Hijab row in Karnataka evokes memories of Emmanuel's lone battle to save faith in 1985


By CG Sankar

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VJ Emmanuel (who is no more now) of Kollappallil House at Koodalloor in Kottayam had to wage a legal battle up to the apex court after his three children were sacked from the school, in which they were studying. The headmistress of NSS High School Kidangoor suspended his three children for not obeying to sing national anthem. According to the belief of Emmanuel and family, singing the national anthem was against the principles of their religion. 

VJ Emmanuel and family.

Kochi: Amid the ongoing row over the right to wear hijab by Muslim students in Karnataka, lessons may be learnt from a legal battle that took place 37 years ago .

VJ Emmanuel (78) (who is no more now) of Kollappallil House at Koodalloor in Kottayam had to wage a legal battle upto the apex court after his three children were sacked from the school, in which they were studying. The headmistress of NSS High School Kidangoor suspended his three children for not obeying to sing national anthem. According to the belief of Emmanuel and family, singing the national anthem was against the principles of his religion.

Emmanuel, his wife and seven children were the followers of an international religious sect called 'Jehovah's Witnesses'. Emmanuel was an English professor at KE College, Mannanam in Kottayam. Having been born and brought up in Poonjar, he moved to Koodalloor in the year 1964 after marrying Lilly. He and his family members became staunch followers of 'Jehovah's Witnesses' in 1974 .

In the year 1985, the school, in which his son Bijoe (10th standard), Binumol (ninth standard) and Bindu (fifth standard) were studying, made it mandatory that all students should sing the National Anthem without fail. ". When our elder sisters, Beena and Bessy, were studying there, there was no such rule. We made our stand clear that we would show respect by standing in attention," Bijoe, son of Emmanuel, told Mathrubhumi.com.

Very soon it became a controversy and it was even raised in the assembly byVC Kabeer, the then Congress (S) MLA with the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF). The UDF government, headed by chief minister K Karunakaran, ordered an official inquiry into the issue. The inquiry found no disrespect from their side but the district education officer insisted that the students 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 other 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," added Bijoe.

However, Emmanuel was not ready to compromise. He approached the single bench of the High Court against it but the court found disrespect in their action. Later, the High Court Division bench upheld the verdict. However, in December 1985, the Supreme Court questioned the High Court verdict and issued an interim order. The apex court had directed the state government to do the needful in continuing their studies in the same school as education is the right of every student.

The final verdict delivered by Justice O Chinnappa Reddy on August 11, 1986 held that expelling the children based on their “conscientiously held religious faith” violated the Constitution of India. It further stated: “No provision of law obliges anyone to sing."

The court noted that the right of free speech and expression also includes the right to remain silent and that standing for the national anthem showed proper respect. The court ordered the school authorities to readmit the children. The verdict written by Justice Chinnappa reddy was concluded with these words : ''We only wish to add: our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy teaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.''

Mathrubhumi.com contacted the then MLA VC Kabeer, who raised the issue in the assembly in 1985. He said, "It was through media I came to know about it and I carried a copy of the newspaper to the assembly to raise the issue. The issue in 1985 was something new for us and strange. I don't actually remember any of its details now but I can say one thing clear that their rights, guaranteed by the Constitution, were denied then."

Mentioning the hijab row in Karnataka, he said, "Every citizen has the right to follow their faith and religion. By not allowing students to wear hijab, the authorities deny justice to them. Hope the honorable Supreme Court will deliver justice," added Kabeer.

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