Court in southern Karnataka state asks students not to "insist on wearing religious dress" and wait for its verdict –– an order activists say suspends constitutional rights to practice religion and freedom of conscience.

Ban on hijab has raised fears among Muslim students who say they are being deprived of their religious rights promised in the constitution in the Hindu-majority nation.
Ban on hijab has raised fears among Muslim students who say they are being deprived of their religious rights promised in the constitution in the Hindu-majority nation. (AA)

A court in a southern Indian state has told students not to wear any religious clothing until it delivers a verdict on petitions seeking to overturn a ban on hijabs, headscarves used by Muslim women.

The court in Karnataka state is considering petitions filed by students challenging a ban on hijabs that some schools have implemented in recent weeks.

"We will pass an order. But till the matter is resolved, no student should insist on wearing [a] religious dress," the Press Trust of India news agency quoted Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi as saying on Thursday.

The court also directed the state to reopen schools and colleges which the chief minister had shut for three days as protests over the ban escalated earlier this week.

"They are making us choose between our faith and our education," A H Almas, a student, told the AFP news agency. 

"What kind of equality is this?"

The issue grabbed headlines last month when a government-run school in Karnataka’s Udupi district barred students wearing hijabs from entering classrooms, triggering protests outside the school gate. 

More schools in the state followed with similar bans, forcing the state’s top court to intervene.

The uneasy standoff has raised fears among Muslim students who say they are being deprived of their religious rights promised in the constitution in the Hindu-majority nation. 

On Monday, hundreds of students and parents took to the streets to protest the restriction.

The footage went viral of a lone hijab-wearing student being pursued by Hindu men heckling and yelling "Jai Shri Ram" (Hail Lord Ram) as she arrives at her college on a two-wheeler in the Karnataka town of Mandya, shouting "Allahu Akbar" in response.

Immediately after the video went viral, Muskan Khan was called "lioness", "hero", "brave", and "courageous" on social media.

The dispute in Karnataka has set off protests elsewhere in India. A number of demonstrators were detained in the capital, New Delhi, on Thursday, and students and activists have also marched in cities including Hyderabad and Kolkata in recent days.

Protests in Pakistan, Bangladesh 

It also captured attention in neighbouring Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

"Depriving Muslim girls of an education is a grave violation of fundamental human rights," its Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, tweeted on Wednesday, calling the situation "absolutely oppressive."

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and education activist Malala Yousafzai also condemned the ban. "Refusing to let girls to go to school in their hijabs is horrifying," the 24-year-old Pakistani human rights campaigner tweeted.

Crowds of protesters took to the streets of Karachi on Thursday to reject the ban on hijabs in India. 

The demonstrators carried large banners reading "Why is the world silent on this extremism?" and "Hijab; My Right; My Pride."

"India calls itself secular. It claims to be the largest democracy," said Durdana Siddiqui, head of the Karachi branch of Jamaat-e-Islami Women's Wing. 

"But its claim of secularism has proven to be a sham."

"Does a woman not have the right to live her life according to her civilisational values?" she asked. "Why is this right not extended to Muslim women?"

She said India is propagating its agenda of Hindutva and "the minorities there are living a miserable life."

On Wednesday, Pakistan summoned the Indian charge d'affaires in Islamabad to convey to his government Pakistan's "extreme concern" over the anti-hijab campaign.

The envoy was told that the ongoing anti-hijab campaign is part of a "larger exclusionist and majoritarian agenda aimed at dehumanising and demonising Muslim women."

Around 50 students at Dhaka University in Bangladesh formed a human chain on campus on Wednesday, expressing solidarity with Muslim students in India.

"It is a very discriminatory policy and naked interference in one's religious freedom that has been protected in the Indian constitution," Saleh Uddin Sifat, a student of law at Dhaka University said, adding such injustice could not exist in a civilised world.

Violence against Muslims in Modi rule

For many Muslim women, the hijab is part of their faith and a way to maintain modesty. It has been a source of controversy for decades in some Western countries, particularly in France, which in 2004 banned them from being worn in public schools.

In India, where Muslims make up about 14 percent of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people, they are not banned or restricted in public places and are a common sight.

Some rights activists have voiced concerns that the bans could increase Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate. 

Violence and hate speech against Muslims have increased under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Hindu nationalist party, which also governs the Karnataka state.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies