As a two-judge bench in the Supreme Court heard for yet another day separate petitions filed against a decision of the Karnataka High Court to ban wearing hijab to schools of the state, the lawyers on the Muslim side called it a part of "freedom of expression", but the bench of Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia were not convinced.
The bench said the argument of the pro-hijab side could not be taken to an illogical end. "You can't take it to illogical ends. Right to dress will include right to undress also?" the Supreme Court asked.
The lawyer, Dev Datt Kamat, replied, "Nobody is undressing in a school." But the court pointed out it had made the remark in the context of freedom of expression.
This was part of a longer exchange between the court and the lawyer, during which Justice Gupta also remarked: "Problem here is that one particular community is insisting on a headscarf (hijab) while all other communities are following the dress code. Students of other communities are not saying we want to wear this and that."
"This is a complicated question," the Supreme Court said.
When lawyer Kamat said many students wore rudraksh or cross as a religious symbol, the judge responded: "That is worn inside the shirt. Nobody is going to lift the shirt and see if someone is wearing rudraksh."
A total of 24 petitions are being heard on this matter. Six Muslim girl students have filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court, challenging the hijab ban.
During the hearing, the court said it was ready to examine the case of the prohibition on students to wear the hijab in Karnataka government schools. The court issued a notice to the Karnataka government and sought a reply.
On 5 September, the Supreme Court had spelt out a key issue at the heart of the matter: "You may have a religious right to practise whatever you want to practise. But can you practise and take that right to a school which has uniform as a part of dress you have to wear? That will be the question."
On whether wearing hijab is an essential practice under Article 25 of the constitution, the bench had said, "The issue can be modulated little bit in a different way. It may be essential, it may not be essential."
"What we are saying is whether in a government institution you can insist on carrying your religious practice. Because the Preamble says ours is a secular country," the bench observed at a previous hearing.
Hijab row backdrop
The row began on 1 January at Government PU College in Udupi, where six female students said they were not allowed to enter classrooms wearing the hijab. They started a protest, which soon became a statewide issue.
Counter-demonstrations by Hindu students wearing saffron scarves spread to other states too. The college principal said students used to wear hijab to the campus but removed it before entering the classroom; the students said he's lying.
After students were stopped at other places too, several petitions were filed in the Karnataka High Court in which Muslim students citing Articles 14, 19 and 25 of the constitution.
The state BJP government, meanwhile, justified the ban under its 1983 Education Act. In a 5 February order, it said the government reserved the right to issue directions to schools and colleges "to ensure maintenance of public order".
Colleges that fall under the Karnataka Board of Pre-University Education, dress code prescribed by the institution be followed, the ruling party said. If that's not fixed, clothes that "do not threaten equality, unity, and public order" must be worn.
The high court ruled that the hijab was not an "essential religious practice" that can be protected under the constitution.
Supreme Court was angered last week by pro-hijab side's doublespeak
Earlier, the judges of the Supreme Court were angered by the demand to postpone the hearing on the hijab ban. Justice Hemant Gupta told the lawyers of the Muslim petitioners that this "forum shopping" would not work.
"Earlier, you kept demanding early hearing, now you are demanding postponement of hearing!" the bench exclaimed.
The Supreme Court also turned down the demand to hear the case after two weeks.