Muslim airman attacks IAF’s anti-beard rule
12 Sep 2008, 0033 hrs IST, Dhananjay Mahapatra,TNN
NEW DELHI: Duty before self or freedom to practise one’s religion? The Supreme Court on Thursday took upon itself to adjudicate a sensitive issue raised by a petition which contends that an Indian Air Force rule banning Muslim personnel recruited after 2002 from sporting a beard interferes with their faith.
While the petitioner, Corporal Mohammed Zubair, said the rule impinged on his fundamental right to follow his religion which obliges him to grow a beard, the Centre countered saying it pursued a policy free of religion and would not allow anyone in the armed forces to make himself distinct from his colleagues in the name of faith.
Appearing for the petitioner, senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan argued before a Bench comprising Justices C K Thakker and D K Jain that anything which formed the core of religious practice could not be curtailed by the government.
Zubair challenged the validity of the IAF’s executive instructions of February 24 and April 1, 2003, prohibiting Muslim personnel from growing a beard.
“This executive direction to the petitioner to shave off (his) beard is patently illegal, without any sanction or authority of law, besides being against the spirit of Article 25 of the Constitution and also against the secular ethos of the armed forces,” said Zubair, whose plea had earlier been struck down in the high court.
“Does Quran mandate a Muslim to keep a beard?” asked the Bench. Dhawan was ready with an answer. “It is in the Hadith and Sunna. The government had put in place a permissive system, but it was changed arbitrarily,” he said, referring to the fact that till 2003, Air Headquarters did not stop Muslim personnel from keeping beards if they had permission from their superiors.
Asked to respond, additional solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam argued that the armed forces cannot allow some personnel to stand out from the rest. “The government is bound to respect religious freedom…. But there is an overdriving concept of public interest when one is working in the armed forces. Can one sport a beard as an act of distinctiveness when the person is expected to work in an environment of cohesiveness? The pursuit of faith is not abrogated, but standing out is what concerns the forces.”
The ASG added, “Should a personnel deserve his identity as a matter of duty or his faith? The State is free of any religion. Those who have already entered service and are keeping a beard, we are not stopping them. But for fresh recruits, we are applying a uniform rule.”
The issue, tricky that it is, evoked a further question from the Bench: Will the new rule be not seen as discriminatory as it allows some to keep a beard while restraining others from doing the same?
Finding the questions raised by the petition worth a thorough legal scrutiny, the Bench issued notice to the Centre and asked it to give reasons why the rule should not be stayed.