By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd Apr 13
Discontent over legal recourse simmers within the military, with officers and enlisted personnel saying that the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) --- a judicial tribunal that soldiers must petition for justice before approaching the civil courts --- usually obliges the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in its judgments. The ministry’s control over AFT appointments, funds, infrastructure and manpower, produces judgments that suit the MoD, allege these critics.
The Punjab & Haryana High Court and the Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence have already accepted the conflict of interest in the MoD’s control over the AFT, given that most cases that the AFT hears has the MoD as a respondent. But the MoD is resisting the move to place the AFT under the Ministry for Law and Justice.
A series of MoD responses to queries submitted under the Right to Information (RTI) illustrate the ministry’s hold over the AFT. The answers expose the MoD’s control over foreign trips by AFT members; and the ministry’s grant of canteen shopping facilities to retired judges who are “Judicial Members” on AFT benches, based on the logic that they are “MoD employees”. The responses reveal that “Administrative Members” on AFT benches, who are retired generals, are called in by army formations to “sensitize” them to the cases that they are hearing. The MoD’s answers also reveal that members are appointed to benches apparently without background checks on their records.
The MoD admits paying over Rs 67 lakhs for five “official foreign visits” by the AFT chairperson and members. In letter F. No. 10(10)/2012/AFG(PB)/RTI dated 24th July 2012, in response to an RTI query by Colonel (Retired) Satwant Singh, the MoD says, “As per the records available… a sum of Rs 67,85,109/- was incurred on foreign tours of Hon’ble Chairperson and Members.”
In the same letter the MoD admits that canteen cards, which entitle defence employees to shop at discounted rates from Canteen Stores Department (CSD) outlets, are also provided to the retired judges who are hired as “Judicial Members” of the AFT. The MoD explains “CSD Canteen Cards (Grocery) have been issued to Judicial Members of AFT, in view of the fact that their salaries are paid from Ministry of Defence (Civil) Estimates.”
“This is clear conflict of interest. How can judges rule against the MoD in any case brought before the AFT, when the MoD is regarded as the employer? And if the judge is not an MoD employee, how is the MoD providing subsidized canteen cards?” asks a high-ranking serving officer whose case is before the AFT, but who says he is doubtful about obtaining real justice.
The MoD’s relationship with the AFT is also evident from the ministry’s response to another RTI question by Col Satwant Singh, asking whether the Lucknow-based Central Command had proposed meeting the senior military officers in the AFT bench (Administrative Members, as they are called) in order to “sensitize (them) about the important cases being handled by them and about other issues relating to functioning of the AFT.”
In letter No. 149002/RTI/C/Edn dated Oct 19, 2012, Central Command did not deny that such a letter had been written, but refused to divulge any details saying, “Info(rmation) is exempted under Section 8(I)(e) of Right to Information Act, 2005. Hence cannot be provided.”
Section 8(I)(e) denies information “unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.”
AFT judgments are increasingly drawing criticism. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has recently overturned several AFT decisions that denied relief to defence veterans, especially disabled soldiers. The AFT has drawn bitter criticism from ex-servicemen’s bodies for allegedly toeing the MoD’s line, even when veterans were being unjustifiably denied their due. The MoD’s ironically named Department of Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare is criticized for its reflexive opposition to veterans’ appeals for disability benefits.
In one recent case, the court pulled up the AFT for passing off as “constitutional” disabilities that the rules list as “affected by stress and strain of service”. In another case, in which the AFT had supported the MoD in dismissing a pension claim, the high court termed the AFT’s judgment as ‘myopic,’ reminding it that pension is not a bounty but is the property of an individual.