To beard or not to beard

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By The Supreme Court recently upheld a school's right to prohibit its students from wearing a beard. But the controversy over whether or not that is a violation of a person's religious freedom refuses to die down, says Hemchhaya De
  • Published 22.04.09

Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School in Madhya Pradesh has been in the eye of a storm. The Supreme Court may have handed the missionary school a win against its student Mohammad Salim who wanted to keep a beard in violation of the rules of the institution. But a controversy lingers over whether or not an institution or a body can make rules that may hinder an individual’s right to practise his religion according to his own way.

Last year, Salim, 16, was thrown out of his school for keeping a beard. Though he argued that keeping a beard was his religious obligation, the school said that it was not part of its dress code. Losing the battle against the school’s decision to expel him, Salim petitioned the Supreme Court, citing his right to freedom of worship as per Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. Last month the apex court dismissed his plea. But what stirred a hornet’s nest was the observation made by Justice Markanday Katju, one of the judges delivering the order. He reportedly said during a verbal exchange with the petitioner’s counsel, “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burqa. Can we allow it?”

Several Muslim organisations have taken exception to the judge’s remarks. The Delhi-based All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat (AIMMM), an umbrella body of Indian Muslim organisations, said, “The bizarre and uncalled for opinion flies in the face of the religious, civil and human rights of every Indian citizen guaranteed by our Constitution.”

Mulling legal action against the remarks, the AIMMM further said that such an opinion from a Supreme Court bench was a very serious matter and alleged that “it is a clear infringement of the religious, civil and human rights of millions of Muslims and others who have kept beards and observed purdah, a tradition continuing for over a thousand years in our country, long before anyone heard of the word ‘Taliban’ or its current connotations.”

“We fear that such irresponsible remarks may help communal political parties whip up anti-Muslim sentiments. What if employers — be it banks or schools — start discriminating against Muslims for keeping beards,” asks Zafarul-Islam Khan, president, AIMMM. “If a Muslim man wants to keep a beard, he must be allowed to do so. It’s a symbol of Islam.”

Agrees Ejaz Aslam, all India secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which advocates the cause of religion, “Though there might be some differences in opinion, it’s an accepted fact that a beard is part of the Islamic dress code.” A Jamaat delegation apparently met Christian leaders in Bhopal to ease tensions between the two communities over the Salim case.

The Muslim student’s case is not an isolated one. In 2003 a Muslim member of the Indian Air Force (IAF) challenged the IAF’s decision to prevent its Muslim personnel from sporting beards. He reportedly contended that the IAF diktat was against the spirit of Article 25 and the secular principles of the force. The Supreme Court’s decision is pending in this regard.

In the West, similar controversies erupt intermittently. A few years ago, a teaching assistant in a UK school was sacked for refusing to remove her hijab (veil). In countries like France and the Netherlands, conspicuous religious symbols are banned under some circumstances. In all such instances, the debate seems to revolve around the clash between a person’s right to practise his or her religion and an individual institution’s secular ethos.

The controversy in India is no different. “If any organisation or institution like a school or a college or even a club lays down some rules of behaviour or a dress code for its students or members, there’s nothing wrong in it unless the rules violate the fundamental rights of a person or go against public policy or interest,” says Joy Sengupta, senior advocate, Calcutta High Court.

Legal experts feel that in the Salim case, the question arises whether Muslims have a mandatory religious obligation to keep a beard. “Keeping a beard may not be an absolute religious requirement for Muslims. In that case, a Muslim man’s right to practise his religion may not be violated if he is asked to shave his beard as a prevalent requirement of any institution where he wants to become a member or pursue a course,” says Sengupta.

Commenting on whether keeping a beard is at the “core” of Islam, Maulana Hassan Mehndi, a Shia cleric in Calcutta, says, “Shaving is forbidden in Islam. But that doesn’t mean the beard has to be of an inordinate length. Individual institutions may have its own rules, but we cannot neglect our allegiance to the Almighty.”

Experts point out that although our Constitution guarantees one’s freedom to practise one’s religion, there are reasonable restrictions to Article 25 imposed by the state on such grounds as public order, morality, health and other provisions. We can perhaps refer to the Commissioner of Police & Others vs Acharya Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta & Another case where Ananda Margis argued that their tandava dance with tridents and other objects was part of their religion and it should be allowed in public.

Deciding on the case, the apex court ruled, “Though the freedom of conscience and religious belief are absolute, the right to act in exercise of a man’s freedom of religion cannot override public interest and morals of the society and in that view it is competent for the State to suppress such religious activities which are prejudicial to public interest.” The court also found that the tandava dance was not an absolute requirement of their faith.

Some argue that although an individual organisation’s prerogatives ought to be respected, there cannot be separate rules for different communities. Says Jamaat secretary Aslam, “Look at the Army. Sikhs comprise around 2 per cent of India’s population and they constitute about 8 per cent of our armed forces. We may ask, why are Sikhs allowed to keep turbans or their kirpans while Muslims are asked to get rid of their beards?”

Taj Mohammed, deputy director, public prosecution, South 24 Parganas, Government of West Bengal, feels that there’s no lacuna in our legal system insofar as addressing this issue is concerned. “The existing laws are enough. But it all depends on the way laws or constitutional provisions are interpreted,” says Mohammed, who feels Justice Katju’s remarks have no “legal stand” as they are not part of the recorded judgement. “Problems will arise when laws are misinterpreted and no effort is made to change the social outlook that continues to demonise certain communities in our country,” he sums up.