DC Edit | Don’t allow hijab row to hinder girls’ education

The Indian Constitution assures every citizen the right to practise their religion, subject to conditions

Religion should be kept a private affair of individual citizens, but that is an ideal case scenario. Whether we like it or not, elements of religious practices have become part of the culture of believers, and the harmonious co-existence of such customs with the ones of those who practise no religion is a pre-condition for a society’s progress.

India is a secular democracy founded on a Constitution that assures every citizen the right to practise their religion, subject to conditions. Religion being a general term, the courts have elaborated on this constitutional proviso and brought essential religious practices under its protection.

It is in this background that one should view the controversy raging in Karnataka about Muslim girl students wearing the hijab (headscarf). Some colleges objected to the habit and asked the girls to stop attending lessons with headscarves on, which they protested. The issue soon took a communal turn with a section of students parading saffron shawls, saying they, too, have the right to do so. Dalit students chipped in, wearing blue dress in support of the Muslim girls. Islamists did not waste the chance, introducing the niqab, or dress that conceals even the face, seeking the cover of fundamental rights.

As the Karnataka high court rightly observed while hearing the petition of the girl students, every citizen of this country should go by reason, the law, and the Constitution; not passion and emotion. This is an advice to all those who have taken to violent protests and also to those who come up with whatabouteries to argue their points. They must realise that the Constitution does not mandate banishing of religion; instead, it affords people the right to practise it. The question is how to make it least obtrusive in a secular system.

The situation as of today is that while sane persons would be busy seeking to address the question as suggested by the high court, vested interests and extremists have almost hijacked the issue. Protests against the hijab are taking place all across Karnataka now, and it is highly likely that it shall spread to other states, too. Political parties who have religion as their sole agenda to seek power and retain it have a lot to gain from this but rational people have every reason to worry about the future of this nation when people tend to view everything through the lens of religion and nothing but.

The Constitution and the law are made with a view to address issues as citizens of a nation, and not as enemies. It must not be done in a mechanical way in all situations; how a decision would impact the lives of law-abiding people must be a consideration the court should keep in mind. A total ban on the hijab, which Muslims claim to be an essential religious practice, will result in Muslim women either avoiding multi-religious and secular institutions or, worse, becoming dropouts. At the same time, the court cannot give in to the pressure of identity politics and communalists and allow each one to wear the dress of their choice. It will thus be called upon to come out with a solution that protects the right to practise religion and the right to education while refusing to yield to the demands of religious obscurantists of all hues. It should ensure that better sense prevails.

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