The Supreme Court’s split verdict on Thursday on the hijab controversy in Karnataka has revived the 1985 Bijoe Emmanuel case of Kerala where a father fought a lone legal battle after his three children were expelled from school for not singing the National Anthem.
Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia, while giving the verdict on a batch of appeals challenging restrictions on Muslim girls wearing hijab in educational institutions in Karnataka, said, “The main thrust of my judgment is that this entire concept of essential religious practices, in my opinion, was not essential to the disposal of the disposal of the dispute. And the court probably took the wrong path there. It was simply a question of Article 19(1)(a) and 25(1). It is ultimately a matter of choice. Nothing more, nothing less. I have also held the ratio laid down by the Supreme Court in the case of Bijoe Emmanuel squarely covers the issue. The thing which was uppermost in mind was the education of girl child. It was a common knowledge that a girl child primarily in rural and semi-rural areas has a lot of difficulties, they have to do daily chores before she goes to school. There were other difficulties as well. Are we making her life any better? That was also a question in my mind.”
So, what is the 1985 Bijoe Emmanuel case?
VJ Emmanuel, a resident of Koodalloor in Kottayam in Kerala, had to knock on the door of the Supreme Court after the NSS High School Kidangoor suspended his three children for not obeying to sing the National Anthem.
Emmanuel, who is no more, his wife and his seven children followed international religious sect ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’. He was an English professor at KE College in Kottayam, and moved to Koodalloor after marrying Lillykutty in 1967. His entire family had started following the ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ in 1974.
According to ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’, the teachings stress strict separation from secular government. Although they are law-abiding citizens, they refuse on biblical grounds to observe certain laws. They do not salute the flag of any nation; they refuse to perform military service; they do not participate in elections.
Kerala’s popular daily Matrabhoomi, had quoted Bijoe, son of Emmanuel, as saying that the school, which he (Class 10) and his other two brothers, Binumol (Class 9) and Bindu (Class 5) went to, had no rule of singing the National Anthem when his elder sisters, Beena and Bessy, were studying there. Bijoe said they had made their stand clear that they would stand in attention to pay respect to the National Anthem.
The issue snowballed into a controversy when VC Kabeer, then Congress (S) MLA, raised it in the Kerala assembly with the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The United Democratic Front (UDF) government headed by chief minister K Karunakaran ordered an inquiry into the matter. The inquiry found no disrespect from their side but the district education officer stressed that they boys should sing the National Anthem to continue studying in the school. “We were not ready to obey the order as our faith was against it. There were eight students too in the school, in addition to us, who followed ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’. Following our reluctance, the school management suspended all of us on July 25, 1985,” Bijoe told Matrabhoomi.
His father, Emmanuel then approached the single bench of the Kerala High Court but it found disrespect in their action. Later, the high court division bench upheld the order. But in 1985, the Supreme Court questioned the order of the HC and issued an interim order.
Justice O Chinnappa Reddy delivered the final verdict on August 11, 1986 and held that suspending students based on their “conscientiously held religious faith” violated the Constitution. “No provision of law obliges anyone to sing.”
The Supreme Court also said the right of free speech and expression also includes the right to remain silent, and the children standing for the National Anthem showed proper respect. Therefore, the court asked the school to readmit the children.