OTTAWA, CANADA – The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) stated that it is deeply concerned by the decision of a High Court in India’s Karnataka to uphold a ban on the hijab in classrooms and the deterioration of religious freedoms in the state. The ban is deeply discriminatory against Muslim women and has the potential to impact other minority communities in India, including Sikhs.
Following the ruling, the Karnataka government has announced that non-Hindus cannot do business in and around Hindu temple premises.
In January a Karnataka college barred the entry of Muslim girls wearing the hijab, leading to widespread protests and renewed concerns around diminishing freedoms and minority rights in India.
In a 129-page decision, the three-judge Karnataka High Court panel quoted passages from the Quran and books on Islam to rule that the hijab is not a required practice for Muslim women.
The decision reads, in part,
“There is sufficient intrinsic material within the scripture itself to support the view that wearing hijab has been only recommendatory, if at all it is. What is not religiously made obligatory therefore cannot be made a quintessential aspect of the religion through public agitations or by the passionate arguments in court”
The judgment has been appealed to the Supreme Court of India.
The role of the Indian high court judges as arbiters of religious doctrine has also raised concerns. Canadian jurisprudence from the Supreme Court of Canada in the decision Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem  2 S.C.R. 551 offers important insight into the role of courts in deciding religious doctrine, that would be helpful to Indian courts. The Amselem decision removes the judge as the authority of what is correct religious doctrine and simply requires that a claimant with a sincerely held belief with a nexus with religion be accommodated.
WSO President Tejinder Singh Sidhu said,
“The Karnataka High Court’s decision to uphold the ban on the hijab is simply wrong and will have implications for other minority communities, including Sikhs in India.
The decision to wear religious clothing is deeply personal and there is nothing to suggest that it cannot be accommodated in the classroom. Forcing individuals to choose between their faith and education is unfair and unnecessary.
The Karnataka High Court’s ruling that the hijab is not obligatory for Muslim women is deeply troubling. Judges have no business ruling on what is correct religious doctrine or practice. The Supreme Court of Canada’s Amselem decision offers important insights into this issue that would be helpful for the Indian courts.
The court’s decision seems to have emboldened religious discrimination in the state with today’s announcement that non-Hindus will not be allowed to conduct business in or around Hindu temple premises.
If the Karnataka High Court’s decision is allowed to stand, the wearing of Sikh articles of faith will also be in jeopardy. This is not just an issue for the Muslims in India- it is a question of human rights and religious freedom. The Sikh community must oppose this ruling and see that it is overturned.”
The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) is a non-profit organization with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights of all individuals.