Mohammad Saleem, a 16 year old Muslim student studying at the Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School in the Bidisha district of Madhya Pradesh petitioned the Indian Supreme Court that he be allowed to sport a beard, contrary to his school’s rules. On 30 March 2009, the Supreme Court dismissed Saleem’s petition and upheld the ruling of the Madhya Pradesh High Court which had ruled that Saleem has no right to wear a beard if forbidden by his school rules.
On behalf of the entire division bench of the Supreme Court, Justice Markandeya Katju commented as follows: “We should strike a balance between rights and personal beliefs. We cannot overstretch secularism. 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?”
With due respect to the Supreme Court, I don’t really think that a beard makes a Taliban out of a student. Justice Katju’s harsh and seemingly thoughtless comments have (rightly in my opinion) drawn widespread condemnation. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling is basically correct in that the fundamental right to practice one’s religion guaranteed by the Indian constitution does not mean that one can flout a private school’s dress code, however arbitrary that dress code may be. According to Saleem’s petition, his school allowed Sikh students to have beards and wear turbans but, in his case, had insisted that he be clean-shaven.
The Supreme Court pointed out that Saleem is free to join a different school, one which allows students to keep a beard. Saleem’s case was not helped by the fact that his lawyer, Mr. Khan (a retired Judge) did not have a beard. It’s not an easy task for a clean-shaven Muslim lawyer to convince a bunch of judges that growing a beard is absolutely essential for a practising Muslim! The argument that Sikhs are usually allowed to grow beards and wear turbans also did not cut much ice with the Lordships. The fact that the school in question is a ‘minority-run’ institution enjoying constitutional protection from governmental interference was a factor in the judges deciding not to override the school’s rules.
In my opinion, whether or not Muslim students should be permitted by schools and colleges to wear a burqa or a beard is a matter of policy to be decided by the legislature. In the absence of the legislature setting out a clear-cut policy, the judiciary was forced to rule whether the constitutional right to practice a religion of one’s choice can be interpreted to give school students the right to sprout facial hair on their lower mandibles.
A few months ago, the Indian Supreme Court had upheld a government directive which prohibited beards in the Indian Air Force on the grounds that religious attire can be divisive. Until then, airmen were allowed to wear beards if permitted by a superior officer. The ban on beards does not apply to Sikhs, who are also allowed to wear turbans. The Indian government’s stand was that growing a beard is not fundamental to Islam, while beards and turbans are de rigueur for Sikhism.
The clash between the right to dress in accordance with one’s religious practices and dress codes imposed by schools, colleges, armed forces, corporates etc. is not something new. Five year ago France caused a furore when it banned all religious symbols in schools, since the French rules were thought to be mainly targeted at Muslim students wearing the hijab. Caught in the crosshairs were French Sikhs who found themselves unable to wear their turbans. A few years ago, British Airways prevented an employee from wearing a visibly present cross at work.
In my opinion, in the Indian context, an issue which is rarely discussed in these discourses is the need to re-integrate Muslims into the national mainstream. I use the word ‘re-integrate’ since Muslims once formed the mainstream of Indian society.
Until 1857 when many parts of what is now independent India rose up in revolt against the British, Muslims had a literacy rate that was as high as or even exceeded that of other communities. Sub-continental Muslims were no less progressive than other communities they lived side by side with. After the 1857 revolt was put down, the British crown took over from the East India Company and instituted various reforms, especially in the field of education. Muslims were considered by the British to have provided the ideological underpinning for the revolt which sought to bring back Mughal rule, for which punitive measures were imposed on many Muslim nawabs and landlords. The net result of the reforms and the repression was that Islamic community in India (with notable exceptions like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan) went into decline. Many Muslim landlords lost their landholdings, which were transferred to those who stood by the British during the mutiny. Literacy rates plummeted, especially after Urdu was supplanted by English and Hindi (written in the Devanagari script). The social and economic backwardness in which Indian Muslims found themselves has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of evils ranging from terrorism to oppression of women.
It is very much possible that pursuant to this Supreme Court ruling, many private schools which had hitherto permitted Muslim students to wear beards will now refuse them permission to do so. Soon orthodox Muslim students will be forced to study only in government run schools or schools run by Muslim organisations. If there are no suitable schools close to their homes, many such students will stay at home. It can be argued that if a student wishes to grow a beard or wear a hijab and stay at home, the government owes him or her nothing. However, an illiterate youngster is likely to create more social problems. His or her children are also likely to be illiterate. On the other hand if the government were to take a policy decision to the effect that beards and Islamic attire must be permitted by all schools, colleges and other organisations, including the armed forces (just as in the case of Sikhs), many orthodox Muslims will join the national mainstream. The rate of integration will be higher for the second generation of Muslims. In my opinion, it is high time the central government and various state governments in India took a farsighted view and set out such a policy decision in concrete. It should not be left to the judiciary to do the legislature’s job.