Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing Karnataka, told the court that the People’s Front of India (PFI) had launched a social media campaign aimed at creating unrest based on the “religious feelings of the people”.
The PFI is widely seen as a tough Muslim organization and has been blamed for several incidents of communal violence, prompting calls to impose a nationwide ban on it. The organization itself denied the allegations.
Mehta told a bench of Judges Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia that the PFI launched the social media campaign on the Islamic headscarf earlier this year and that there were continuous posts on social media asking students to ” start wearing the hijab”.
“In 2022 a movement started on social media by an organization called the People’s Front of India and the movement like an FIR which was filed subsequently suggested and now resulted in an indictment has been designed to create a kind of commotion based on people’s religious feelings and as part of ongoing social media posts starting to wear hijab,” Mehta said.
The top court was hearing arguments on a range of pleas challenging the Karnataka High Court’s verdict refusing to lift the hijab ban in state educational institutions.
“It’s not a spontaneous act of a few individual kids that we want to wear a hijab. They were part of a larger conspiracy and the kids were acting as advised,” Mehta said from the bench.
He said that until last year, no student wore hijab in schools in Karnataka.
Referring to the state government order of February 5, 2022, Mehta claimed that it would not be correct to say that he prohibits wearing only hijab and therefore targets only one religion.
“There was another dimension which no one brought to the attention of your lordships. I am not exaggerating if I say that if the government had not acted as it did, the government would have been culpable of dereliction of constitutional duty,” he said.
“I would be able to show your lordships how this problem arose and how the state, as guardian of everyone’s constitutional rights, attempted to address the problem by order dated February 5, 2022,” argued Mehta, insisting, “It’s a religiously neutral leadership.”
The state government had by its ordinance dated February 5, 2022, prohibited the wearing of garments that disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges. The order was challenged by some Muslim girls in the high court.
During the disputes, Mehta said, when the issue of wearing hijab in schools came up, some people from another religion started coming with saffron ‘Gamcha’ (stole), a Hindu religious symbol, which is also prohibited as it is not part of the school uniform.
He claimed that outlandish arguments had been made by the petitioners’ lawyer that the government was stifling the voice of the minority.
“No. The government had to intervene because of the circumstances created,” he said, referring to the tension the hijab and saffron stole have sparked on some campuses.
Mehta said the state directed educational institutions, not students, about uniforms.
“You say your focus was only on the uniform?” asked the bench.
“Yes. We haven’t touched on any aspect of religion,” Mehta replied.
During the proceedings, which will continue on Wednesday, Mehta also touched on the issue of hijab as an essential religious practice in Islam.
He asked how the hijab could be an essential practice when people in the country where the religion originated do not essentially follow it.
“In fact, where nations or countries are Islamic countries, women don’t wear hijab. They fight against hijab,” Mehta explained.
“What country is it? asked the bench, to which Mehta replied “Iran”.
Protests have erupted in several parts of Iran following the death of a young woman detained for breaking the country’s conservative dress code.
Vice police reportedly detained Mahsa Amini, 22, for failing to cover her hair with the Islamic headscarf, known as the hijab, which is compulsory for Iranian women.
The Solicitor General said the purpose of the uniform is to ensure that no one feels inferior because someone dresses in a particular way.
“That’s the purpose of the uniform. It’s for uniformity. It’s for equality among all students,” he said.
“Discipline means discipline. Here we are not talking about discipline that inflicts harm on them,” he said.
Observing that students don’t say they won’t wear the uniform, the bench asked about a situation where a student wears a face mask at an educational institution during the winter.
“It (the silencer) does not identify the religion,” Mehta said.
Summarizing his arguments, the Solicitor General said schools have the statutory power to prescribe uniforms and the government also has the statutory power to issue instructions to educational institutions to ensure compliance with the rules.
“It (the February 5 government order) was a non-arbitrary exercise of power, which makes it religiously neutral,” he claimed, adding that the petitioners went to court claiming that the hijab is an essential religious practice but they could not establish it.
During the hearing, lead attorney Dushyant Dave, representing some of the petitioners, wanted to know why the state government issued such a ban 75 years after independence.
“What was the need? Nothing was recorded to show that the circular was backed by just reason or justification. It fell like a thunderclap,” he said.
“So all of a sudden you decide you’ll have this kind of ban. Why am I saying this…a series of actions in Karnataka have targeted the minority community over the past few years,” Dave argued.
Several appeals have been filed in the Supreme Court against the High Court’s March 15 verdict that wearing the hijab is not part of the core religious practice that can be protected under Section 25 of the Constitution.