justice, effectively leaving in place a state’s ruling against the women’s headgear that has sparked uproar.
Karnataka in southwestern India in February became the only state to ban the garment in schools, triggering protests by Muslim students and their parents.
Hindu students have staged counter-protests, adding to frictions at a time when some Muslims already complain of marginalisation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
India’s debate comes as protests have rocked Iran after women objected to dress codes under its Islamic laws.
Justice Hemant Gupta said he had wanted an appeal against the ban quashed while his colleague on the two-judge panel, Sudhanshu Dhulia, said hijabs were a “matter of choice”.
The chief justice would set up a larger bench to consider the case, they said. Supreme Court decisions apply nationwide.
“Secularism is applicable to all citizens, therefore permitting one religious community to wear their religious symbols would be antithesis to secularism,” Gupta said in his order.
But Dhulia said restrictions were unfair.
“Asking girls to take off their hijab before they enter the school gates is first an invasion on their privacy, then it is an attack on their dignity and then ultimately it is a denial to them of secular education,” he said in the judgement.
MUSLIM STUDENTS DISAPPOINTED
Anas Tanwir, a lawyer for one of the Muslim petitioners who appealed against the Karnataka ban, told Reuters the split verdict was a “semi-victory” for them.
“Hopefully, the chief justice will set up the larger bench soon and we will have a definitive verdict,” he said by telephone.
Muslims are the biggest minority group in India, accounting for 13% of the population of 1.4 billion, the majority of whom are Hindu.
The lack of verdict disappointed some Muslim students in the town of Udipi, where protests first erupted.
“I have decided to stop going to college and will complete the rest of my education by correspondence,” said Ayesha Imthiaz, 20, who is in the second year of a degree.
At least five of her Muslim friends had stopped attending college after the hijab ban, she said. “I am not hopeful that the ban will ever be overturned,” Imthiaz added.
Critics of the ban say it is another way of marginalising Muslims, adding that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules Karnataka, 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.