An Indian court upheld on Tuesday a ban on wearing of the hijab in classrooms in the southern state of Karnataka, a ruling that could set a precedent for the rest of the country which has a big Muslim minority.
The ban last month by the state had sparked protests by some Muslim students and parents, and counter-protests by Hindu students. Critics of the ban say it is another way of marginalising a community that accounts for about 13% of Hindu-majority India's 1.35 billion people.
"We are of the considered opinion that wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith," Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi of the High Court of Karnataka said in the judgement.
He said the government had the power to prescribe uniform guidelines, dismissing various petitions challenging the ban ordered by Karnataka.
"We are of the considered opinion that the prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to," Awasthi said.
Ayesha Imthiaz, a third-year undergraduate student in the Karnataka district of Udupi where the protests began, said she would either drop out of her government-aided college or opt for a correspondence course. She said her fellow Muslim female students were planning to do the same.
"We can't take off the hijab, we won't take off the hijab," she said. "We have fifth semester exams next month. We will have to sit that out unless things change by then."
Ahead of the verdict, Karnataka authorities announced closures of schools and colleges and imposed restrictions on public gatherings in some parts of the state to prevent potential trouble.
Last month, Federal Home Minister Amit Shah said he preferred students sticking to school uniforms instead of any religious attire. Currently, there is no central law or rule on school uniforms across the country, but the Karnataka ruling could prompt more states to issue such guidelines.
The Students Islamic Organisation of India, which represents thousands of Muslim students across the country, said their fear was that Tuesday's verdict would encourage more states to ban the hijab in class.
"We don't want it to set a national precedent and we want it overturned," its national secretary Musab Qazi said. "The court verdict might embolden more states to ban it. So in all likelihood, we will approach the Supreme Court."
Karnataka, home to the tech hub of Bengaluru, is the only southern state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and holds state assembly elections next year.
Critics say the BJP could benefit from the division between Hindus and Muslims, though the party says the hijab ban had nothing to do with their political ambitions.
Students who had challenged the ban in court had said wearing the hijab was a fundamental right guaranteed under India's constitution and an essential practice of Islam. Reuters could not immediately contact the challengers.
Muslim politicians, including the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, Mehbooba Mufti, called the verdict "deeply disappointing".
"On one hand we talk about empowering women yet we are denying them the right to a simple choice," she wrote on Twitter. "It isn’t just about religion but the freedom to choose."
Karnataka ministers told reporters that Muslim female students who are staying away from class in protest against the ban should respect the judgement and rejoin school.
The ban had led to protests in some other parts of the country too and drew criticism from the United States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Sunil Kataria; Editing by Christopher Cushing & Shri Navaratnam)