New Delhi: After a great deal of legal wrangling, a jawan who insisted on growing a beard on religious grounds has been terminated by the Army and termed ‘an undesirable soldier’.
His dismissal was upheld by the Kochi Bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) recently. Maktumhusen, a 34-year-old Muslim from Dharwad in Karnataka, was a sepoy in the Army Medical Corps for nearly 10 years from 2001, when he first sought permission from his Commanding Officer (CO) to have a beard on religious grounds.
The CO allowed him on the condition that he get a new identity card and retain the look for the rest of his service. Shortly afterwards, however, he discovered that the original rules — Army headquarters letters of 1951 and 1978 based on which he gave his nod — had been superseded by amendments to Regulation No. 665 of the Defence Services Regulations and the Ministry of Defence (Army) letter, 1991.
Under the amended rules, those other than Sikhs cannot sport a permanent beard. Citing this, the CO revoked his order and asked Mr. Maktumhusen to comply. The jawan refused and moved the Karnataka High Court, terming the order ‘discriminatory.’
Mr. Maktumhusen was, meanwhile, transferred to Command Hospital, Pune. His CO there also asked him to get rid of his beard. When he refused, a show cause notice followed, after which he was sentenced to 14 days detention for disobedience. The soldier paid no heed to further instructions, and the Army discharged him from service as an ‘undesirable soldier’ after an enquiry.
The Armed Forces Tribunal was not swayed by the contention of his counsel, C.R. Ramesh, that he had the right to grow a beard [under Article 25 of the Constitution on religious freedom] and that he should have rights on par with Sikhs.
The Tribunal said that having a beard was not among the ‘fundamental tenets’ of Islam. “The Army is a disciplined force and denominational differences among its members based on religion, caste etc. cannot be permitted. Practice of wearing a beard claimed on the basis of religion by the applicant which goes against Regulation 665 of the Defence Service Regulations, is not conducive to the discipline of the Force,” it said.
Mr. Maktumhusen may move the Supreme Court, his counsel said. Sikhs are permitted to keep a well-maintained beard and untrimmed hair across the Services. But the Army, Navy and the Air force have differing rules. The Army allows non-Sikhs, especially in certain regiments, to sport a temporary beard.
The Air Force does not allow display of religious symbols on duty or at parades. But Muslims who had a beard at the time of enrolment before January 1, 2002, can keep it. The Navy allows its personnel to change their appearance. But the CO’s permission is mandatory. Medical grounds grant exemption from the rules.