Why The Indian State Should Allow Religious Symbols Over And Above Prescribed Uniform

by Arihant Pawariya - Feb 21, 2022 02:13 PM +05:30 IST
Why The Indian State Should Allow Religious Symbols Over And Above Prescribed UniformStudents in hijab.
  • After laying out clear rules for what’s not allowed (say Burqa because it changes the uniform while hijab is only an addition), the State should allow its students or employees to sport the symbols that have come to be associated with their religion.

    The obsession with secularisation of personal lives in the public domain should stop.

The Indian state has little to no appetite to stand up to groups who can quickly mobilise and have street power, i.e. the ability to riot at will and create a serious law and order situation. That’s why the borders of the national capital can be closed down and important roads blocked for months with impunity as the state watches on helplessly.

Whether it’s due to absence of state capacity, lack of will, fear of image being sullied in international media, fear of allegations of unfair treatment (why repress our mutiny when you allowed the other to run riot) or giving in to electoral considerations, the end result is veto to communal or groups with violence potential.

The politicians in the government have even less will to take certain matters head on because political capital is a precious commodity that’s in short supply and they have to spend it wisely, standing up to x but bowing down to y.

In light of this, it’s amusing to see the events unfolding in Karnataka where burqa/hijab has become a new issue around religious polarisation. Amusing because of two reasons.

One, their objection is over something that’s superficial compared to other issues of far greater import. Whether Muslim girls wear hijab or not has no effect on Hindus. But matters that actually impact them—like Muslim students being eligible for scholarships worth thousands of crores of rupees every year and numerous other benefits which are not accessible for Hindu students—see barely a whimper.

Second, Hindu students donning saffron scarfs in response to hijab wearing girls and making a case that they should also be allowed to wear their religious symbols on sleeves shows the typical reactionary attitude of the Hindu community. Just because Hindus secularise their appearance or give up their symbols on first ask, they expect others to do the same. The fact that only when they see hijabs that they bring out their vibhutis, saffron scarfs, kalavas, bindis et al speak volumes (though to be fair, students in select states like Karnataka fare much better in this regard).

Be that as it may, it’s not yet clear from the reports if the controversy is really about burqa or hijab because the response of the institution and the government in these two cases should be dramatically different. The former cannot be allowed. Period.

Without going into what the law says and whether wearing hijab is a recent phenomenon or opposition to it is motivated campaign, the real issue to address is if Muslim girls should be allowed to attend classes wearing hijab.

Here, we need to differentiate between private and government institutions. The autonomy of the former in deciding a host of things including uniform should ideally be at a different plane than the latter for obvious reasons. If one doesn’t like a private school which is not accommodative of their religious symbols, they can always find another one. The equation is different for government establishments.

It’s another matter that even within the private institutions, the rules of autonomy in India are different based on whether the institution is run by a religious minority or not. In Fathima Thasneem (minor) And Other v. The State of Kerala, And Others in 2018 which Supreme Court advocate J Sai Deepak highlighted in his article, Justice A Muhamed Mustaque admitted that hijab was essential to the practice of Islam but he held the fundamental right of the Christian private educational institution to manage its affairs at a higher pedestal.

If this was a non-minority institution, religious freedom of the individual would’ve reigned supreme over the rights of the institution because they don’t enjoy the same autonomy as given to minority ones under Article 30 of the constitution - another sectarian issue that is many degrees higher than the hijab one in importance that should be the focus of outrage among Hindus for they are at the receiving end of this unequal regime.

As far as the government schools are concerned, it’s important to note that India is a plural state and not French laïcité. It has never shown any interest to exterminate all public displays of religion from public life or state institutions. Rather, it has gone out of way to be accommodative, even appeasing different sects. If India was a Hindu State, it could’ve made the case for allowing students to sport only Hindu symbols (and that includes Sikh turban) even though most Hindus would be fine with hijab as well given they also have the similar liberty (even in the current controversy, the demand from Hindu students is that of equality).

But given the current nature of the State, there is no ground on the basis of which it can bar people from wearing religious symbols (with certain regulations) ‘over and above’ the prescribed uniform in government institutions. Nor should it try to. The debate over whether a particular symbol is essential to the followers of that religion is pointless and harms Hindus more than the Abrahamics (read this for detailed explanation). That’s why ‘Turban is allowed because it is essential to Sikhism but hijab is not essential to Islam’ argument is flawed.

After laying out clear rules for what’s not allowed (say Burqa because it changes the uniform while hijab is only an addition like the Sikh turban and which can be of same colour as the uniform), the State should allow students or employees to don the symbols that have come to be associated with their religion.

The obsession with secularisation of personal lives in the public domain should stop. The State would do good to set the minimum standards, define non-negotiable and be accommodative in general. Hijab is no different than a scarf. This is not the hill to die on. There are far more important things that deserve attention. Mind the State’s appetite and political capital.

Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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