By : Ninaad Deshmukh


India prides itself on being a religiously secular country. Its constitutional provisions guarantee state alienation from religious matters, albeit with reasonable restrictions. Unfortunately, time and again, this peace and harmony amongst the religions, that is otherwise continually assured, gets disturbed. Sometimes, it seems to happen because of the actions of the people, while at others it seems to arise as reactions to certain actions that are undertaken by any of the organs of the state, and/or their representatives in the general public. A very recent example of the same is the ongoing controversy in the State of Karnataka, that is growing more complex even as these words are being read. 

As such, to understand the status quo of the matter, we need to go back to the very origin of the controversy.

The Hijab Ban Issue:

The entire controversy essentially arose in December 2021, when a government Pre-University (PU) college in Karnataka’s Udupi district was found to have prohibited six pupils from entering the classroom because they were wearing hijabs, citing a violation of the college's uniform standard. As more schools imposed similar restrictions, more kids in Karnataka spoke up. Muslim students claimed that their fundamental rights to education and religion were being violated. This provoked counter-protests sponsored by fringe Hindu groups, and a segment of students and others quickly found themselves in a tense standoff with those denouncing the hijab ban. 

As such, the Karnataka government issued an order on February 5, 2022, declaring that uniforms must be worn compulsorily where policies exist and that no exceptions may be made for the wearing of the hijab. Several educational institutions referenced this order and refused entry on campuses to all Muslim girls wearing the hijab. Hindu groups further began donning saffron shawls and scarves, emphasising the incident’s communal animosity. Protests quickly expanded to other districts and even outside of Karnataka, with allegations of violence and stone-throwing. Prohibition orders were issued in impacted parts of Karnataka, including Udupi, Bengaluru, Shivamogga, and Dakshina Kannada, and schools and colleges were temporarily closed. 

All this chaos led to grievance petitions being filed before the Karnataka High Court, on behalf of the students who felt they were wronged. Due to protests and disagreements over the wearing of the hijab, the government also closed high schools and universities for three days on February 8th. On February 10, the High Court issued an interim ruling prohibiting all pupils from wearing religious clothing. When schools reopened on 14 February, the high court’s interim ruling was implemented in all Karnataka schools and colleges, with pupils and, in certain cases, teachers being asked to remove hijabs and burkas outside the school gates. After a hearing that lasted around 23 hours and spanned over 11 days, tshe court issued its judgement on 15 March 2022, upholding the hijab regulations. 

This controversial judgment has led to more protests and even communal violence that has spread like wildfire across Karnataka. While many persons of eminence are seen to be supporting the call, citing the promotion of a national identity, a lot of others are also seen taking starkly opposite stands, citing the fundamental rights as well as the piety of ancient culture, irrespective of pragmatic necessity. Even petitions to the Supreme Court demanding urgent hearing of the appeal in relation to the Karnataka HC order was rejected by Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, N. V. Ramana. While advocates asked the court to hear the case as soon as possible so that the girls may take their school exams and avoid losing their progress from the previous year, the court refused, stating that the examinations have nothing to do with this problem and that the subject should not be sensationalized. All this has led the state of Karnataka into utter socio-political pandemonium.

The Bible Controversy :

As if adding fuel to the fire, the already sensitive air around the ongoing hijab ban has again been lit up, with another twist bringing out a similar facet of the controversy. An educational institution has come into picture, garnering criticism for requiring parents to sign an undertaking stating that they would not object to their children bringing a Bible to class every day.

Clarence High School in Bengaluru’s Richard’s Town has mandated that all pupils attend Scripture Class, and parents have stated that they would not object to their children bringing the Bible to class every day. In its admission application form for Class XI, the Christian minority institution founded in 1914 asks parents to sign a declaration that states, verbatim -

“You affirm that your child will attend all classes including Morning Assembly Scripture Class and Clubs for his/her own moral and spiritual welfare and will not object to carrying the Bible and Hymn Book during his/her stay at Clarence High School.”

This has led to various right-wing groups criticizing the plan, claiming that the school is forcing non-Christian students to read the Bible. The Hindu Janajagruti Samithi, a right-wing Hindu organization, has angrily condemned the action, claiming that such a move violates the provisions of the Karnataka Education Act. Other right-wing sympathisers also flocked to Twitter to express their displeasure with the decision. One internet user even dubbed the act as being an example of “Christian Evangelist Terrorism.”

Clarence High has remained stubborn in the face of the controversy, stating that they would only reply after conferring with their legal counsel. As school principal Jerry George told the media - “We are aware about the issue, we have handed over the matter to our advocates. They will reply. Once they give us the advice, we will take it forward.”

What makes matters even more complex and riveting is that this element of the issue has come to the surface at a time when the Karnataka state administration had recently revealed plans to incorporate the Bhagavad Gita into school curricula, with the chief minister Basavaraj Bommai stating that a decision on including the Bhagavad Gita into school curricula will be made following debate and discourse. Karnataka’s current Education Minister B. C. Nagesh had also hinted that the Bhagavad Gita may be taught in schools beginning with the next academic year, stating that the “Bhagavad Gita is not only for Hindus, it is for all.” The move has come forth after the Gujarat government agreed on March 17 to incorporate the ‘Shrimad Bhagavad Gita’ in the school curriculum for grades 6-12 in order to “cultivate a sense of pride and connection to traditions.” According to the circular, Indian culture and epistemology should be integrated into the school curriculum in a way that promotes students’ overall development. While the move has been appreciated by many, the opposition has deemed it has one being “as dangerous as the coronavirus pandemic” itself. 

State Thus Far:

As can be seen, the matter is not simple. It is heavily multi-faceted, with each aspect of the same carrying significant gravity unto itself. While the question is still majorly in the socio-political sphere, one can arguably witness recent history already repeating itself. In light of the hijab controversy, this present introduction can be seen to result in legal action which will only serve to aggravate the already tense and rapidly worsening situation. To look at the claims of the bible controversy being in violation of the Karnataka Education Act, a prima facie analysis reveals very vague connotations. While Section 7 of the Act, while talking about the Government’s discretionary power to prescribe curricula, states the validity of incorporating moral and ethical education [subsection 2(a)] as well as valuing and preserving the rich heritage of our composite culture [subsection 2(g)(vi)], it does not specify the mode or media via which such education is imparted. On the other hand, Section 2 of the Act defines “general education” as every branch of education other than religious, professional, medical, technical or special education [subsection (16)], with their respective definitions also mentioned subsequently. Interestingly, the term “religious education” has not been defined anywhere in the Act. On the same train of thought, Section 7 states that the main objective of education at the secondary level shall be to impart such general education as may be prescribed so as to make the pupil fit either for higher academic studies or for job-oriented vocational courses [subsection 4(b)], which further exacerbates the ambiguity as regards a coherent interpretation of the provisions in question. Perhaps making things worse are multiple references made in relation to religion, prohibiting, for example, recognition of private institutions on the grounds that they directly or indirectly encourage in the educational institution any propaganda or practice wounding the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India or insulting religion or the religious belief of that class [Section 39(1)(c)] as well as withdrawal of grants on the same basis.  

As matters stand, this issue is one that becomes more and more abstruse the more we try to delve into it. The above-mentioned ambiguities are but the tip of the iceberg, with their relevant and contextual interpretations bound to give rise to even more questions as regards the legal as well as socio-political positions. As of now, the air has still not been cleared, and the fog and mist of clouded judgment prevails not only over the Karnataka localities, but the entirety of the Indian citizenry. As this is a matter that - although with a limited locus of occurence - fundamentally deals with a question of national importance, it carries immense momentousness. In the face of state elections that arrive in 2023, it will be noteworthy to witness what this already alarming controversy culminates into, especially considering the potential (and seemingly apparent) involvement of the legal fraternity as well as the ever-increasing debate and discourse (and unfortunately conflict) in the socio-political arena.