It is an old adage that the manner in which you choose to frame a question will decide the answer that you will choose to give yourself. In today’s judgment by the Karnataka high court upholding a ban on the wearing of the hijab within classrooms, that giveaway can be seen on page 39 of the judgment, where the Full Bench frames four questions for consideration. The second question reads:
“Whether prescription of school uniform is not legally permissible, as being violative of petitioners Fundamental Rights inter alia guaranteed under Articles, 19(1)(a), (i.e., freedom of expression) and 21, (i.e., privacy) of the Constitution?” [Emphasis supplied]
It is notable that the court asks itself a question that nobody else had asked, and indeed, nobody could ask, given how absurd it is: whether a school uniform is itself unconstitutional. But that framing allows the court to elide the fundamental argument before it – i.e., that the wearing of the hijab alongside a school uniform is consistent with the broader goals of constitutionalism and education – with the sanctity of the uniform itself. A close reading of the judgment reveals how the uniform haunts the court’s imagination on every page, topped off by the extraordinary remark on page 88, where the court says that “no reasonable mind can imagine a school without a uniform”. The unarticulated premise of the judgment is that the claim to wearing the hijab is a claim against the very idea of a school uniform, and that allowing the former would destroy the latter. Respectfully, this elision leads the court into misconstruing and misapplying a range of settled constitutional principles, and for those reasons, the judgment ought to be overturned on appeal.
First, a quick summary: the court’s decision to uphold the ban on the hijab rests upon three constitutional grounds. The first is that the wearing of the hijab does not constitute an “essential religious practice” under Islam, and is therefore not insulated from the regulatory power of the state; secondly, that to the extent that wearing the hijab is an aspect of the freedom of expression, or the right to privacy, the ban is a reasonable restriction upon the exercise of those rights; and thirdly, as the government order under challenge is facially neutral and non-sectarian (i.e., does not single out the hijab), there is no unconstitutional discrimination against Muslim women students.
Essential religious practices
I do not want to spend too much time on the first argument. I have written before why framing the argument in terms of the essential religious practices test is unsatisfactory, both in general, but also specifically in this case, not least because it strips Muslim women of any agency in the matter, and essentially argues that the wearing of the hijab is not a matter of choice (no matter how situated, complex, or otherwise messy the context of that choice may be), but is objectively compelled by the tenets of Islam.
Additionally, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the court’s analysis of this point, either way: surveying the sources (in particular, the Qur’an), the court finds that the petitioners have failed to prove that wearing the hijab is essential to Islam – i.e., that is is mandatory, non-optional, and that Islam would lose its identity if women did not wear the hijab. Under the essential religious practices doctrine, these are broadly the parameters of the analysis (leave aside the fact – as most people have pointed out – that neither the court, nor external commentators, are particularly well-placed to conduct this analysis). Having established this, the court is, therefore, able to hold that, as a matter of religious freedom, the right to wear the hijab is not insulated from state regulation.
There is, of course, a problem with the analysis in that it effectively denies to the Muslim women the ability to frame their argument as one of religious choice, and requires, instead, for them to argue in the language of religious compulsion. This is particularly ironic when we think of the right as the “right to religious freedom”; the blame there, however, lies squarely with the essential religious practices test, as it has evolved over the last seventy years, and it is clear that there is no way out of this hall of mirrors until that test is overruled.
Freedom of expression and privacy
Let us now come to the argument where, in my respectful submission, the court’s analysis is mistaken. Previously, on this blog, it has been argued that the freedom of expression and the right to privacy are important rights implicated by this case. To sum up the argument in brief: as held by the Supreme Court in NALSA v Union of India, dress can, on certain occasions, and depending upon the context, be a form of “symbolic expression” that is protected by Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution (why it should be treated as such in this case has been argued in the linked posts). The application of the right to privacy – in terms of decisional autonomy – is also evident. Note that the freedom of expression and privacy arguments are not cleanly separable from the religious freedom arguments: indeed, it could well be – in certain cases – that the very reason why wearing the hijab is a form of symbolic expression is because it is worn as a defence of a beleaguered identity.
Once the rights to freedom of expression and privacy are triggered, the analysis moves to restrictions, where the test of proportionality applies. Proportionality requires, among other things, that the state adopt the least restrictive method in order to achieve its goals. Thus, where something less than a ban would suffice, a ban is disproportionate. The proportionality framework provides the broad intellectual scaffolding within which multiple jurisdictions across the world, as well as India in the NALSA judgment, when dealing with cases involving dress codes and uniforms, have adopted the test of reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation requires the court to ask whether, in a setting where a certain default exists, a particular claim for departing from that default, founded in constitutional rights, can be reasonably accommodated by the state (or private party), without the activity in question losing its character. In the case of the hijab, the claim for reasonable accommodation is straightforward: that the wearing of the hijab (especially hijab that is the same colour as the uniform and is simply draped, like a shawl, over the head) can be reasonably accommodated alongside the uniform, without damaging or in other ways vitiating the overall public goal of education.
How does the court respond to the argument? The reasoning is somewhat scattered in different parts of the judgment, but drawing it all together, this is how the court’s argument goes:
Dress is not at the “core” of free expression and privacy rights, but is a “derivative” right, and therefore weaker.
The classroom is a “quasi-public space”, where the operation of rights is weaker.
Given (1) and (2), and given the overriding salience of the uniform in a classroom, the proscription of the hijab is reasonable.
With respect, this analysis is flawed. It is true that in US jurisprudence – such as the O’Brien judgment – visible manifestations of expression (such as clothing) can be regulated by the state; however, that is in the context of the American First Amendment, which in cases of state restriction upon speech, is more or less “absolute”. O’Brien only says that where you move from speech to visible manifestation, that “absolute” protection goes. However, in a proportionality-focused jurisdiction such as hours, whether speech is verbal or a visible manifestation, the test remains the same. This flows from the Naveen Jindal case, where the flying of the Indian flag was held to be protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution.
Secondly, it is unclear what exactly the concept of a “quasi-public space is”, since the court does not undertake a genealogy of the phrase. At one point, it lists “schools, courts, war rooms, and defence camps” as examples of quasi-public spaces, and you really have to wonder what on earth unites a classroom and a defence camp; but in my view, it is, in any event, a misreading of the NALSA judgment to argue that the salience of symbolic expression diminishes in a “quasi-public space”. Indeed, whether it is the public sphere or the quasi-public sphere, the whole purpose of recognising a right to symbolic expression – as manifested through dress – is to recognise that our “public” is diverse and plural, and that diversity and plurality (as long as it does not violate anyone else’s rights) is to be affirmed and not censored.
But it is the final part of the analysis where, in my view, the main error lies. The court’s response to the reasonable accommodation claim is that the hijab cannot be accommodated because it would deprive the uniform of its uniformity. At page 107, it notes that:
“The object of prescribing uniform will be defeated if there is non-uniformity in the matter of uniforms.”
But that is patently circular: by definition, the doctrine of reasonable accommodation assumes the existence of a default uniformity, and argues that the default is insufficiently accommodating of a diverse and plural society; what the reasonable accommodation (and proportionality) analysis requires of the court is to ask whether accommodation is such that it would undermine or otherwise destroy the purpose for which the default rule exists in the first place: which, in this case, is the purpose of education. The crucial error the court makes is that it sanctifies the uniform instead of sanctifying education; instead of looking at the uniform as instrumental to achieving the goal of an inclusive and egalitarian right to education (and which would, therefore, require accommodation where accommodation would better serve that goal), it treats the uniform (and its associated values of sameness, homogeneity etc) as the goal itself. Thus, by mixing up levels of analysis, the court’s proportionality and reasonable accommodation analysis is constitutionally incorrect. And the root of this error – as I have pointed out above – is the court’s assumption that education is uniform – that “no reasonable mind can imagine a school without a uniform.”
Where the court does attempt to move the analysis to education itself, its conclusions are suspect. For example, on page 96, it notes that by creating “one homogenous class”, the uniform “serves constitutional secularism.” But this is inconsistent with the court’s own analysis in a previous part of its judgment, where it notes that the Indian concept of “positive secularism” does not require the proverbial “wall of separation” between religion and state, but is much more accommodating towards religious pluralism within the overarching public sphere.
On page 97, the court holds that the petitioners’ argument that “the goal of education is to promote plurality … is thoroughly misconceived.” But the court provides no citation or source that the goal of education – note, not the goal of a uniform, but the goal of education – is uniformity at the cost of pluralism. On page 101, the court quotes this argument again, and this time – regrettably – chooses to ridicule it instead of engaging with it, noting that it is “hollow rhetoric” and redolent of the “oft quoted platitude” of “unity in diversity”. Ironically, after ridiculing this as a platitude, the court immediately afterwards cites the Supreme Court judgment in Re Kerala Education Bill that uses the exact same phrase!
Even more ironically, in the same paragraph, the court then cites the UK House of Lords judgment in Regina v Governors of Denbigh High School, where, in paragraph 97 of her speech, Lady Hale notes that “a uniform dress code can play its role in smoothing over ethnic, religious, and social divisions.” Unfortunately, however, the court omits to cite what Lady Hale goes on to note in paragraph 98, which is this:
“It seems to me that that was exactly what this school was trying to do when it devised the school uniform policy to suit the social conditions in that school, in that town, and at that time. Its requirements are clearly set out by my noble and learned friend, Lord Scott of Foscote, in para 76 of his opinion. Social cohesion is promoted by the uniform elements of shirt, tie and jumper, and the requirement that all outer garments be in the school colour. But cultural and religious diversity is respected by allowing girls to wear either a skirt, trousers, or the shalwar kameez, and by allowing those who wished to do so to wear the hijab. This was indeed a thoughtful and proportionate response to reconciling the complexities of the situation.” [Emphasis supplied]
The judgment of the UK House of Lords in Denbigh High School, indeed, is a model of exactly the kind of analysis that the Karnataka high court steadfastly sets its face against in its hijab judgment: Denbigh involves an extensive discussion about how schools in plural and diverse societies should accommodate difference instead of insisting upon uniformity; and the correct question to ask – which is always a contextual question – is at what point does reasonable accommodation tip over into a demand that is inconsistent with the goals of education (in Denbigh, it was the wearing of the jilbab). It is therefore somewhat extraordinary that the court cited the judgment in support of its ruling, when the very next paragraph after the paragraph it cited explicitly noted that the wearing of the hijab in a school was a good example of reasonable accommodation!
In fact, the Denbigh judgment is an excellent example of why the fear that really seems to be animating the court’s judgment is no fear at all. On page 105, the court notes:
“An extreme argument that the students should be free to choose their attire in the school individually, if countenanced, would only breed indiscipline that may eventually degenerate into chaos in the campus and later, in the society at large.”
But nobody – nobody – ever really advanced this “extreme argument.” Denbigh in fact shows that it is actually fairly straightforward – and well within the domain of judicial competence – to examine cases on an individual basis, and draw principled lines based on context. Trotting out a hypothetical parade of horribles to deny a constitutional right is not good judicial practice.
Indeed, the fact that the court is itself fully capable of drawing these distinctions when it wants to is made abundantly clear by the next case that it discusses: the South African judgment in MEC for Education, Kwa-Zulu Natal, where the controversy involved the wearing of a nose-stud by a Hindu student. The court distinguishes the case on the basis that “the said case involved a nose stud, which is ocularly insignificantly (sic), apparently being as small as can be.”
Now in my respectful view, this distinction is quite bogus (more on this below), but that is not the point I want to make here: the point I want to make is that the “extreme argument” that the court articulates – where everyone would ask to choose their own attire, and there would be general chaos – is an argument that it doesn’t even seem to believe in itself, given how easily – almost facilely – it distinguishes between the hijab and the nose-stud.
Earlier on this blog, detailed arguments were made about how the hijab ban violates the constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination. The court addresses this argument very briefly, noting only that the proscription – based on the government order – was facially neutral and non-sectarian. Unfortunately, while this argument applies to direct discrimination, it does not apply to indirect discrimination, where facially neutral rules and regulations have a disproportionate impact on different people. The doctrine of indirect discrimination has long been accepted by the Supreme Court, and is therefore part of Indian jurisprudence.
In fact, it is the court’s own analysis – in particular, its distinguishing of the South African case – that shows how indirect discrimination is squarely applicable to the present case. The court’s distinction between the “ocularly insignificant” and (presumably) the “ocularly significant” is a classic example, in discrimination law jurisprudence, of a “facially neutral rule” (which, in the court’s reading, would allow “ocularly insignificant” adornments to a uniform, but not others) that has a disproportionate impact, in this case, grounded at the intersection of religion and burden. In my respectful view, the court’s failure to consider this ground at all provides another compelling reason for why this judgment should be set aside on appeal.
Addendum: A case of conscience
From pages 80 to 88, the court undertakes a brief analysis of that forgotten cousin of the freedom of religion – the freedom of conscience. The main judgment, of course, is the iconic Bijoe Emmanuel case, where the right of the Jehovah’s Witnesses not to participate in the singing of the national anthem was upheld. The court distinguishes Bijoe Emmanuel on two grounds. First, it argues that “conscience is by its very nature subjective. Whether the petitioners had the conscience of the kind and how they developed it are not averred in the petition with material particulars.” This is not entirely unreasonable, and perhaps offers valuable guidance to future cases (and indeed, this case on appeal). If indeed one is making a claim based on the freedom of conscience, then it needs to be specifically pleaded, with the acknowledgement – of course – that conscience is subjective. For example, an anti-war activist can refuse conscription by arguing that war conflicts with their pacifist beliefs – but they do have to spell that out in specific terms. In this case, perhaps, it may be necessary for the petitioners to spell out, perhaps in more concrete terms, the (subjective) reasons for wearing the hijab as a case of conscience – an argument that, of course, overlaps with the argument from symbolic expression.
What is less convincing is the court’s attempt to show that Bijoe Emmanuel was not a case of conscience at all, but one of religious freedom, despite the fact that Bijoe Emmanuel specifically uses the phrase “matters of conscience.” It is important to note that conscience might flow from religious convictions (for example, I may be a pacifist because I am religious), but it need not do so. In that way, the clean-cut separation that the court attempts between conscience and religious freedom is, in my respectful view, unsustainable – and might materially have altered the outcome of this case.
There are two important things to note, by way of conclusion.
The first is that the court is explicit that its judgment applies to classrooms (i.e., not even school premises, but classrooms). It notes this specifically on page 124, after some rather (in my view) unfortunate remarks about how banning the headgear is emancipatory “for women in general, and Muslim women in particular”: it notes that:
“It hardly needs to be stated that this does not rob off the autonomy of women or their right to education inasmuch as they can wear any apparel of their choice outside the classroom.”
The scope, thus, is limited to classrooms.
Secondly, for the reasons advanced above, I believe that the judgment is incorrect, and should be overturned on appeal. It is incorrect for the following reasons: first, it mistakenly holds that the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy are diminished, or derivative, in this case; secondly, it misapplies the reasonable accommodation test, and does not show how allowing the hijab for those who choose to wear it, as a uniform accessory, is incompatible with the goal of education; thirdly, it fails to consider that the ban amounts to indirect discrimination against Muslim women; and fourthly, it wrongly elides freedom of conscience and religious freedom. This creates an overarching framework of reasoning where the sanctity of the uniform is placed above both the goals of education, and the exercise of constitutional rights. I submit that a correct calibration calls upon us to recognise that educational spaces in a plural and diverse society ought to reflect its plurality and diversity, and facilitating the freedom of choice and expression is one crucial way to achieve that. Such an approach is more consistent with our constitution.
This article was first published on the author’s blog. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity.