NEW DELHI, 14 December 2003 — Muslims cannot be sacked from the Indian Army for wearing a beard, the Supreme Court said yesterday in what is seen as a landmark ruling.
In April 1997, Haider Ali was court-martialed out of the Assam Rifles for having a beard. A Supreme Court bench consisting of Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice B.N. Krishna said Ali’s dismissal had been “unjust and unfair” and ordered his reinstatement with no loss of privileges.
Ali’s lawyer Rekha Palli told Arab News: “If a person wants to wear a beard on religious grounds, he should be permitted. If on religious grounds Sikhs in the army can wear beards, Muslims should also be permitted to.”
The Assam Rifles argued Muslims in the armed services were permitted to wear beards for short periods on religious grounds — for instance in Ramadan — but not permanently.
Ali had appealed unsuccessfully to Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Defense Minister George Fernandes, the chairman of the National Minorities Commission, Samajwadi leader and former Defense Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and other leaders.
The Delhi High Court in Dec. 2002 ordered Ali reinstated and all arrears of wages and allowances since April 1997 paid.
But the Assam Rifles appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the Delhi High Court’s decision and directed Ali’s reinstatement from April 5, 1997 and payment of arrears and allowances due to him for the period as well as restoration of all employment benefits.
Hailing the decision as “historic,” the secretary general of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, Maulana Mehmood Madani, said the judgment was likely to have a far-reaching impact. The Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind had supported Ali in his legal battle.
The issue has exercised Indians above and beyond its significance as a question of individual choice because the country’s religious communities have become increasingly polarized in the last decade.