Emphasising the need to “maintain discipline” in the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Muslim personnel cannot keep beards by citing religious grounds.
The court was hearing two separate petitions, one of which was filed by Ansari Aaftab Ahmed, an airman who was dismissed from service in October 2008 for growing a beard without his commanding officer’s permission and refusing to shave it off despite being warned of disciplinary proceedings.
Ahmed had said that keeping a beard was a facet of his fundamental right to freedom of religion, and sought equality with Sikhs.
The IAF had maintained that “all Muslims do not carry beard. The practice of growing and keeping beard is optional and sporting a beard is not universally recognised in the religion of Islam. Therefore, it cannot be said that Muslim religion prohibits the cutting of hair or shaving of the face of its member.”
The bench led by Chief Justice of India T S Thakur affirmed Ahmed’s dismissal. It said that while India was undoubtedly a secular nation in which every religion must be treated with equality, it “cannot be overlooked that the overarching necessity of a force which has been raised to protect the nation is to maintain discipline.”
The bench, also comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao, said there was nothing to show that the tenets of Islam prohibit cutting hair or shaving the face, like in the case of Sikhs.
The defence ministry’s policy on “hair, beard and wearing turbans”, as notified in 2003, states that while Sikhs are allowed to keep unshorn hair, beard and turban, the others have to obtain permission to grow a beard. “Only those Muslim personnel, who had kept beard along with moustache at the time of commissioning/ enrolment prior to 1 Jan 2002, would be allowed to keep beard and moustache. Muslims who have grown beard after joining service should shave off the beard. Under no circumstances, a Muslim person who had beard at the time of joining service before 1 Jan 2002 shall be allowed to maintain beard without moustache. Moustache would be a part of the beard,” it says.
“The touchstone for being allowed to grow one’s hair or to retain a beard is where there is a religious command which prohibits either the hair being cut or a beard being shaved,” noted the bench.
The objective of these regulations, the court held, was “to ensure uniformity, cohesiveness, discipline and order which are indispensable to the Air Force, as indeed to every armed force of the Union.”
“Every armed force raised in a civilised nation has its own ‘dress and deportment’ policy… Evidently, these provisions have been introduced having due regard to the security concerns inherent in maintaining identity in the armed forces. Maintenance of identity is a crucial element in the safety and security of the forces, particularly in the context of the threat of infiltration,” said the court.
It said policies relating to discipline in the armed forces were linked to the need to protect the nation from threats of destabilisation and disorder, and the norms were laid down to ensure that the personal appearance of an individual should not show any religious bias.