NEW DELHI: India's home minister said he favoured students wearing uniforms in school rather than any religious attire, but that his position might change once a court decides on the merits of a ban on the hijab in schools in the state of Karnataka.
The ban imposed by Karnataka on Feb. 5 has sparked protests by Muslim students and parents, and counter-protests by Hindu students, forcing authorities to close schools there earlier this month.
Muslims, who form about 13% of India's 1.35 billion population, have denounced the curbs on the hijab - traditional attire worn by Muslim women which covers the hair and neck - as another sign of their marginalisation in the mainly Hindu country.
Home Minister Amit Shah, India's most powerful politician after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, told the Network18 Group in an interview to be aired on Monday night that he would accept any court verdict on the matter.
"It is my personal belief that people of all religions should accept the school's dress code," Shah said.
"Ultimately, it has to be decided whether the country will function on the Constitution or whims. My personal belief only remains until the court makes a decision. And once the court makes a decision, then I should accept it, and everyone should accept it."
Karnataka is ruled by Modi and Shah's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose leaders have invoked the hijab dispute at election rallies in some northern states voting in phases.
Karnataka's advocate-general, Prabhuling Navadgi, told the High Court there that those challenging the decision had not been able to prove that wearing the hijab was an essential religious practice. Further hearings will continue on Tuesday.
The petitioners, including a dozen Muslim female students, earlier told the court that wearing the hijab was a fundamental right guaranteed under India's constitution and an essential practice of Islam.
Karnataka's move has led to protests in some other parts of the country and drawn criticism from the United States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das, Editing by Bernadette Baum) ((Krishna.Das@tr.com; https://twitter.com/krishnadas56 ;))