Corporal Zubair challenges IAF order

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New Delhi, Sep 12 (UNI) The Supreme Court has decided to consider which of the two--namely religious faith of an individual or rules of service in airforce--is superior.

A bench, comprising Justices C K Thakker and D K Jain yesterday issued notices to the Union government, Airforce Commanding (Chandigarh) where petitioner Mohammed Zubair was posted as Corporal.

Zubair has challenged the order of Airforce headquarters asking all the officers and Airforce staff to shave off their beards but Zubair insisted on keeping beard while on duty citing his religious faith, in which a devout Muslim has to grow beard as stated in Hadith of Holy Quran and Sunna(recorded customs).

He challenged the order in Punjab and Haryana High Court but the High Court dismissed his petition on July 31, holding that for a man in uniform, rules and orders of superior authorities in the department are supreme.

Senior counsel Rajiv Dhawan, appearing for the petitioner, contended before the apex court on September 11 that the 2003 orders of the Airforce authorities stipulated an arbitrary cut-off date of January 1, 2002.

According to the order, anybody sporting a beard prior to the cut off date was permitted to keep beard but anybody who grew beard after this cut-off date was told to shave off and the petitioner was directed on October 21, 2005 to get his beard shaved.

The court issued notices to the respondents and decided to consider whether the Fundamental Right of Freedom of Religion and Faith guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution can be impinged upon by an executive/administrative order.

The apex court, however, refused to stay the operation of the order of the Airforce authorities.

Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam, appearing for the government, however, contended ''The government is bound to respect religious freedom.. but there is a distinction in matters of pursuit of faith. There is an overdriving concern of public interest when you are working in armed forces and you have to work in an environment of cohesiveness.'' Mr Subramaniam also contended that the state was meant to follow the constitutional philosophy, but it has to be equidistant from religions.

The concern of the force is that one person is good enough to spread a concern of distinctiveness deleterious to the cohesiveness of the forces.

He also contended that there have to be rules of the force and your supremacy must be your duty.

The judges, citing a July 18, 1990 letter written by a top ranking Home ministry official, said, ''A member of the force (Police, Army) belonging to the Muslim community may be permitted to keep beard on religious grounds, '' wanted to know ''what is the principle in creating such a distiction?'' UNI SC SV PK RK1338

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