Darshan Shah, a person of Indian origin, working with the US Air Force, was allowed to wear a tilak during his service.
Shah, born to a Hindu family, had been seeking a religious waiver to wear tilak as part of his uniform since he began basic military training in June 2020. He was granted the waiver on February 22.
Shah works as an aerospace medical technician at Francis E Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and was assigned to the US Air Force’s 90th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron.
“Wearing the Tilak Chandlo everyday at work is amazing, to put it in a nutshell,” Shah said. “People around my workplace give me handshakes, claps and compliments because they know how hard I tried to get this religious accommodation approved.”
Shah had applied for the religious dispensation while training at a boot camp, but was told to wait until he joined technical school to pursue the dispensation. At technical school, he was again told to wait until he reached his first duty station.
Shah said wearing the air force uniform and wearing tilak were his main identities.
“It’s who I am…I wear it [the tilak] is special,” he said. It’s my way of getting through life’s trials and difficulties. He gives me advice. It gave me a bunch of great friends and an overall understanding of who I am in this world.
Shah was born in Eden Prairie, Minnesota and moved to live with his grandparents in Gujarat for two years when he was three.
“My grandparents had a big influence on my religion,” Shah said. “They taught me a lot about religion, festivals and customs. I would definitely say they had a positive impact on me. Not only with my religion, but with my mother tongue, my language, which is called Gujarati.
Shah said he had worn a tilak since he was in third grade.
“I feel like it’s part of who I am,” Shah said. “I’ve been through a lot and I feel like my religion also helps me a lot in life. When I wear this uniform, it’s also an identity. But I feel like I have my whole identity when I have the Tilak Chandlo on my forehead.
Shah added that the United States allows its citizens to practice whatever they want.
“That’s what makes this country such a great country,” Shah said. “We are not persecuted for what we follow or believe. If it wasn’t for the first amendment [freedom with respect to religion, expression and peaceful assembly], I wouldn’t be able to do it at all. I couldn’t be who I am while being a soldier or even a citizen.
Shah’s religious renunciation contrasts with the Karnataka High Court’s recent decision to uphold the state government’s ban on wearing the hijab in educational institutions.
The court held that wearing the hijab was not an essential practice for Muslim women. She also held that the imposition of a dress code on students did not infringe “a category of rights protected by the Constitution, when they are ‘non-religious’ and ‘universally applicable'”.
The judges had noted that “the ethos of Indian secularism” was not the same as “the idea of separation between church and state as contemplated by the US Constitution”.
They had said that the “positive secularism” espoused by the Indian Constitution “is not the antithesis of religious devotion but includes religious tolerance”.