Hijab Row in Karnataka: A Summary


In recent years, the wearing of the hijab, a headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women, has become a source of controversy in India, particularly in the state of Karnataka. The latest incident, the case of Aishat Shifa v. The State of Karnataka and Ors., also known as the “Hijab Row”, has sparked a heated debate over the rights of Muslim women to wear the hijab and the role of the government in enforcing dress codes, especially in educational institutions. In this article, we will examine the legal developments surrounding the Hijab Row in Karnataka and their implications for religious freedom and human rights in India.

Facts of the Case

The year 2022 began with conflicts on the basis of religious clothing. The matter commenced with the restriction of entry of Muslim girls wearing the hijab into the college in Udupi where she was enrolled. The girls even offered to use the uniform’s dupatta to cover their heads, arguing that they did not need to put on a separate hijab of a distinct shade or material, but the college refused. The university allowed them to put on the hijab on campus but did no longer allow them into lessons. They were found sitting in the corridors and working with their notebooks. It was claimed that the said attire was against the school’s uniform policy thereby not allowing them to attend their classes.

Over the subsequent weeks, this dispute was witnessed in other schools and colleges across the country with groups of Hindu students staging counter-protests with the claims of permission to wear saffron scarves to educational institutions. On 5th February, the Karnataka Government issued an order stating that uniforms ought to be worn compulsorily where policies exist and no exception may be made for the carrying of the hijab. Numerous educational institutions stated this order and denied entry to Muslim ladies carrying the hijab. Petitions had been filed within the Karnataka High Court on behalf of the aggrieved college students.

On 10 February, the High Court issued an interim order restraining all college students from wearing any form of religious apparel to educational institutions. The order was made applicable in all schools and schools across Karnataka, with college students, and in some cases instructors, being requested to eliminate hijabs and burqas outside of the institutions’ premises. After a hearing of about 23 hours spread over 11 days, the Court passed its verdict on 15th March 2022, upholding the regulations on hijab. The court ruled that the hijab isn’t a vital religious Islamic practice.

Saffron Protests

Immediately following the Udupi episode, the Hindu students of these institutions began coming to their colleges with saffron scarves to protest against their Muslim counterparts wearing the hijab. To avoid further escalations of the matter, the colleges requested that Muslim students cast off their hijab in lecture rooms. The matter was resolved a few days later at a faculty meeting where it was decided to allow Muslim girls to wear the hijab as long as they did not pin the headcover or tie them around their heads. However, the saffron protests regained momentum in February, being seen at the Government PU college in Kundapura, Bhandarkars’ Arts & Science College within the city and Dr. BB Hegde University near Udupi on 2nd and 3rd February respectively. At the final location, the saffron protesters successfully blocked the hijab-sporting Muslim college students from entering the college.

Government Reaction

On 27 January, the government announced the putting in place of an expert committee to examine the issue. Until its decision was made, the Government advised the students to maintain public order. For the Udupi PU college students, the “status quo” reputedly supposed that they should “adhere to the uniform rule”. The government also issued an order to this effect.

The Government also issued an order in February pointing out that the uniforms mandated by means of the national government, the faculty management or college improvement committees must be worn compulsorily. It was further stated that college students following religious tenets adversely impacted “equality and team spirit” in colleges. The preamble stated that a ban on hijab was no longer unlawful, and cited 3 court orders from Kerala, Bombay and Madras High Courts. As for the faculties in which the college development committees did not mandate a uniform, should still wear apparel that maintains “equality and unity and doesn’t hamper public order. The education minister B. C. Nagesh made a declaration affirming, “people who need to defy the government’s school uniform guidelines cannot enter their institutions and attend instructions.”

Issues Raised

The Karnataka High Court has provided answers to the following questions in its judgement:

  1. Whether wearing a hijab/headscarf is a part of Essential Religious practice in the Islamic Faith protected under Article 25 of the Constitution.
  2. Whether prescription of school uniforms is not legally permissible, as being violative of petitioners’ Fundamental Rights inter-alia guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a), (i.e., freedom of expression) and 21 (i.e., privacy) of the Constitution.
  3. Whether the Government Order dated 05.02.2022 apart from being incompetent issued without application of mind and further manifestly arbitrary and therefore violate Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution?
  4. Whether any case is made out in Writ Petition Number 2146 of 2022 for issuance of a direction for initiating disciplinary enquiry against Respondent No. 6 to 14 and for issuance of a Writ of Quo Warranto against Respondent No. 15 and 16?

The Supreme Court of India has also addressed the same contentions as addressed by the High Court of Karnataka since the case was heard before the Apex Court under appeal.

High Court Verdict

The Karnataka High Court upheld the ban on hijab in educational institutes on 15th March 2022. The court held that the hijab is not always a vital religious practice under Islam and, hence, is not covered under Article 25 of the Constitution of India which guarantees the citizens the fundamental right to exercise their religion.

The High Court carried out independent research on the matter by referring to “The Holy Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary” by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. This write-up was also referred to by the Supreme Court in the case of Shayara Bano. Ali’s commentary held that the Quran encouraged hijab most effectively to cope with the instances of “molestation of harmless women” at certain times during the Jahiliya (instances of pre-Islamic “lack of knowledge” prior to Islam) as a measure of social security. It further states that the hijab is not a religious practice and is much less vital to the Islamic religion. Y-category safety was provided to the Karnataka High Court judges who delivered the hijab verdict and two human beings were arrested for threatening speeches.

Supreme Court Verdict

The Supreme Court of India rejected the petitions demanding urgent hearings on the instant matter. Advocates were asking the Apex Court to urgently hear the matter so that the female students could be permitted to enter the classes and attend their lectures. These requests were rejected by the Chief Justice of India, N. V. Ramana, who stated that the tests had nothing to do with this matter and that the issue must not be sensationalized.

On 26th April, CJI Ramana assured that the pleas challenging the Judgement of the High Court would be heard. A division bench of the Supreme Court passed a split decision on the matter in October 2022. While Justice Hemant Gupta upheld the judgement of the High Court, Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia passed a verdict opposing that of the High Court. The case was further elevated for consideration by the Chief Justice of India and reference to a larger bench due to the balanced judgement passed by the division bench.

Consequences of the Judgement

Similar to the protests, there have been numerous instances of violence. Allegedly, these were a result of the victims’ social media posts indicating permission to enter the institutions with hijabs. Several members of the public were also attacked by mobs and killed for posting anti-hijab posts on social media.

On 21st February, a Bajrang Dal member who took part in the anti-hijab protests with the Hindu college students was found murdered in the Shivamogga district. The police state that this could have also been a consequence of his prior actions with regard to the Hijab Row across the State. In furtherance, his death is also related to his involvement in at least 5 cases of attempt to murder in the past. These cases that he was accused of are believed to be of religious overtones. While the investigations are still ongoing, the Home Minister claims no relation between the protests and the murders. Violence grew with instances of stone-pelting during his funeral procession and a fatwa was also issued against him by a Facebook group named “Mangalore Muslims.” The injuries sustained by the members taking part in the procession retaliated to the stone-pelting by burning automobiles and throwing stones at various commercial establishments and houses of the Muslims in the area.

3 people were arrested among the 5 suspected of the murder. Sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967 have been invoked by the police, and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is now investigating the matter. Hazra Shifa, one of the petitioners in the Karnataka High Court, alleged that her brother Saif was beaten by a group of intoxicated people, who disliked the statements made by her father to a local news channel in support of the hijab. She further claims that this group consisted of “Sangh Parivar goons.”


The Hijab Row in Karnataka is a complex issue that raised important questions about religious freedom, human rights and the role of the government in enforcing dress codes. While the legal developments in the case of Aishat Shifa v. The State of Karnataka and Ors. are ongoing, it is hoped that the outcome will have far-reaching implications for the rights of Muslim women and religious freedom in India.

Ananya Konur