Amid widespread protests over a ban on hijabs in schools, an Indian court has temporarily prohibited all forms of religious dress in schools while it considers a legal challenge to the hijab ban.
The current conflict began in September 2021 when a girl’s preparatory school in the Indian state of Karnataka moved to ban hijabs, saying the Muslim headscarves violated the school’s dress code.
In the months and weeks since, students at various schools in the region have protested the ban by wearing their hijabs and demanding to be let back into school. At the same time, mobs of Hindu nationalists, many wearing the saffron color associated with Hinduism, have protested at the schools in support of the hijab ban.
Hindus make up 84% of Karnataka’s people, while about 13% are Muslim and fewer than 2% are Christian.
The government of Karnataka, which has expressed support for the hijab ban, is deliberating whether to pass an anti-conversion law similar to that of eight other Indian states, which Christians and others say are abused by extremists. Basavaraj Bommai, the chief minister of Karnataka, is a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
After weeks of protests so intense that high schools and colleges had to close, the Karnataka High Court on Feb. 10 issued an order calling for an end to the violence and for schools to reopen. The order came in response to two petitions asking that Muslim women be allowed to wear hijabs in school.
“Whether wearing of hijab in the classroom is a part of essential religious practice of Islam in the light of constitutional guarantees, needs a deeper examination,” the court wrote.
The court then ordered that all students, regardless of religion, should not wear religious garb in school “until further orders.” The court specifically mentioned saffron shawls, scarfs, hijabs, and “religious flags.”
Though the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, eight states have passed laws aimed at preventing conversions from Hinduism to minority religions by “force” or “inducement.” These laws and related accusations have drawn criticism from India’s religious minorities and from an official U.S advisory body.
In recent years, Christians in India have decried an apparent rise in anti-Christian violence and Hindu extremism. Hindu mobs — often fueled by false accusations of forced conversions — have attacked Christians, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services.
In addition to persecution against Christians, reports indicate that Indian Hindus have systematically targeted Muslims in lynch mobs for slaughtering or eating beef– a practice that Hindus consider to be a religious offense.