Handlebar was a moustache too far for Indian airline

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The Independent Online

For more than 40 years Joynath Victor De has cherished his moustache – grooming and caring for it daily with the love and attention one might normally furnish upon a favoured pet.

Over the decades, he says, it has earned him many admiring glances. After all, who could help but be impressed with such a handlebar specimen that now easily stretches across both cheeks?

But Mr De's employers did not see it that way. India's state-run domestic carrier, Indian Airlines – for which Mr De had worked since 1968 – dismissed him on the grounds that his moustache was too long. It was not that the airline was against moustaches per se, it insisted, simply that Mr De would never agree to trim his mighty splendour of facial hair.

Now India's highest court has become involved in this unlikely affair.

This week, in a case in which Mr De is suing his former employers, justices in the Indian Supreme Court expressed apparent dismay that the claimant had been fired simply for his moustache.

"How can a person with a moustache be removed? This is a democratic country," said judges H K Sema and Markandey Katju, according to the Press Trust of India. "This is shocking."

Mr De has been fighting his battle with the airline for some time. Having been first employed in 1968, he was promoted to the post of assistant manger of flight services in 1994. It was then that he fell foul of the rules.

While his bushy moustache fell within the airlines guidelines according to its 1991 Operating Rules Manual, a change of rules in 1996 deleted the section which gave the right for stewards to sport moustaches. What was fine in 1995, was no longer fine a year later, simply because of a change in the handbook.

"I never dreamt of trimming it. All the time I worked for the airline, my moustache attracted many adoring eyes inside the plane and on the ground," said Mr De, from West Bengal.

Fired in 1999 after refusing to trim it, he was reinstated – complete with his moustache – after a ruling by the Calcutta High Court found in his favour. Then the authorities decided instead to get rid of him through compulsory retirement.

Rod Littlewood, the vice-president of the British-based Handlebar Club, of which Mr De is a member, said it appeared that Indian Airlines was discriminating against him because of his moustache.

"I think it's atrocious. But it's not the first time this has happened," he said. "I cannot see any reason why he should not have his moustache. I could just about understand it if he was a fireman and there was a problem with the breathing apparatus, but I cannot see what the beef is with [his] moustache."

A spokesman for Indian Airlines said that at the time Mr De was disciplined, its rules did not allow wearing of moustaches, which could be unhygienic. He said some passengers might be "unnerved" by such a striking facial feature. The Supreme Court has given Indian Airlines four weeks to respond to Mr De's appeal.

Andrew Buncombe's Asian (con)Fusion independent.co.uk/asiablog