The BJP government in Karnataka is considering a move to modify its contentious order issued on February 5, which suggested that a ban on hijabs in government pre-university colleges would not amount to a violation of the right to freedom of religion, The Indian Express has learnt.
Sources said that a modification of the order issued by the state’s Education department is being considered but may not be possible immediately since it has been challenged in the Karnataka High Court.
On Thursday, when petitions challenging the ban and the government order came up for hearing before a full bench, the state’s Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi sought time to respond to arguments that the order was against the right to equality, religion, expression, personal liberty and education — and that it amounted to discrimination on the basis of religion.
The advocate general said he would seek new instructions from the state and place arguments in the court on Friday afternoon. “There is some small thing,” he told the full bench featuring Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S Dixit, and Justice J M Khazi.
The court responded by saying the advocate general could begin arguments from the statement of objections that had already been filed by the state. But it also remarked that “if you are going to modify the government order it is alright”.
Sources said that a meeting of the State Cabinet, headed by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, is scheduled to be held on Friday, prior to the resumption of hearing of the case in the High Court, and a decision on the hijab issue may be taken.
The government order in combination with a misinterpreted interim order of the High Court, preventing the display of religious symbols in colleges where dress codes have been prescribed by College Development Committees, has resulted in widespread outrage and protests across the state.
As colleges reopened this week after a five-day break to cool communal tensions over the hijab ban, Muslim girls have been kept out or opted to stay away, with authorities citing the High Court’s interim order — despite a clarification in the assembly by Bommai that it applied only to pre-university colleges.
There is pressure on the BJP government from several quarters to roll back its own order of February 5, which legitimised a ban on hijabs in pre-university colleges on the grounds that the freedom of religion is subject to public order and that wearing of hijabs disrupted public order.
Apart from arguments in the High Court against the government order by counsel on behalf of Muslim girls from colleges in Udupi, a delegation of Muslim MLAs from the Congress met Education Minister B C Nagesh on Thursday and sought its withdrawal.
“Bommai said yesterday that the uniform rule does not apply to degree colleges and Higher Education Minister Ashwathnarayan has said it does not apply to degree colleges. Despite this, police have prevented students from entering campuses. We said that if this continues, then we would have to protest in a big way,” said Saleem Ahmed, working president of Congress in Karnataka.
“We also told the Minister that the High Court order is being wrongly implemented by many officials in the state. We told him that the situation that existed before February 5 must be continued and that where Muslim girls were allowed to go to schools and colleges, they must be allowed to continue to do so — until a High Court order is issued, which will be followed by all,” Ahmed said.
Invoking former prime minister A B Vajpayee, Minister Nagesh said: “We will try to solve the problems of all the students. We do not want even one student to be deprived of education. Atalji spoke about education for all, and it is the desire of (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi that all girls must be educated. The problem will be solved entirely in a day or two.”
According to an MLA, the Minister has indicated that “there is a need for a revised uniform policy” and that the government “will wait for the High Court order”. The Minister tried to convince the legislators to persuade parents of Muslim girls to attend school and college, sources said.
The Congress has avoided raising the hijab ban in the ongoing state legislature and has left it to its Muslim leaders in the state to lobby on the issue.
The party has instead been more focused on seeking the resignation of BJP Minister K S Eshwarappa who, during the hijab furore, stated that the saffron flag of Hindutva would one day replace the national flag. The party is staging a sleep-in dharna on Thursday night in the assembly seeking the ouster of Eshwarappa.
Meanwhile, a group of law professionals, including former High Court judges, has said in an open letter to the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court that the issues at stake “pertain not only to the rights recognised in Article 25 but also more foundationally to the Fundamental Rights of the students under the golden triangle of Articles 14, 19 and 21, read with the specific protection against discrimination in Article 15”.
The February 5 order of the department for pre-university education in Karnataka did not make uniforms compulsory in pre-university colleges but attempted to argue that banning headscarves or hijabs for students attending classes, by colleges, is not a violation of the right to practice their religion.
The order used clause 7 (2) (g) in the Karnataka Education Act, which is meant to prescribe curriculum, and powers under section 133 of the Act to issue the order on having dress codes that maintain equality and unity on pre-university college campuses.