I don’t suppose the Christian principal of Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School has looked at a picture of Jesus Christ lately, although it should be on more than one wall of the institution. If he had, he would have noticed that Jesus had a beard. The iconic prophets of the Old Testament certainly wore beards, at least according to the version of Moses popularised for the world by Cecil B. De Mille and Hollywood: Charlton Heston was given one as he brought the laws of God carved on stone from Mount Sinai. Not all prophets had beards; Solomon had one, but David seems to have shaved regularly.
There is nothing specifically religious about a beard in Judaism, Christianity or Islam. A beard is not a Quranic injunction, or a fundamental commandment of the faith. But some Muslims wear it out of admiration for, and in imitation of, their prophet, whom they adore as the true exemplar of humanity. There are those who keep it as a mark of identity, or even an assertion. Other Muslims keep their chins hirsute out of personal preference; perhaps the jawline is worth hiding from public view. Out of the six great Mughal emperors, Babar had a nicely cut beard; Humayun’s was more wispy (if the vague image I have of him is right); Akbar staked his visual reputation on the luxury of his moustache, as did his son Jehangir; Shahjehan had an immaculate beard which was clearly dressed by a superb royal barber; and only Aurangzeb had a beard that seemed straight out of a need for piety.
When the principal of Nirmala Convent forbade a student, Mohammad Salim, from coming to school in a beard, he was clearly objecting to what he considered was Salim’s aggressive assertion of a Muslim identity in a Christian school. He was, as the Supreme Court judgment confirmed, within the law. Article 30 of the Constitution gives a minority institution the right to determine the culture of its institutions.
Would this decision have become news if Justice Markandeya Katju had said nothing while dismissing the special leave petition in the case of Mohammad Salim versus Principal, Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School? Salim’s appeal was framed around Article 25, the right to practice his faith. Justice Katju justified the decision by saying, “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say she wants to wear a burqa — can we allow it?”
It was not a jocular aside made in an unguarded moment. It indicated the thinking behind the judgment. It is a bit of a mystery why he equated a beard with the Taliban: every Taliban might have a beard, but every Muslim with a beard is not a Taliban. Indeed, every terrorist does not appear with a beard attached, as the incidents in Mumbai last year indicated.
The judgment opens up an interesting can of minority rights. A large number of medressas in Bengal have Hindu students. Would the maulvis in the medressas be within their rights to demand that every girl come in a veil and every boy wear a beard? Should they make it compulsory for non-Muslim students to fast during Ramadan?
I would hope not. Hindu children in Muslim-run institutions come for an education in the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic, not in the fourth R, religion. Does the Supreme Court verdict mean that a Sikh child can be forced to shave if he joins a Catholic school?
It is curious how the most intelligent, balanced and learned among us succumb to stereotypes when faced with another’s faith. Perhaps this story of a lecture I gave at the Warsaw University might be instructive. It was around the time when the French government had stirred a huge controversy by banning the headscarf in state schools on the grounds that France was a secular nation and no symbol of religious identity could be permitted in a state school. The ban, incidentally, did not extend to wearing “small” crosses on a chain on the rather specious excuse that they were symbols of tradition rather than faith.
There are no mosques in Warsaw for the good reason that there are hardly any indigenous Muslims in Poland. There was surprise, therefore, when I mentioned that I had seen a woman wearing a hijab on my way to the University. Who? I had seen a Catholic nun, I explained. No one had ever viewed the nun’s dress as a form of hijab and abaya. The amazement widened to disbelief when I pointed out that the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, would never have got admission in France’s state schools. There is no image, statue or painting, in which she does not have her head covered.
India’s definition of secularism is very different from Europe’s. Between Voltaire and Karl Marx, a huge swathe of Eurasia from the shores of the Atlantic to the edge of the Pacific, has separated state from faith. Indians are not obliged to set aside their faith identities when they go to a government office or a state school. A Sikh can wear his turban, a Muslim may fast during Ramadan, a Brahmin wear his caste thread. Religion is private space. The only requirement is that no religion can impose its will on another. Indian secularism gives a Hindu the right to be pro-Hindu, but not the liberty to be anti-Muslim. And vice versa.
Denial can be counter-productive. Common sense suggests where limits can be drawn. Where an individual’s identity is not intrusive, or an assault on the social good, there is little harm in permitting leeway. One of the more welcome facts about South India is the rising number of quality educational institutions financed with charity donations by Muslims. They stress vocational skills and are therefore in demand. A sizeable percentage of the students are non-Muslim, which is an extremely positive development. But it would take just one incident of a principal of a Muslim institution objecting to a Brahmin’s sacred thread or sandal paste on the forehead for a positive to become a negative. He would be within his legal right to do so; but he would not be in his right mind.
Postscript: As I finished this column the story of a girl being lashed mercilessly by fundamentalists in Pakistan appeared on television. I could not bear to watch or hear the screams of the young woman, who was being held down by her elder relatives while the punishment was being administered: is this brutality, this atrocity, this barbarism the final fate of Pakistan?