India hijab ban verdict

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Hindutva activists in India have been invigorated by the Karnataka High Court’s decision to uphold the state’s ban on Muslim girls wearing hijabs in the classroom. The leaders of several bigoted groups that fall under the Hindutva umbrella — including the BJP which rules New Delhi and Karnataka — are demanding that other states emulate the ban. This has left Indian Muslims, especially women and girls, concerned about the further erosion of their rights. The Pakistani Foreign Office also noted how the high court had let India’s minorities down by failing to uphold the principles of justice and equality. It also noted that the otherwise ultra-religious BJP has suddenly decided to weaponise the “pretext of secularism” to target Muslims.

The fact is that this issue could have been nipped in the bud if only India’s current rulers were willing to focus on governance and social welfare, rather than divisive religious politics. Unfortunately, as many Indian analysts have noted, the timing of the issue, just ahead of elections in Karnataka, shows that it was meant to galvanise support among far-right voters, while also creating a wedge to push more young Hindu’s towards the BJP.

Supporters of bans have also offered ludicrous excuses for why the headscarf should be banned, such as comparing school uniform requirements to those of the Indian armed forces. For one, going to school is a human right — governments should make every effort to ensure that no child is afraid or unwilling to go to school by facilitating them. On the other hand, no one is entitled to join the military — you must first qualify and then be willing to accept the terms and conditions of employment. Also, the Indian armed forces, like most others in the world, make specific exemptions on religious grounds, such as allowing Sikh servicemen to wear turbans. The US Army even has a guide for how female Muslim personnel should wear their hijab, including acceptable colours and materials. Also, the Indian military does not explicitly ban hijabs, and the Indian Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the constitutional guarantees regarding religion would allow female service members to wear headscarves.  

But rights and human decency have never been the strong point of Hindutva leaders.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2022.

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