Why Muslims are not allowed to keep long beard in the armed forces

Rarely is religion in the equation when it comes to the armed forces, but in cases like sporting of facial hair on the basis of one’s religion, it has resulted into disputes and even dismissal of soldiers.

The issue came to limelight a couple of days ago when the Supreme Court dismissed the plea of Ansari Aftab Ahmed, who was sacked from the Air force in 2008 for sporting a long beard without permission. Ansari had claimed that he had the right to grow beard as per his religious beliefs and had refused to follow orders to shave it, but the apex court didn’t agree with that argument.

Court agreed with the view of Air Force, which had argued that all Muslims do not carry beard and that the practice of growing and keeping a beard was not among the central practices of Islam, hence the orders to shave off the beard was not impinging on any religious beliefs or rights.

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Aftab was deemed to have violated the rules and discipline of the armed forces and hence his dismissal was upheld by the court. And this is not the first case, as we will find later in this article.

But at this point, a reader might wonder why should the armed forces be concerned about haircut or facial hair of soldiers to begin with? Isn’t that too small an issue? And shouldn’t adults be allowed to choose for themselves?

That argument might appear logical but we have to understand that we are talking about an organisation – the Indian armed forces – which is universally accepted and acknowledged as being one of the most disciplined ones. Grooming is a part of that discipline.

Armed forces have such rules for grooming – with a few exceptions for Sikhs – because they bring uniformity in appearance. The underlying belief is – a common citizen should see a solider whose appearance doesn’t reflect any religious bias.

In order to maintain this uniformity and discipline, our armed forces have some rules regarding sporting facial hair. Here are those:

Indian Air Force:

As per Defence Service Regulations, sporting a beard is not permitted except when religion prohibits shaving it off. The exact words are:

pdf source

Since Air force believes that Islam doesn’t prohibit cutting of the hair or shaving the beard, and thus the sub-section (b) was not applicable to Muslims, a directive was notified in 2003, which made things a bit clearer:

“Only those Muslim personnel, who had kept beard along with mustache at the time of commissioning /enrollment prior to 01 Jan 2002, would be allowed to keep beard and mustache… 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 mustache. Mustache would be a part of the beard.”

Indian Army:

Army too follows the Defence Service Regulation and they have similar rules that forbids sporting beards, though the mention of Sikh religion is explicit. The exact relevant portions are:

pdf source

In short, beard would not be permitted for non-Sikh soldiers, as was witnessed in the case of Maktumhusen. Maktumhusen, a 34-year-old Muslim from Dharwad, Karnataka, was a sepoy who joined the Army Medical Corps in 2001. After almost a decade of service he sought permission from his Commanding Officer to grow a beard on religious grounds. He was allowed the same but was asked to get a new ID card and was instructed not to change his look for the rest of his service tenure.

His request though was later turned down after the CO discovered the above amendment to Regulation No. 665 of the Defence Services Regulations, which stated that those other than Sikhs could not sport a permanent beard.

Maktumhusen grew a beard and was meanwhile transferred to Command Hospital, Pune. His CO there also asked him to get rid of his beard. After his refusal and a show cause notice, he was sentenced to a fortnight of detention and was later discharged from service. Later the Army Tribunal upheld the same and also noted that Sikhs were provided permission to sport a beard because:

“No one can dispute the fact that growing of hair and beard by Sikhs is an essential practice of their religion and, in fact, fundamental tenet of that religion. Recognising the religious faith, belief and practice followed by them in the case of Sikh military personnel an exception has been made allowing the Sikh military personnel to grow hair and beard.”

Indian Navy:

When it comes to the Indian Navy, it is probably the most lax when it comes to the facial hair and allows the blandishment of beards and moustaches provided they are neatly trimmed and prior permission has been granted by seniors.

Even though sporting beard is allowed, Sikhs still find a mention in the rules as officers and sailors are expected to keep their beard trimmed – something Sikhs can’t do. The relevant portion of the regulations are as follows:

pdf source

Interestingly, the last UPA government issued a few statements saying demands of devout Muslims will be considered, hinting that Army and Air Force could be asked to modify the rules. The then Defence Minister AK Antony is reported to have made that promise to a group of Muslims while blaming the previous NDA government for introducing the rules. But the UPA government backtracked in the court and didn’t force the armed forces to change their rules.

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