- The BAPS follower, who’s currently posted at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, was approved in February to wear the red dot on his forehead.
An Indian American airman in the U.S. Air Force has been granted a religious waiver to wear a Tilak Chandlo — red dot on the forehead — while in uniform. Senior Airman Darshan Shah, who’s currently posted at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, was approved in February, according to a press release issued by his base. An aerospace medical technician assigned to the 90th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, Shah first applied for the waiver during basic training in June 2020, the press release said.
The Eden Prairie, Minnesota, native is a follower of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). On its website, the BAPS explains that “the tilak-chandlo has been a Hindu tradition, especially in the Vaishnav Sampraday, for thousands of years as a symbol of victory, auspiciousness, and belonging to a particular faith.” It was introduced to the Swaminarayan sect by their leader, “and today, millions of devotees wear the tilak-chandlo on their forehead,” the website says.
Shah has been wearing the red dot since he was in third grade. In a press release issued by the Warren Air Force Base a month after receiving the waiver, he said it’s a major part of his identity.
At age 3, Shah moved to India to live with his grandparents in Gujarat. “My grandparents had a big influence on my religion,” said Shah in an Oct. 29 press release. “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.”After two years with his grandparents, he moved back to the U.S. While in Minnesota, he went to the temple every Sunday to volunteer.
Shah says wearing a tilak chandlo on his uniform is special. “Not only was I wearing the uniform, which is one of my main identities, being a member of the Air Force, but I was also wearing my tilak chandlo,” said Shah. “It’s who I am. Wearing it is special. It’s my way of getting through hardships and difficulties in life. It provides me with guidance. It’s given me a load of great friends and an overall understanding of who I am in this world.”
According to military.com, it is the first religious accommodation of its kind at Warren and would appear to be one of the first in the entire Air Force.
Shah has been seeking a waiver allowing him to wear the Tilak Chandlo in uniform since attending Basic Military Training in June 2020. At the time he said he plans to serve in the Air Force for at least 20 years. He would like to become a commissioned officer and serve as a doctor after earning his degree.
Shah is grateful that he lives in a country where he has the freedom to openly express his religious freedom, both in and out of uniform. “We live in a country where we’re allowed to practice and have faith in what we want,” said Shah. “That’s what makes this such a great country. We’re not persecuted for what we follow or believe. If it wasn’t for the first amendment, 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.”
News of Shah’s approval follows reforms by the Air Force in recent years to accommodate a wide range of religious traditions in uniform. In February 2020, the service updated its dress and appearance policy, creating a comprehensive process for airmen to request waivers for religious apparel such as hijabs and turbans or facial hair worn for religious reasons. Several months later, Airman 1st Class (A1C) Gurchetan Singh, became the first Sikh American to secure a religious accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard.