On Tuesday, judges ruled that the hijab was not essential in Islam and students cannot object to uniforms prescribed by schools. “Prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction, constitutionally permissible,” a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi said.
The case dominated domestic headlines and political debate earlier this year in India, a Hindu-majority country governed by a secular constitution. Critics of the BJP say the rights of religious minorities are increasingly under attack as Modi has consolidated power, and the hijab ban in Karnataka is another sign of intolerance toward Muslims rising across India.
The controversy first surfaced in December, when a group of hijab-wearing students were barred from entering classrooms by a government school in Udupi, a coastal town in Karnataka, triggering protests. Soon, Hindu students, in some instances organized by Hindu nationalist groups, counterprotested by wearing saffron scarves — associated with Hinduism — in schools, resulting in tense standoffs between groups of students.
More schools barred hijab-clad Muslim students from attending classes, and the state government closed schools.
The issue has continued to be highly polarizing. Officials in Bangalore, the state capital, banned gatherings and protests for a week ahead of Tuesday’s ruling. Udupi, where the issue surfaced, ordered schools and colleges to remain shut on Tuesday.
In recent years, BJP-led governments in New Delhi and in state capitals have passed many laws seen as targeting Muslims — including rules preventing the slaughter of cows (which are sacred in Hinduism) and making it hard for interfaith couples to marry.
Recent months have also seen an uptick in hate speech against Muslims at large public rallies. Many perpetrators — including influential Hindu priests — have not faced consequences.
While headscarves have been a matter of fierce debate in countries such as France, hijabs are not banned or restricted in India, whose secular constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
Wearing religious symbols in public is common in different communities. Many Sikhs wear turbans, Hindu men often sport a saffron mark on their foreheads, and Muslim men wear skullcaps. Hindu women in rural communities, particularly in the north, often cover their head or veil their faces with a long scarf — not dissimilar to the Muslim head or face coverings.
An interim order by the court declared that no religious clothing would be allowed in schools until the court ruled on the matter, during which time several students were not allowed to sit for exams for wearing a hijab.
Aliya Assadi, 17, a Muslim student who was barred from attending classes at her all-girls secondary school in Karnataka, has worn hijabs since the age of 7. While her Hindu classmates were initially supportive, she said, as the controversy grew, their attitudes changed.
“It breaks my heart to see my classmates and friends change so fast and speak on communal lines,” she told The Washington Post in February. “It simply makes me cry.”
Mohit Rao in Bangalore and Shams Irfan in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.