Decided on December 15,2016

Mohammed Zubair Corporal No. 781467-G Appellant
Union of India And Ors. Respondents


DR D Y CHANDRACHUD, J. - (1.) The Appellant was enrolled as an Airman in the Indian Air Force on 19 December 2001. After enrolment he was sent for training and was assigned the trade of Workshop Fitter (B). On 1 September 2004 he was posted to 3 Base Repair Depot at Chandigarh. On 10 January 2005, the Appellant submitted an application seeking permission to keep a beard on religious grounds, since he is a Muslim. The Air Officer Commanding rejected the application on 1 February 2005 and the Appellant was informed on 9 February 2005 of the rejection, which was on the ground of the Air Headquarters' Policy dated 24 February 2003. On 22 March 2005 the Appellant submitted another application to the Air Officer Commanding seeking reconsideration of the earlier decision. He was granted an interview with him on 10 June 2005, when he was informed of the necessity to maintain uniformity amongst Air Force personnel because of which his request had been rejected. The Air Officer Commanding, however, addressed a communication dated 23 June 2005 to the Headquarters Maintenance Command seeking a clarification on the legal issues raised by the Appellant. In the meantime on 20 June 2005 the Appellant proceeded on annual leave. When he returned on 1 August 2005, he was found to sport a beard. On 1 August 2005 he was informed by Wing Commander that contrary to Air Force Regulations, he was found to have a beard while in service uniform. The Appellant was instructed to shave off his beard and to report at 0700 hrs on 2 August 2005, failing which it was stated that "severe disciplinary action" would be initiated against him. The Appellant declined to shave off his beard. Since in the meantime a clarification had been sought from HQ -MC, he was permitted to grow a beard on a provisional basis until his earlier application was finalised. By a communication dated 26 August 2005 HQ-MC Nagpur, informed 3 BRD, AF that under the current policy of the Air Force (Area HQ/C 23406/24/PS) dated 24 February 2003 and 9 July 2003 an Airman was not permitted to have a beard on religious grounds. On receipt of this letter, the Appellant was directed to shave off his beard and informed that the provisional permission granted to him on 3 August 2005 was withdrawn.
(2.) On 17 September 2005 the Appellant filed a writ petition before the Punjab & Haryana High Court in which by an interim order dated 20 September 2005 a Single Judge stayed the operation of the Air Force order dated 5 September 2005. The Air force authorities moved the High Court for vacating the interim stay but the application was dismissed on 9 February 2006. A Special Leave Petition was filed before this Court which was disposed of on 28 September 2007 with a request to the High Court to dispose of the petition expeditiously. By an order of the High Court dated 14 July 2008 the writ petition was dismissed. A Letters Patent Appeal was dismissed by the High Court on 31 July 2008. In the meantime, a notice to show cause was issued to the Appellant calling upon him to explain as to why he should not be discharged from service. In reply to the notice, the Appellant asserted his right to retain a beard. The Appellant was eventually discharged from service under Rule 15(2)(g)(ii) of the Air Force Rules 1969 on 1 September 1997.
(3.) In the writ proceedings before the High Court, which were instituted on 17 September 2005 the Appellant sought the following reliefs : "a writ of Certiorari or any other appropriate writ, order or direction for quashing of Annexure P-5 vide which the petitioner, a Muslim has been directed to shave his beard by 20.092005, the same (Annexure P-5) being illegal, without any sanction of law and in contravention of Regulation 425(b) of the Regulations of the Indian Air Force and policy letters dated 08.05.1980 and 10.08.1982 (Annexures P-1 and P-2); With a further prayer that the operation of the impugned order (Annexure P-5) may kindly be stayed till the disposal of this writ petition since Air Force Regulations and policies explicitly confer upon Muslims a right to sport beard and provide for no discretion to the respondents to take away this right under any circumstance". The challenge was to the direction issued to the Appellant to shave off his beard on 20 September 2005 on the ground that it was contrary to Regulation 425(b) of the Regulations governing the Indian Air Force and to the policy letters of 8 May 1980 and 10 August 1982. Even prior to the institution of the writ petition, the Appellant had been discharged from service. Strictly speaking a mere challenge to the direction by which he was called upon to shave off his beard would not subserve the cause of the Appellant once he stood discharged from service. Be that as it may, the Division Bench of the High Court by its judgment and order dated 31 July 2008 came to the conclusion that the purpose of Regulation 425(b) is to ensure that the identity of a person is not altered during the course of service so as to render recognition possible. The Division Bench affirmed the judgment of the learned Single Judge to the effect that maintaining a beard was not an integral part of the religion professed by the Appellant. In the view of the High Court, the matter pertained to the Armed Forces where a certain degree of discipline had to be maintained and the rules and regulations broadly accommodate "the basic interest of various religions in a secular manner".;

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