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Allahabad HC not first court to say beard not part of religious freedom for ‘disciplined force’

Allahabad HC this month rejected the plea of a UP Police constable challenging the departmental inquiry initiated against him for having a beard.

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New Delhi: The Allahabad High Court earlier this month refused a plea by a Uttar Pradesh Police constable who had sought the dismissal of a departmental inquiry initiated against him for having a beard. Having a beard may not be protected under the provisions of the right to practise religion, as guaranteed by Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, for “a member of disciplined force”, the court said.

The court had been hearing a plea filed by UP Police constable Mohd Farman, who had refused to follow an October 2020 directive issued by the state director general of police (DGP), prohibiting the members of the force from keeping a beard, among other things. In November, the constable was placed under suspension till the completion of the departmental inquiry. Farman had challenged the suspension order and the charge sheet filed against him in court.

The court observed that police have to be a disciplined force, and, being a law-enforcement agency, it is necessary that such a force maintain a secular image.

In the past, too, police personnel, as well as those from the armed forces, have challenged regulations prohibiting the keeping of a beard, mainly on religious grounds. Courts have so far upheld these regulations, finding them to be non-violative of Article 25 of the Constitution, which grants citizens “freedom of conscience and free profession, practise and propagation of religion”.

In 1985, for example, the Kerala High Court rejected the plea of a head constable in the state police in this regard, observing that growing a beard could not be said to be an essential part of the practice of religion. The high court held that, as a member of the force, he must abide by the discipline of the service.


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Provisions under Article 33

Article 33 of the Constitution permits Parliament to determine the extent to which fundamental rights shall apply to the armed forces for the purpose of discharging their duties or maintenance of discipline among them.

Article 33 applies to all armed forces i.e. the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, as well as those charged with the maintenance of public order, such as police forces of each state.

For laws and regulations enacted under Article 33, courts have somewhat limited power of judicial review. In the 1983 case of R. Viswan v. Union of India, the Supreme Court had held that as long as the restrictions made under this Article are for the purpose specified in that Article, i.e. proper discharge of their duties and the maintenance of discipline in the force, the court cannot examine the propriety or suitability of such restrictions.

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No uniform rule

In India, different forces have different rules regarding facial hair. For police, each state police force makes rules regarding facial hair. Most states, however, only allow their non-Sikh police personnel to grow a moustache and not a beard.

In the armed forces, only Sikhs are permitted to have a well-maintained beard and untrimmed hair across divisions.

The Army allows non-Sikhs in certain regiments and regions to sport a temporary beard. The Air Force prohibits all non-Sikhs from keeping a beard. But Muslims who had a beard at the time of enrolment are allowed to keep it if they joined the force before 1 January 2002.

The Navy allows its personnel to grow and keep a beard and moustache, but the Commanding Officer’s permission is mandatory.


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Others who challenged rules on facial hair

In 2016, the Supreme Court refused the appeal of an Air Force member who sought to keep a beard, stating that the object of the policy prohibiting the same was to ensure uniformity, cohesiveness, discipline, and order, which, the court said, were “indispensable” for armed force personnel.

It further held that regulations in regard to personal appearance were neither intended to discriminate against religious beliefs, nor did they have the effect of discrimination against a religious community.

Also, in 2016, the dismissal of a Muslim Army man from the force, because of his keeping a beard, was upheld by the Armed Forces Tribunal in Kochi. Before the tribunal’s ruling, the soldier had been sentenced to 14 days of detention for disobedience and discharged from the force after being termed an “undesirable soldier”.

(Tushar Kohli is a final-year student at Army Institute of Law, Mohali, and is interning at ThePrint)

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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