Armed forces tribunals: Tour de force or damp squib?

The ‘Armed Forces Tribunal’ (AFT) came into being as a result of the 169th report of Law Commission of 1999, with “quick resolution of disciplinary and service matters” as its major aim. This was received warmly by serving personnel, veterans as well as authorities with the hope of a timely resolution of their long-pending litigation(s). […]

Armed forces tribunals
Armed forces tribunals

The ‘Armed Forces Tribunal’ (AFT) came into being as a result of the 169th report of Law Commission of 1999, with “quick resolution of disciplinary and service matters” as its major aim. This was received warmly by serving personnel, veterans as well as authorities with the hope of a timely resolution of their long-pending litigation(s).

So, the question to be asked is: Did we get the desired result? Has justice been served? It is necessary to take a critical look at this institution and list out major loopholes existing in the system so that corrective measures can be taken in time.

Unreasonable leniency for the applicants: Although it‘s part of the duty of AFT members to give a patient and thorough hearing to an applicant who is presumably fighting against entire state machinery to protect his/ her rights, the judgment of the AFTs are generally biased in favour of the applicant in most cases.

The same has been observed in pensionary cases where neither the applicant nor the organization was able to produce documents to support their respective claims due to the vintage of the case. Number of incidents abound to show that applications from an applicant are accepted after expiry of decades from occurrence of the event.

Delay in adjudication: Adding insult to injury, the final judgement rarely sees the light of the day before numerous adjournments owing to frivolous reasons ranging from non-convening of the bench to nonappearance of the applicant. Years are lost in the bargain and the impression, “Justice delayed is justice denied” is strengthened. If inordinate delay, intentional or otherwise, is to become the order of the day, is it not required to ask if such tribunals are needed in the first place? Or are we destined to feed yet another white elephant through the public exchequer?

Miscarriage of justice: Normally each bench of AFT has two members, namely a judicial member (a retired SC or HC Chief Justice/serving HC judge) and an administrative member (a retired two/ three-star officer of the army or its equivalent from the Navy or Air Force). AFTs being a quasi-judicial body, these members enjoy all privileges, authorised to their counterparts in higher judiciary of this country. But they are never held accountable for their errors in the same manner nor do they ever become subject of the public eye.

A few prominent examples where “miscarriage of justice” has been carried out include that of an Army Medical Corps (AMC) two-star couple duping the system by feigning disability at the end of their tenure and getting all benefits through AFT. Reinstatement of one Captain Rajib Phukan, an allegedly indisciplined and insubordinate officer who had voluntarily retired but then challenged his own retirement orders. The officer still struggles to pass a promotion exam for average intelligence despite being in service for 17 years.

He recently shot and killed a stray dog in cold blood in an intoxicated state’ and was arrested by Police for the same. Does a person with these morals deserve to represent an organisation like the Army? The credit for his acts must also go to Hon’ble AFTs who reinstated him and further emboldened him.

Misplaced sense of judicial activism: Lt Gen Manmoy Ganguly’s case in the AFT deserves a brief look as an instance of misplaced judicial activism. On 07 May 2018, the Hon’ble AFT at Delhi delivered a judgement in favour of Lt Gen Manmoy Ganguly, granting him the appointment of Director General Medical Services (DGMS) Army failing to realise that he was also in contention for becoming Director General Armed Forces Medical Services (DGAFMS), head of the tri-services medical fraternity.

Lt Gen Ganguly went on to become DGAFMS without heading either Naval or Air Force medical branches. The same trend has been in vogue since the judgment. A few pertinent questions need to be answered. Does the tribunal remain alive to the bitter truth that the practitioners in the AFTs do not shy away from solicitation? Are the AFT members aware that touts roam around in the vicinity of all record officers, ready to pounce on those ranks proceeding on pension with certain perceived grievances?

Do the honourable members not know that the learned practitioner of their courts plead the cases for an assured percentage from the likely monetary relief that amounts into multiple lakhs? It is also important to take into cognisance the huge percentages of AFT judgements which are overturned in the Apex Court in the favour of the Govt. Does it not display that the AFTS are at an error more often than not, while passing the judgements? None of these possibilities merits a denial, especially seeing the above-mentioned cases.

Accountability of AFT members: As a retired officer of the Armed Forces with huge experience and stature, an administrative member is expected to put his experience and professional wisdom to use for providing a correct perspective to intricacies related to service matters, which his judicial counterpart may not be privy to.

And yet, we see counsels of applicants winning seemingly impossible victories for their clients, merely on technical points. It is normally hoped that the presence of the administrative member would nullify an excessive emphasis on the “letter”, and the “spirit” of the statute would receive due importance but this is. This “holier than thou” attitude by such retired senior officers, especially after assuming an appointment in the AFTs is appalling.

The aim behind this critique is not to cast aspersions on any person involved with the process of AFT but to highlight the shortcomings of this institute which has far reaching implications on the very moral fabric of the armed forces of this nation. Due to logically untenable judgments of the AFTs in many cases, the very foundation of this discipline seems shaken.

Corruption, insubordination, moral turpitude and many similarly serious offences have been proven inadequate to cause ouster of rogue elements from the armed forces, courtesy the faulty process at the AFTs. The entire system of AFTs has been reduced to a ‚judicial mafia‘ which is “Of Them, By Them and For Them” without any consideration for the natural justice or fairness.

The armed forces have to carry an additional financial burden of fighting such cases for prolonged periods, only to make these mafia members richer. The most bitter fact that pinches the hearts of nation loving Indians is an avoidable diversion of the finances from defence budget for sustaining this unholy empire, whereas it could have been utilised for modernising our forces to save the precious lives of those who make the supreme sacrifice on the battlefield. It’s time that the faults existing within AFTs’ functioning are corrected and certain measures are taken in the interest of the justice. We can ill-afford it due to its grave and long-lasting ramifications not only on the armed forces but also on the security and safety of this country as a whole.