Noting that “every Armed Force raised in a civilised nation has its own ‘Dress and Deportment’ Policy,” the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the decision of the Air Force to dismiss a Muslim airman for growing beard citing religious grounds.
The apex court held that under the Armed Forces Regulations of 1964 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.”
Otherwise, discipline and uniformity have precedence over the fundamental right to religion in the Forces, the court held.
“For the effective and thorough functioning of a large combat force, the members of the Force must bond together by a sense of espirit-de-corps, without distinctions of caste, creed, colour or religion. Uniformity of personal appearance is quintessential to a cohesive, disciplined and coordinated functioning of an Armed Force,” the three-member Bench, comprising Chief Justice T.S. Thakur and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and L. Nageswara Rao, observed.
The court pronounced the judgment on an appeal by Mohammed Zubair, who was recruited as Airman in the Air Force. Ansari was sacked for growing beard even after being denied permission.
Mr. Zubair claimed his fundamental right to freedom of religion. The Air Force countered that keeping a beard was not an essential practice of their faith unlike in the Sikh religion. The court had sought an opinion from senior advocate Salman Khurshid, who said growing a beard was only “desirable” in Islam.
Further, the Defence Ministry’s 2003 notification clarified that only those Muslim personnel who sported a beard along with moustache at the time of commissioning (prior to January 1, 2002), would be allowed to retain them.
“Regulations and policies in regard to personal appearance are not intended to discriminate against religious beliefs nor do they have the effect of doing so. Their object and purpose is to ensure uniformity, cohesiveness, discipline and order which are indispensable to the Air Force, as indeed to every armed force of the Union,” Justice Chandrachud, who authored the judgment, observed.
The court held that Article 33 of the Constitution has the authority to impose restriction on the fundamental rights of Armed Forces personnel, considering the “overarching necessity of a Force which has been raised to protect the nation is to maintain discipline.”