Indian Air Force personnel cannot sport a beard on religious grounds, the Supreme Court said on Thursday making it clear that policies on personal appearance are "not intended to discriminate against religious beliefs" but to "ensure uniformity and discipline" which are indispensable to every armed force.
The Apex court observed that for the effective functioning of a large combat force, the members must bond together by a sense of espirit-de-corps, "without distinctions of caste, creed, colour or religion" and while on duty, every member of the Indian Air Force is required to wear uniform and not display any sign distinguishing one from another.
"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," a bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur said while dismissing appeals of two Muslim personnel of IAF.
Airmen Mohammed Zubair and Ansari Aaftab Ahmed had challenged dismissal of their plea by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in which they had sought setting aside of the air force order directing them to shave off their beard.
By an August 26, 2005 communication, the personnel were informed that under the current policy of the air force dated February 24, 2003 and July 9, 2003 an airman was not permitted to have a beard on religious grounds.
The bench, also comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao, said there was no merit in the appeals as they were unable to show that their case falls within the ambit of Regulation 425(b) which says "personnel whose religion prohibits the cutting of the hair or shaving of the face of its members will be permitted to grow hair or retain beard".
"In the circumstances, the commanding officer was acting within his jurisdiction in the interest of maintaining discipline of the air force. The appellant having been enrolled as a member of the air force was necessarily required to abide by the discipline of the force," the court said.
The bench noted that the old Air Headquarters policy was revisited on February 24, 2003 by which a limited protection was granted for those who had a beard prior to January 1, 2002 at the time of enrolment but the policy stated that no person would after joining the service be allowed to maintain a beard.
This position was clarified on June 9, 2003 by stating that personnel whose religion demands sporting a beard, would be allowed to do so provided they were granted permission prior to the date of the letter or had grown a beard at the time of joining the air force, it noted.
"So long as the provisions of Regulation 425 (which have a statutory effect) are not breached, a mere policy can be revisited and modulated in the interest of the force. The policy documents are only clarificatory in nature. Policies can be duly modified to subserve the best interest of the force, which is inextricably intertwined with the need to protect the nation against grave threats of destabilisation and disorder. Discipline of this force is paramount," it said.
The bench observed that the air force is a combat force, raised and maintained to secure the nation against hostile forces and the primary aim of maintaining an air force is to defend the country from air operations of hostile nations.
"The Indian Air Force has over eleven thousand officers and one lakh and twenty thousand personnel below officers rank. 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.
"There can be no gainsaying the fact that maintaining the unity of the force is an important facet of instilling a sense of commitment, and dedication amongst the members of the force. Every member of the air force while on duty is required to wear the uniform and not display any sign or object which distinguishes one from another.
"Uniformity of personal appearance is quintessential to a cohesive, disciplined and coordinated functioning of an armed force. Every armed force raised in a civilised nation has its own 'Dress and Deportment' Policy," the bench said.
The court said India is a secular nation in which every religion must be treated with equality and in the context of the armed forces, which comprise men and women following a multitude of faiths, the needs of secular India are accommodated by recognising right of worship and by respecting religious beliefs.
"Yet in a constitutional sense it cannot be overlooked that the overarching necessity of a force which has been raised to protect the nation is to maintain discipline. That is why the Constitution in the provisions of Article 33 stipulates that Parliament may by law determine to what extent the fundamental rights conferred by Part III shall stand restricted or abrogated in relation inter alia to the members of the armed forces so as to ensure the proper discharge of their duties and the maintenance of discipline among them," it said.
Zubair in his petition had contended that the order was in contravention of fundamental fights of the citizen and also a government letter issued through the Ministry of Home on July 18, 1990.
The said letter of the Home Ministry permitted the uniformed Muslim/Sikh personnel to sport beard on religious grounds, provided prior permission was sought from the authorities, he had said.
The Centre had said that the IAF order was in the interest of cohesiveness in a combat force and it also has security implications.
It had said that these policies are secular in character and have not been framed to govern the conduct of air force personnel of any particular religion.
It has earlier told the court that IAF is undoubtedly a secular force having due regard for all religions and it is imperative that its personnel are guided by a sense of brotherhood without any distinction of caste, creed, colour or religion.
Photograph: Vijay Mathur/Reuters