The Supreme Court Thursday upheld sacking of an Air Force man for keeping long beard and said that armed forces’ regulations are meant to ensure discipline and uniformity.
A bench led by Chief Justice of India T S Thakur added that regulations do not interfere with religious rights of individuals and that they have the sanctity of ensuring discipline.
Discharged from service, petitioner Ansari Aftab Ahmed had asserted sporting beard as a facet of his fundamental right to freedom of religion, and seek equality with Sikhs, who are allowed to sport unshorn hair and turban. Advocate Irshad Hanif urged the court to fix a date of final hearing on a batch of petitions filed by the Muslim personnel, who had either been thrown out of service or faced disciplinary action for sporting beards.
Ansari was discharged from service by IAF in October 2008 while his petition was still pending before the top court. The court had issued notices to the government and the IAF in 2008.
In the same year, two more petitions were filed on the issue — one by a fellow IAF personnel and another by a Maharashtra policeman.
In its response, the IAF told the court: “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.”
But later that year, then defence minister A K Antony said the UPA government did not want Muslim personnel to suffer and that his ministry was issuing instructions to armed forces telling them not to act against a Muslim jawan or officer for sporting beard.
In October 2009, the UPA government told the court that it was taking a fresh look at the issue. However, two months later, it backtracked and informed the court that the government and the IAF would “contest the petitions” by Muslim personnel rather than allowing this concession.
In December 2009, the court listed the cases for final hearing and ordered expediting the matter. With the matter yet to come up for hearing, Ansari sought an urgent listing of the matter.
Currently, the defence ministry’s policy of “hair, beard and wearing turbans” as notified in 2003 is in force. It says: “Only those Muslim personnel, 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… 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.”
The two previous regulations were issued in 1980 and 1999.