The Supreme Court of India has taken note of a petition that calls for the removal of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) from the administrative control of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). A three-judge bench, presided over by Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud, heard the petition, which was filed by the Armed Forces Tribunal Chandigarh Bar Association (AFTCBA).
The AFTCBA expressed concerns that the MoD, which is involved in several cases before the AFT, might attempt to influence the tribunal’s functioning. This petition emerged following the transfer of judicial member Justice Dharam Chand Chaudhary from Chandigarh to the Kolkata bench of the AFT. The transfer occurred after the AFT chairperson initiated contempt proceedings against a senior government functionary within the MoD for failing to execute a December 2017 order related to pension payments to retired Naib Subedars of the Indian Army.
The bar association also claimed that the execution petitions previously overseen by Justice Chaudhary were transferred to the AFT’s principal bench in Delhi.
While the Supreme Court bench decided not to interfere with the transfer after reviewing a note from AFT chairperson Justice (retd) Rajendra Menon, explaining the routine transfer’s circumstances, it agreed to examine a broader issue. Specifically, the court will consider whether the AFT should remain under the administrative control of the MoD, given the MoD’s interests in matters brought before the AFT, or if control should be transferred to the Ministry of Law and Justice. Since its establishment in 2009, the AFT has been under the administrative control of the MoD.
The AFT Bar Association raised this concern in its petition, emphasizing the need for the tribunal’s independence, citing past Supreme Court decisions.
Attorney General R Venkataramani, representing the MoD, dismissed the petitioner’s claims, characterizing them as a “collusive” attempt and an abuse of the legal process. He also revealed concerns within the MoD about irregularities in the handling of disability pension claims, describing them as a “racket.”
The note provided by the AFT chairperson clarified that Justice Chaudhary’s transfer was unrelated to the cases under his jurisdiction. The note highlighted the non-functioning of the regional benches in Kolkata and Guwahati due to the absence of a judicial member. With Chandigarh being the only bench with a surplus of judicial members, Justice Chaudhary, as the senior and experienced member, was temporarily transferred to Kolkata until the vacancy was filled.
The Supreme Court expressed trust in the chairperson’s explanation, noting the need to grant flexibility to the chairperson in administrative decisions.
The bench, addressing the concerns raised by the AFT Bar Association, stated that it would consider the possibility of removing the AFT from MoD’s control. The Union government has been directed to provide its response on this matter within a month.
The court had previously noted that Justice Chaudhary’s transfer warranted further scrutiny and requested a report from the chairperson. The transfer order was issued on September 25, and the Supreme Court directed that Justice Chaudhary should not assume charge at Kolkata while also restricting the disposal of the execution petition related to his jurisdiction without permission from the top court. The Union government has been given three weeks to submit its response.
Sources By Agencies