In November 2020 the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 came into being, which was subsequently passed by the UP Legislative Assembly in 2021 as an Act. Under this Act, a person can’t change their religion without giving prior notice to the district administration. A marriage where either of the parties has changed their religion without going through thorough Governmental scrutiny is void in the eyes of this law. On January 1, six students from a Government college in Udupi were not allowed to enter their classrooms, because they were wearing the Hijab. Later on, it became a state-wide issue when the Karnataka Government altogether banned the hijab inside the classrooms of Pre-University colleges. Aggrieved by this ban, Muslim students filed several petitions before the Karnataka High Court on January 31, where they sought the right to wear Hijabs inside their classrooms. Subsequently, on March 15, the Karnataka High Court upheld the Hijab ban and held that wearing the Hijab is not a part of essential religious practices for Muslim women.
When an individual’s freedom to follow or practice any religion is robbed against their wishes, it not only alienates them in the eyes of the State but takes away their right to freedom of expression altogether. It becomes especially dangerous, when they belong to a religious minority, making it hard for them to express their needs in the face of a majority not understanding such needs under the garb of legality. The right to freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental right that enables individuals the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This also includes the freedom to change one’s religion or belief and to manifest either alone or in a community with others, in public or private one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 (‘ICCPR’), Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 9(1) of the European Convention for The Protection of Human Rights (‘ECHR’) explicitly not only protects theistic and non-theistic beliefs but the right to not profess any religion or belief, altogether.
Essentially, the freedom of religion and belief has an individual element in it, but in countries where systemic discrimination on minorities is meted out, religious discrimination from both State and non-State actors has a trickling effect, for even when non-State actors are responsible for such instances, they happen because the State has created an atmosphere where culminating such instances doesn’t have any consequences. In essence, both State and non-State actors feed into each other, which results in such discrimination. Some of such discrimination can be overt, while some are protected under the garb of legality and State sanctions. So, when a State without any consideration directly bans practices that are part of an individual’s religious belief or their right of manifestation, that action is not only contrary to the principle of proportionality but shows a lack of intent on their part to accommodate the other person’s interest, especially when they belong to the minority community. Therefore, outright banning pieces of clothing and overlooking hatred for minorities does nothing but shake the balance between State actions and individual rights. It also, at some point, merges the majority and the State into one which, with the State’s already humongous power, dangerously tilts the balance precariously for the individual and their community. This balance is what the international human rights law maintains in a rights-based framework.