Yesterday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld a Muslim airman’s discharge from the Indian Air Force for keeping a beard. At issue before the Court was Regulation 425 of the Armed Force Regulations, 1964, which prohibited the growth of hair by Armed Forces personnel, except for “personnel whose religion prohibits the cutting of hair or shaving of face.” (425(b)) Although the Court referred to various policy directives issued by the Air Force from time to time, the case ultimately turned on whether the Airman was covered by Regulation 425(b). The Court held that he was not, although its reasoning on the point was rather brief:
“During the course of the hearing, we had inquired of Shri Salman Khurshid, learned senior counsel appearing on behalf of the Appellants whether there is a specific mandate in Islam which “prohibits the cutting of hair or shaving of facial hair”. Learned senior counsel, in response to the query of the Court, indicated that on this aspect, there are varying interpretations, one of which is that it is desirable to maintain a beard. No material has been produced before this Court to indicate that the Appellant professes a religious belief that would bring him within the ambit of Regulation 425(b) which applies to “personnel whose religion prohibits the cutting off the hair or shaving off the face of its members”.
Since the Court did not go into the question, it remains unclear what manner of evidence would have actually been sufficient to convince it that the airman’s case fell within Regulation 425(b). From the question that the Court put to the airman’s counsel, it appears that it was looking for some kind doctrinal evidence demonstrating that Islam prohibits the cutting of facial hair, regardless of the appellant’s own views on the issue. This is in line with the Court’s “essential religious practices” test, which I have criticised earlier.
However, a distinction needs to be drawn between two kinds of religious claims. Most of the cases that have come before the Court have involved the status of practices that can be broadly understood as group or community practices (for instance, the Supreme Court’s 2004 judgment on whether the public performance of the tandava dance was an essential part of the Ananda Margi sect’s beliefs). Although the essential religious practices test remains deeply problematic, in such cases, it is understandable that the Court might want to look for authoritative sources to ascertain the status of the practice within the religion/sect. However, the present case did not involve determining the status of a community practice – it involved, centrally, an individual’s judgment of what was required by his faith. In such a case, the essential religious practices test seems even less defensible, because effectively, it prohibits any individual departure from the officially sanctioned tenets of the religion. And in such cases, the test that is followed in other jurisdictions, throughout the world – the test that asks merely whether the individual in question had a sincere and genuinely held belief in the validity of the religious claim – seems far more appropriate.
Although the distinction between community-oriented and individual-oriented religious claims has not yet been drawn by the Supreme Court, in my view, a three-judge bench was ideally placed to do it, and to limit the scope of the essential religious practices test. The case, therefore, represents a missed opportunity by the Court to develop its religious freedom jurisprudence in a more progressive direction.
It is also unclear to me why, after having held that Regulation 425(b) was not applicable to the airman’s case, the Court found it necessary to make the following observations:
“The Air Force is a combat force, raised and maintained to secure the nation against hostile forces. The primary aim of maintaining an Air Force is to defend the nation from air operations of nations hostile to India and to advance air operations, should the security needs of the country so require. 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.”
This was unnecessary, because the argument from uniformity/cohesiveness would arise only if the Court had first found that the airman had a right to keep a beard, and was then assessing whether the Air Force was justified in curtailing the right. As the Court correctly pointed out, Article 33 of the Constitution expressly permits Parliament to modify the application of fundamental rights to members of the Armed Forces – which it did, for instance, through Regulation 425. Consequently, the Court’s enquiry should have begun and ended with Regulation 425 (where, I have tried to show, it ought to have applied a different test).
Additionally, the questioning of balancing rights, in such cases, is a complex one, and requires a more detailed analysis than what the Court undertook. In some jurisdictions, for instance, a distinction is drawn between ostentatious or very visible religious markers of identity, and more innocuous ones; some jurisdictions require employers to demonstrate that their restrictions serve a “bona fide occupational requirement“, and furthermore, are reasonably tailored towards achieving it. Admittedly, after its finding on Regulation 425(b), the Court did not need to address this question; however, it nevertheless chose to do so, in doing so, its observations about unity and cohesiveness unduly simplify a very complex issue.
Furthermore, during the course of its observations, the Court ended up making a statement that is incorrect as a matter of law, but could have unfortunate consequences going forward. Towards the end of its judgment, the Court remarked that:
“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.”
While it is nobody’s case that the regulations intended to discriminate against religious beliefs, it is incorrect to also state that they do not have that effect. The only basis for that claim would be the assumption that religious dicta and personal appearance are entirely separate from each other; a quick look at the core tenets of Sikhism demonstrates that that assumption is false. Indeed, the Court’s reference to “object and purpose” in the next line was itself a statement about legislative intent; but by running together intent and effect, in my view, the Court conflated direct and indirect discrimination in a manner that could stifle the future development of indirect discrimination jurisprudence in India (a concept still in its infancy).