Indian scholars, activists criticize school hijab ban ruling

The dispute began in January when a government-run school in the city of Udupi, in Karnataka, barred students wearing hijabs from entering classrooms. (AP)
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Updated 02 April 2022
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Indian scholars, activists criticize school hijab ban ruling

  • Muslims protested, and Hindus staged counterdemonstrations
  • Soon more schools imposed their own restrictions, prompting the Karnataka government to issue a statewide ban

NEW DELHI: A recent court ruling upholding a ban on Muslim students wearing head coverings in schools has sparked criticism from constitutional scholars and rights activists amid concerns of judicial overreach regarding religious freedoms in officially secular India.
Even though the ban is only imposed in the southern state of Karnataka, critics worry it could be used as a basis for wider curbs on Islamic expression in a country already witnessing a surge of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
“With this judgment, the rule you are making can restrict the religious freedom of every religion,” said Faizan Mustafa, a scholar of freedom of religion and vice chancellor at the Hyderabad-based Nalsar University of Law. “Courts should not decide what is essential to any religion. By doing so, you are privileging certain practices over others.”
Supporters of the decision say it’s an affirmation of schools’ authority to determine dress codes and govern student conduct, and that takes precedence over any religious practice.
“Institutional discipline must prevail over individual choices. Otherwise, it will result in chaos,” said Karnataka Advocate General Prabhuling Navadgi, who argued the state’s case in court.
Before the verdict more than 700 signatories including senior lawyers and rights advocates had expressed opposition to the ban in an open letter to the court’s chief justice, saying, “the imposition of an absolute uniformity contrary to the autonomy, privacy and dignity of Muslim women is unconstitutional.”
The dispute began in January when a government-run school in the city of Udupi, in Karnataka, barred students wearing hijabs from entering classrooms. Staffers said the Muslim headscarves contravened the campus’ dress code, and that it had to be strictly enforced.
Muslims protested, and Hindus staged counterdemonstrations. Soon more schools imposed their own restrictions, prompting the Karnataka government to issue a statewide ban.
A group of female Muslim students sued on the grounds that their fundamental rights to education and religion were being violated.
But a three-judge panel, which included a female Muslim judge, ruled last month that the Qur’an does not establish the hijab as an essential Islamic practice and it may therefore be restricted in classrooms. The court also said the state government has the power to prescribe uniform guidelines for students as a “reasonable restriction on fundamental rights.”
“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 courts,” the panel wrote.
The verdict relied on what’s known as the essentiality test — basically, whether a religious practice is or is not obligatory under that faith. India’s constitution does not draw such a distinction, but courts have used it since the 1950s to resolve disputes over religion.
In 2016, the high court in the southern state of Kerala ruled that head coverings were a religious duty for Muslims and therefore essential to Islam under the test; two years later India’s Supreme Court again used the test to overturn historical restrictions on Hindu women of certain ages entering a temple in the same state, saying it was not an “essential religious practice.”
Critics say the essentiality test gives courts broad authority over theological matters where they have little expertise and where clergy would be more appropriate arbiters of faith.
India’s Supreme Court is itself in doubt about the test. In 2019 it set up a nine-judge panel to reevaluate it, calling its legitimacy regarding matters of faith “questionable”; the matter is still under consideration.
The lawsuit in Karnataka cited the 2016 Kerala ruling, but this time the justices came to the opposite conclusion — baffling some observers.
“That’s why judges make for not-so-great interpreters of religious texts,” said Anup Surendranath, a professor of constitutional law at the Delhi-based National Law University.
Surendranath said the most sensible avenue for the court would have been to apply a test of what Muslim women hold to be true from a faith perspective: “If wearing hijab is a genuinely held belief of Muslim girls, then why ... interfere with that belief at all?”
The ruling has been welcomed by Bharatiya Janata Party officials from Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the federal minister of minority affairs, to B. C. Nagesh, Karnataka’s education minister.
Satya Muley, a lawyer at the Bombay High Court, said it’s perfectly reasonable for the judiciary to place some limits on religious freedoms if they clash with dress codes, and the verdict will “help maintain order and uniformity in educational institutions.”
“It is a question of whether it is the constitution, or does religion take precedence?” Muley said. “And the court’s verdict has answered just that by upholding the state’s power to put restrictions on certain freedoms that are guaranteed under the constitution.”
Surendranath countered that the verdict was flawed because it failed to invoke the three “reasonable restrictions” under the constitution that let the state interfere with freedom of religion — for reasons of public order, morality or health.
“The court didn’t refer to these restrictions, even though none of them are justifiable to ban hijabs in schools,” Surendranath said. “Rather, it emphasized homogeneity in schools, which is opposite of diversity and multiculturalism that our constitution upholds.”
The Karnataka ruling has been appealed to India’s Supreme Court. Plaintiffs requested an expedited hearing on the grounds that a continued ban on the hijab threatens to cause Muslim students to lose an entire academic year. The court declined to hold an early hearing, however.
Muslims make up just 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people, but nonetheless constitute the world’s second-largest Muslim population for a nation. The hijab has historically not been prohibited or restricted in public spheres, and women donning the headscarf — like other outward expressions of faith, across religions — is common across the country.
The dispute has further deepened sectarian fault lines, and many Muslims worry hijab bans could embolden Hindu nationalists and pave the way for more restrictions targeting Islam.
“What if the ban goes national?” said Ayesha Hajjeera Almas, one of the women who challenged the ban in the Karnataka courts. “Millions of Muslim women will suffer.”
Mustafa agreed.
“Hijab for many girls is liberating. It is a kind of bargain girls make with conservative families as a way for them to go out and participate in public life,” he said. “The court completely ignored this perspective.”


Alexei Navalny to be buried in Moscow amid uncertainty, tight security

Updated 7 sec ago
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Alexei Navalny to be buried in Moscow amid uncertainty, tight security

MOSCOW: Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny will be buried in Moscow later on Friday amid tight security and fears of a police crackdown two weeks after he suddenly died at the age of 47 in an Arctic penal colony.
Navalny’s allies — who have promised to livestream the day’s events online — have accused President Vladimir Putin of having him murdered because the Russian leader could allegedly not tolerate the thought of Navalny being freed in a potential prisoner swap.
They have not published proof to back up that accusation, but have promised to set out how he was murdered and by whom.
The Kremlin has denied state involvement in his death and has said it is unaware of any agreement to free Navalny. His death certificate — according to allies — said he died of natural causes.
Navalny, a former lawyer, mounted the most determined political challenge against Putin since the Russian leader came to power at the end of 1999, organizing street protests and publishing high-profile investigations into the alleged corruption of some in the ruling elite.
But a series of criminal charges for fraud and extremism — which Navalny said were politically-motivated — saw him handed jail sentences of over 30 years and most of his supporters have either fled the country or are in jail.
Navalny decided to return to Russia from Germany in 2021 after being treated for what Western doctors said was poisoning with a nerve agent only to be immediately taken into custody.
Putin, who controls all the levers of state and is expected to be comfortably re-elected for another six-year term in two weeks, has yet to comment on Navalny’s death and has for years avoided mentioning him by name.
Though Navalny is well known in the West, state TV inside Russia did not mention him for years either and when it did it was brief and in a negative light.
A religious service for Navalny is due to be held at 1400 local time in the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God in the Moscow district of Maryino where Navalny used to live.
He is then scheduled to be buried at the Borisovskoye cemetery, around 2.5 km (1.5 miles) away on the other side of the Moskva River two hours later.
Navalny’s allies, who are outside Russia and have been designated as US-backed extremists by the authorities, have called on people who want to honor his memory but cannot attend his funeral service to instead go to certain landmarks in their own towns on Friday evening at 7 p.m. local time.
The Kremlin has dismissed statements by his allies as provocative and warned that the police will uphold the law.
Judging from previous gatherings of Navalny supporters, a heavy police presence is likely and the authorities will break up anything they deem to resemble a political demonstration under protest laws.
Navalny’s wife Yulia, with whom he had two children, has said she is unsure whether the funeral itself will pass off peacefully or whether police will arrest attendees. She is outside Russia.
Navalny’s mother Lyudmila, 69, is expected to attend his funeral. It is unclear who else will be allowed into the church for the service.
Navalny was a Christian who condemned Putin’s decision to send tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine as a crazy enterprise built on lies. But the church that will host his funeral has donated to the Russian army and enthusiastically advertised its backing for the war.
In the run-up to his funeral, his allies accused the authorities of blocking their plans to hold a bigger civil memorial service and said unknown individuals had even managed to thwart their attempts to hire a hearse to transport him to his own funeral.
The Kremlin has said it has nothing to do with Navalny’s funeral arrangements.

First US moon lander in half a century stops working a week after tipping over at touchdown

Updated 6 min 57 sec ago
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First US moon lander in half a century stops working a week after tipping over at touchdown

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: The first US spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo astronauts fell silent Thursday, a week after breaking a leg at touchdown and tipping over near the lunar south pole.
Intuitive Machines’ lander, Odysseus, lasted longer than the company anticipated after it ended up on its side with hobbled solar power and communication.
The end came as flight controllers received one last photo from Odysseus and commanded its computer and power systems to standby. That way, the lander can wake up in another two to three weeks — if it survives the bitterly cold lunar night. Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said these final steps drained the lander’s batteries and put Odysseus “down for a long nap.”
“Good night, Odie. We hope to hear from you again,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.
Before losing power, Odysseus sent back what Intuitive Machines called “a fitting farewell transmission.”
Taken just before touchdown, the picture shows the bottom of the lander on the moon’s pockmarked surface, with a tiny crescent Earth and a small sun in the background.
The lander was originally intended to last about a week at the moon.
Houston-based Intuitive Machines became the first private business to land a spacecraft on the moon without crashing when Odysseus touched down Feb. 22. Only five countries had achieved that since the 1960s, including Japan, which made a sideways landing last month.
Odysseus carried six experiments for NASA, which paid $118 million for the ride. The first company to take part in NASA’s program for commercial lunar deliveries never made it to the moon; its lander came crashing back to Earth in January.
NASA views these private landers as scouts that will pave the way for astronauts due to arrive in another few years.
Until Odysseus, the last US moon landing was by Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.

Ukraine forces claim downing record number of Russian jets in February

Updated 01 March 2024
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Ukraine forces claim downing record number of Russian jets in February

  • Says 10 SU-34, two Su-35 fighter jets and an A-50 aircraft had been shot down in February
  • Russian military bloggers and the British defense ministry had also mentioned downed A-50 planes

KYIV: Ukraine said Thursday it had destroyed a record number of Russian planes in February, at a time when ground forces are under increased pressure in the east.

AFP was unable to verify the claims and Russian authorities do not comment.
“Our sky defenders have achieved the greatest results in downing Russian jets since October 2022,” the Ukrainian defense ministry said.
It said 10 SU-34, two Su-35 fighter jets and an A-50 aircraft had been shot down in February.
The tally included three Su-34s downed overnight which were “launching guided missiles at our infantry positions in the east,” ground forces commander Oleksandr Pavliuk said.
Ukraine had said it had shot down another A-50 plane in January.
The claims are hard to verify, but Russian military bloggers had mentioned the destruction of the A-50 aircraft — although they blamed friendly fire.
Russian military bloggers, who have sources in the armed forces, often publish exclusive information, contrary to government sources and Russian state media outlets.
The British defense ministry on Tuesday also mentioned two A-50 downed, noting the incidents “forced Russian decision makers to consider safer operating areas.”
Two years into the invasion, Ukraine has said its priority was to “throw Russia from the skies.”
Ukraine is expecting the delivery of F-16 fighter jets supplied by its Western allies.

 

 


US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye

Updated 01 March 2024
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US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye

  • Republican Senator Rand Paul sought to block the sale, saying it would embolden Turkiye for its “misbehavior"
  • Backers of the sale said it was important for Washington to keep its word to a NATO ally

WASHINGTON: The US Senate on Thursday soundly defeated an effort to stop the $23 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits to Turkiye, which President Joe Biden’s administration approved after Turkiye approved Sweden’s joining the NATO alliance.
As voting continued, the tally was 78 to 13 against a resolution of disapproval of the sale introduced by Republican Senator Rand Paul.
Before the vote, Paul criticized Turkiye’s government and said allowing the sale would embolden its “misbehavior.” Backers of the sale said it was important for Washington to keep its word to a NATO ally.
The Biden administration formally informed Congress on Jan. 26 of its intention to proceed with the sale of 40 Lockheed Martin F-16s and nearly 80 modernization kits to Turkiye, a day after Ankara fully completed ratification of the NATO membership of Sweden.
The sale had been held up for months over issues including Turkiye’s refusal to approve Sweden’s accession to the military alliance. Turkiye first asked to make the purchase in October 2021.
The US Arms Export Control Act gives Congress the right to stop a major weapons sale by passing a resolution of disapproval in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Although the law has been in effect for half a century, no such resolution has both passed Congress and survived a presidential veto.
Sweden and Finland applied to enter NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. While Finnish membership was sealed last year, Sweden’s bid had been held up by Turkiye and Hungary. All NATO members need to approve applications from countries seeking to join the alliance.


Fire in Bangladesh capital leaves at least 43 people dead

Updated 01 March 2024
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Fire in Bangladesh capital leaves at least 43 people dead

  • Firefighters said the fire began in a popular restaurant on the first floor of the mall in a busy commercial district at the heart of the capital

DHAKA: A fire at a six-story shopping mall in the Bangladeshi capital overnight killed at least 43 people and injured dozens of others, the health minister said Friday.
Health Minister Samanta Lal Sen said the fire broke out late Thursday in the building in Dhaka’s downtown area. Firefighters rescued survivors and pulled out bodies, and by early Friday, at least 43 people died and at least 22 others were being treated, he said.
Firefighters said the fire began in a popular restaurant on the first floor of the mall in a busy commercial district at the heart of the capital, and that many people were trapped by the fire.
The cause of the fire could not immediately be determined.
Sen said at least 33 people, including women and children, were declared dead at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, while at least 10 others died after being taken to the Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery.
More than a dozen firefighting units were deployed to douse the fire that broke out at the Green Cozy Cottage Shopping Mall, said Fire Service and Civil Defense Director General Brig. Gen. Md. Main Uddin.
At 75 people, including 42 who were unconscious, were rescued from the building, rescuers said.