Soldiers wearing beards: A complex question that awaits Supreme Court ruling

Indian Express lays out the background of the debate, in India and in militaries around the world.

Written by Sushant Singh | Updated: December 9, 2015 9:14:24 am

The Supreme Court last month declined to urgently examine whether Muslim personnel in the armed forces can keep beards as a matter of their fundamental right to freedom of religion. The case, a plea from Muslim personnel seeking equality with Sikhs, who are allowed to wear unshorn hair and turban, has been pending since 2008.

That year, Aircraftsman Ansari Aftab Ahmed filed a case after being denied permission to keep a beard. Two more petitions were filed on the same issue: one by IAF Corporal Mohammed Zubair, the other by Maharashtra policeman Mohammad Fasi.

In 2008, with his petition still pending, Ahmed was discharged from service. Four years after joining the IAF, he had sought permission to grow a beard. Denied, he went on 40 days’ leave, and returned wearing a beard, said the IAF case file. The case went to Punjab and Haryana High Court, which, in July 2008, said that wearing a beard was not a “compulsive requirement” for Muslims.

“If members of the disciplined force are permitted to behave according to their own wishes and desires, it is surely to disturb the public order in the force and may create chaotic conditions,” the judgment said. It added: “Facial identity of every member of the service is important and essential particularly while in uniform. This is particularly relevant in view of the growing incidents of terrorism and militancy in our country.”

IAF’s reason for not allowing Muslims to wear beards was the preservation of unit cohesion and group identity. The dress code creates a sense of professionalism, good order and discipline, it said. Similar reasons have been given by western militaries to deny soldiers the right to wear beards.

However, in June this year, a US federal court permitted 20-year old Sikh-American student Iknoor Singh to enrol in the US Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps without shaving his beard, cutting his hair or removing his turban. “It is difficult to see how accommodating the plaintiff’s religious exercise would do greater damage to the army’s compelling interests in uniformity, discipline, credibility, unit cohesion and training than the tens of thousands of medical shaving profiles the army has already granted,” the judge said.

The US military banned beards during World War I, when soldiers had to wear gas masks. Razors were issued in GI kits, so men could shave on the battlefield. The British Navy allows a “full set” (beard plus moustache) with the permission of the commanding officer: it does not accept that a beard prevents a gas mask working effectively. Traditions in the Indian Navy owe to the Royal Navy, and Naval officers in India can keep beards with the consent of their CO.

Until 1971, the Navy allowed “either both beard and moustache, or neither”. Under Admiral R K Nanda, it allowed sailors or officers “to wear moustaches and beards or shave them off, if they so desire(d)”. It said “moustaches and beard shall be worn with or without the beard and moustaches respectively”.

The first instructions on wearing a beard in the Air Force were issued in 1980. “The [Muslim] beard when kept, shall be of such length that when covered by a fist no hair shall be visible outside…,” it said.

A 1999 regulation said: “No formal permission is required if Muslim personnel have already sported a beard at the time of joining the service. However, if the person desires to sport a beard (later)…, he is to submit a formal application to his Commanding Officer requesting for permission giving reasons…”

A 2003 directive, on which the IAF’s current policy is based, said: “Only those (Muslims) who had kept beard along with moustache at the time of commissioning/enrolment prior to 01 Jan. 2002, would be allowed to keep beard and moustache… Under no circumstances… shall (he) be allowed to maintain beard without moustache…”

Clearly, for the IAF, a Muslim air warrior growing his beard is asserting his religious identity — even though it may be reasonably argued that it is, in fact, an expression of devotion and, if it doesn’t impinge upon his operational performance, there is no reason to deny him the right that is granted to his comrades from another religious minority. At the heart of this complex question that covers religious identity, minority rights, professionalism and the secular nature of the state, lies concerns over the explicit assertion of Muslim identity that governments all over the world have struggled to formulate a response to. The Paris terror attacks last month have amplified — again — the debate over Islam and terrorism.

In 2006, five Pakistan Air Force officers were grounded for keeping beards beyond the prescribed length. They argued that the order had come in 2002, and they had been wearing their beards under an earlier order. They were discharged from service, but in its justification, the PAF said their long beards could lead to hypoxemia, that could cause them to faint in the cockpit. In 2012, Maj Zaheeruddin of the Pak army was discharged because his beard was longer than the stipulated maximum of four fingers below the underchin.

The British Army is, in fact, more liberal. Muslim soldiers are allowed to wear a full beard as long as it is not a risk to operational missions and safety. Female Muslim soldiers may wear trousers and shirts with sleeves rolled down, and a hijab may be worn subject to safety and operational considerations.

Last year, the US Department of Defense issued instructions that could be a practical template. It said the armed forces would make every effort to accommodate “individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs” of service members. Commanders can grant special permission to display religious articles while in uniform, as long as it does not adversely impact military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, health and safety, or any other military requirement. The directive stressed that “the importance of uniformity and adhering to standards, of putting unit before self, is more significant and needs to be carefully evaluated when considering each request for accommodation.”

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