A top court in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on Tuesday upheld a government order banning Muslim girls from wearing head scarves inside schools, a ruling that is likely to heighten tensions at a time when India is increasingly polarized along religious lines.
The court said that wearing the hijab is not part of essential religious practice under Islam. The ruling came at a time when members of India’s minority community are increasingly coming under attack as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted Hindu-first policies.
Religious freedom is protected under the country’s Constitution, but there has been a proliferation of religious-based hate crimes, particularly against members of the Muslim community. Their members and right-wing Hindu activists have also been clashing at school campuses around Karnataka.
The dispute began in September at a college preparatory school for girls in Udupi, a city in southwestern Karnataka, when teachers there barred several Muslim students from entering their classrooms while wearing hijabs.
In previous years, head scarves had not been a problem, according to one of the petitioners who sought to overturn the ban. The school’s ban, later affirmed by the state government, set off unrest and violence that spread to other schools in the state, prompting the government to close down schools for days.
When the students defied the ban, they were met at the campus by scores of boys wearing saffron, the color most associated with Hinduism, and shouting slogans like “Hail Lord Ram,” a major Hindu god.
Several of the students’ parents filed a petition, which the judges considered before their ruling. The three judges heard arguments from lawyers to overturn the hijab ban, while students’ lawyers argued that it violated the girls’ right to an education and their freedom of religion. India’s Constitution affirms “the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”
The court previously issued an intermediate order preventing students from wearing any religious garb, including saffron shawls, until the decision on Tuesday.
Pralhad Joshi, a federal minister of parliamentary affairs, welcomed the court’s decision, saying that the “basic work of the students is to study.”
Mr. Joshi also told the Indian news agency ANI, “Everyone has to maintain peace by accepting the order of the high court.”
In recent weeks, the restrictions on students wearing head scarves had become a flash point over minority rights in India. Critics of Mr. Modi say his Bharatiya Janata Party is increasingly taking steps to marginalize the country’s 200 million Muslims, one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
Right-wing Hindu monks have made calls for other Hindus to arm themselves and kill Muslims. And there has been a rise in violence against Muslims in India under Mr. Modi, part of a broader shift in which minorities feel less safe.
Recently, a prominent Muslim member of Parliament survived an apparent assassination attempt while campaigning in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. After the police arrested two people accused of shooting at the lawmaker’s vehicle, members of Mr. Modi’s party visited the home of a suspect and declared him innocent.
Karnataka, where the hijab controversy is playing out, is controlled by Mr. Modi’s party. The students’ protest there has inspired Muslim women to march elsewhere in India for their right to wear head scarves and other Islamic clothing.
“The hijab is not a moment where liberty or equality are being tested,” wrote Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a columnist for The Indian Express. “It is coming when there is an attempt to visibly erase Muslims from India’s public culture.”
Karnataka residents said some Muslim women wearing head scarves have been prevented from entering shops or have been chided on public transportation. In another state, a hijab-wearing woman was not allowed to withdraw cash from a bank, Indian news media reported.
“When you board a bus, everyone starts staring at you,” said Huzaifa Kulsum, a homemaker in Karnataka who said she had worn the hijab since childhood. “It seems suddenly everyone is interested in knowing why we wear it.”
Video footage at some schools in Karnataka showed Muslim students and teachers being directed to remove head coverings before entering the campus. Many parents instead chose not to have their children attend the school.
On Tuesday, the authorities in Karnataka closed schools and colleges for a day and police officers were seen patrolling the streets. Before the court ruling, the regional government banned large gatherings for a week in Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka state, in order “to maintain public peace and order.”
Aiman Mohiuddin, a student who was among those barred from wearing the hijab at Rotary School in Mandya, a city in Karnataka, said before the verdict that she had felt as if someone was chopping off part of her body.
During the hearings, a top government lawyer told the judges that barring students from wearing the hijab at school did not violate guarantees of religious freedom under the Indian Constitution.
Prabhuling Navadgi, a lawyer representing the Karnataka government, told the court that educational institutions had the right to set school dress rules.
“There is no issue of hijab in the government order,” he said. “The government order is innocuous in nature. It does not affect the petitioners’ rights.”