Darshan Shah, a person of Indian origin working in the United States Air Force, has been granted permission to wear a tilak while on duty, according to a press note from the Francis E Warren Air Force Base.

Shah, born into a Hindu family, had been seeking a religious waiver to wear tilak as part of his uniform since he started attending basic military training in June 2020. He was granted the waiver on February 22.

Shah works as an aerospace medical technician at the Francis E Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and has been assigned to the 90th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron of the US Air Force.

“Wearing the tilak chandlo every day to work is amazing, to say it in one word,” the press note quoted Shah as saying. “People around my workplace are giving me handshakes, high-fives and congratulating me, because they know how hard I’ve tried to get this religious accommodation approved.”

Shah had sought the religious waiver during training at a boot camp, but was asked to wait until he joined the tech school to pursue the waiver. At the tech school, he was again told to wait till he reached his first duty station.

Shah said that wearing the uniform of the US Air Force and tilak were his main identities.

“It’s who I am...Wearing it [the tilak] is special,” he said. It’s my way of getting through hardships and difficulties in life. It provides me guidance. It’s given me a load of great friends and an overall understanding of who I am in this world.”

Shah also said that his grandparents, with whom he lived for two years as a child, had a big influence on his religiosity, the press note mentioned.

“They taught me a lot about religion, festivals and customs. I would definitely say they had a positive impact on me,” Shah said. “Not only with my religion, but with my mother tongue, my language, which is called Gujarati.”

Shah said that he had been wearing a tilak since he was in the third grade.

“I feel like that’s a part of who I am,” said Shah. “I have been through a lot, and I feel like my religion is helping me through a lot as well in life. When I wear this uniform, that’s an identity as well. But I feel like I have my full identity when I have the Tilak Chandlo on my forehead.”

Shah added that the United States allows its citizens to practice their beliefs.

“That’s what makes this such a great country,” the press note quoted him as saying. “We’re 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 this at all. I wouldn’t be able to be who I am while being a military member or even a citizen.”

Shah’s religious waiver is in contrast to the recent Karnataka High Court decision to uphold the state government’s ban on wearing hijabs at educational institutions.

The court had held that wearing the hijab is not an essential practice for Muslim women. It had also held that prescribing a dress code for the students did not offend “constitutionally protected category of rights, when they are ‘religion-neutral’ 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 envisaged under American Constitution”.

They had said that the “positive secularism” espoused by the Indian Constitution “is not antithesis of religious devoutness but comprises in religious tolerance”.