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Maha Sabha accuses EOC of open bias in hijab case

Published: 
Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) is being taken to task for its stance in the ongoing controversy over a hijab ban at the Lakshmi Girls’ High School.

Lawyers representing the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), which operates the school, yesterday wrote to EOC chairman Lynette Seebaran-Suite raising issues with her organisation’s press release on Monday addressing the issue.

In the nine-page letter, attorney Kiel Taklalsingh claimed the EOC sought to improperly solicit a complaint from on-the-job-trainee (OJT) Nafisah Nakhid, who raised the issue, two weeks ago. He also pointed out that such an invitation was unprecedented, as such a move has never been undertaken by the High Court, Industrial Court or other superior courts of record in the past.

“Elementary principles of fairness dictate that the commission cannot be “investigator, judge, jury and executioner”. Any fair-minded observer would view your “media release” as an invitation to the OJT to loge a complaint with the commission, whether you agree with us or not.”

He accused the EOC of being biased against his client based on the fact that it (EOC) had highlighted one of its recent cases, in which a security officer won her challenge over the right to wear the traditional Islamic headscarf on her job. He also noted that the EOC unfairly commented and made findings on the Concordat of 1960 - the agreement which established the denominational school system.

In the release, the EOC stated that the agreement allowed schools to have the religion of their domination taught by teachers belonging to that denomination, but does not give school boards the authority to deny employment to people based on their religious beliefs or their outward manifestation of them.

“We are of the respectful view that the EOC has not only invited a complaint from the OJT but is also courting an investigation into the OJT’s complaint with predetermined notions of the applicable law/principles and/or the outcome. This is a clear case of bias by predetermination and/or actual and/or apparent bias on the part of the EOC,” Taklalsingh said.

He described the situation as irredeemable and suggested the EOC be disqualified from entertaining the issue any further.

Taklalsingh reiterated the SDMS’s previous public complaint that the hijab issue was part of a larger plot to destabilise it and the institution. However, he was careful to note that his client was not alleging any wrongdoing by the EOC in relation to the alleged conspiracy.

“Our client is in no way insinuating that the EOC is involved in that plot, but it has the distinct and well-grounded fear that the commission has wittingly or unwittingly fallen trap to the prejudicial publicity which that plot was meant to create,” he said.

As part of his letter, Taklalsingh sought disclosure from the EOC on how the release was prepared and disseminated. The requested information includes who was responsible for preparing it and who took the decision to comment on the controversial issue before it had received a complaint.

He also noted that the issue has already been considered by the Government, which has decided to file an Interpretation lawsuit to determine it.

The SDMS is also being represented by Seenath Jairam, SC, Dinesh Rambally, Karina Singh, Desiree Sankar and Stefan Ramkissoon.

ABOUT THE ISSUE

The controversy over the use of the hijab at the school arose almost two weeks ago as OJT Nafisah Nakhid claimed she barred from an opportunity to train there unless she was willing to remove her hijab.

Her posts on social media caused a massive furore and led to the proposed intervention by the Government. The issue also caused friction between the SDMS and Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who had called on the school to reverse its position.

While outspoken SDMS secretary general Sat Maharaj has repeatedly commented on the issue, its lawyers responded to the complaint in a letter to the Office of the Attorney General sent last week.

The SDMS denied that Nakhid was blocked from entering the compound, but claimed she was informed of the school’s policy towards the hijab during the interview. It claimed that the policy did not infringe the constitutional rights of citizens and that the school does not discriminate against Muslims.

It also alleged that the Government’s intended lawsuit is discriminatory, as other religious bodies impose similar rules at their educational institutions. The SDMS also pointed out two international cases over the barring of the hijab at education institutions which were decided by the European Court of Human Rights and the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. In essence, both courts ruled that that freedom to practice religion does not equate to the right to display religious symbols, garments and paraphernalia openly without restriction.

Last week, the Ministry of Labour and Small Enterprises Development reassigned Nakhid, a qualified mechanical engineer, to the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government. Nakhid is also said to be considering her legal options.

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