NEW DELHI — Two judges on India's top court on Thursday differed over a ban on the wearing of the hijab, a headscarf used by Muslim women, in educational institutions and referred the sensitive issue to a larger bench of three or more judges to settle.
Justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia issued a split ruling after hearing petitions filed by a group of Muslims against a high court's judgment in Karnataka state. The state court had refused to stay a government order issued in February that banned people from wearing clothes that disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges.
Karnataka State Education Minister B.C. Nagesh said Thursday the ban on wearing the hijab in educational institutions in the state would continue until the top court settled the issue of whether the Muslim headscarf is an essential religious practice in Islam.
The dispute began early this year when a government-run school in Karnataka's Udupi district barred students wearing hijabs from entering classrooms, triggering protests by Muslims who said they were being deprived of their fundamental rights to education and religion.
Hindu students launched counter-protests by wearing saffron shawls, a color closely associated with that religion and favored by Hindu nationalists.
More schools in the state followed with similar bans and the state's high court disallowed students from wearing hijab and any other religious clothing. The Muslim groups petitioned the Supreme Court against the ban.
Supreme Court Justice Gupta on Thursday said there was a divergent opinion and that the matter should be referred to a larger bench of more than two judges. He dismissed the appeal by Muslim groups against the government order.
However, Justice Dhulia said venturing into essential religious practice was not needed and the state high court had taken the wrong way. "It was just a question of choice. One thing which was topmost for me was the education of a ... child," he said.
During the arguments, the petitioners insisted that preventing Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in the classroom would jeopardize their educations since they might stop attending school.
The state government, however, claimed that its order banning the hijab in classrooms was "religion-neutral."
The Karnataka state ban does not extend to other Indian states, but the Supreme Court ruling could set a precedent for the rest of the country.
Violence and hate speech against Muslims have increased under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Hindu nationalist party, which also governs Karnataka state.
Muslims, who comprise 14% of India's nearly 1.4 billion people, fear they are being shunted aside as a minority in India and see hijab bans as a worrying escalation of Hindu nationalism under Modi's government.
Some rights activists have voiced concerns that the ban could increase Islamophobia.