India’s Supreme Court panel split on allowing hijab in classrooms

A panel of India’s top court says it is divided on a decision to allow hijabs in classrooms and referred the matter to the chief justice, who will set up a larger bench to hear the case.

It arises from a ban in February by the southern state of Karnataka that forbade students to wear headscarves in classrooms, unleashing protests by Muslim students and their parents, as well as counterprotests by Hindu students.

“We have divergence of opinion,” said Justice Hemant Gupta, one of the two panel judges, as he delivered Thursday’s decision, but the judges did not say when the larger bench would be set up, or when the next hearing would be held.

“It is ultimately a matter of choice,” said the other judge, Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia, as he set aside the Karnataka High Court order.

Muslims are a sizeable minority in India, accounting for 14 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion population in the South Asian nation where Hindus make up the majority.

Some Muslim students challenged in the Supreme Court a ruling by a state court that upheld the ban in March.

The issue of the hijab ban started when female Muslim students wearing hijab were barred in January this year from entering their classrooms at a government college in Karnataka’s Udupi district. Subsequently, more educational institutions across the state banned Muslim girls from wearing the headscarves.

The students approached the Karnataka High Court on March 15, which upheld the ban and ruled that “wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in the Islamic faith”.

The students then approached the Supreme Court, challenging the lower court’s verdict.

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