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Reason To Celebrate: FINALLY AN ARMED FORCES TRIBUNAL, by Col (Retd) P K Vasudeva, 4 Feb 08 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 4 February 2008

Reason To CelebrateFINALLY AN ARMED FORCES TRIBUNALBy Col (Retd) P K Vasudeva, PhDProf, ICFAI Business School Chandigarh 

The Centre has cleared a redrafted Bill for a separate tribunal for the Armed Forces that will deal with all cases of indiscipline in the ranks, service issues and court martial sentences. It has also decided to give the Armed Services personnel the right to appeal to a special tribunal against court martial and unfair decisions on promotions. This tribunal will not deal with routine matters of postings and transfers. It will also not interfere with the normal working of the Defence Forces.


Similar tribunals already exist in several developed countries, including the U.S, the U.K. EU and Australia. The reason why there are very few court martial and supersession cases in these countries. Moreover, the redressal is within three months resulting in a high morale. These tribunals deal with the war crimes as well as human rights cases which are on the increase in India due to the deployment of forces to tackle terrorism and insurgency in the urban areas.


It is unfortunate that the nod for the amended Armed Forces Tribunal Bill came nearly two years after it was presented in the Rajya Sabha and the Standing Committee on Defence recommended changes. The tribunal will lighten the Government’s burden as well as bring down the number of military cases that are pending with the higher judiciary.


As it stands, there were more than 9,300 cases concerning the Army and a lesser number regarding the Navy and Air Force that were pending in the Supreme Court and high courts till May 2007. The cases of moral turpitude and corruption were the highest in the Armed Forces followed by more than 10,000 complaints on supersession of promotions in various ranks and more than 7500 cases of court-martial since 2000. This forced the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to take a decision of establishing an Armed Forces Tribunal on the recommendations of the Apex Court and as demanded by the Armed Forces personnel who alleged that the justice was not being meted out to them.


The Bill is likely to be presented to Parliament during the forthcoming Budget session. According to Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources those who have been given death sentences or sentenced to life imprisonment by a court martial may also appeal to the tribunal. This is a special provision provided in the Bill as the sentence is of an extreme nature. Initially the tribunal would be hamstrung to deliver justice on time due to the large number of cases pending before the judiciary and might require to work over-time.


The decision to set up the Armed Forces Tribunal is also an effort to keep disputes in the military services from spilling over into the civil courts. Remember, the Air Force officer Anjali Gupta’s case who appealed to Delhi High Court against a court-martial verdict that recommended that she be cashiered.


The Armed Forces Tribunal Bill has laid down the mechanism for filing an appeal. “The purpose of the tribunal is to provide the Armed Forces personnel the right of appeal against court-martial verdicts and on service conditions and seniority matters but not in the matter of postings,” explained a source.


According to the Bill, the three-member tribunal will be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court or a retired Chief justice of a High Court and have a judicial and an administrative member. The tribunal’s chairperson would be appointed by the President in consultation with the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice and the other members by the Government in consultation with the chairperson, from a panel of the three services. The administrative member would be of a rank equivalent to Major General or above. Once a serving Major General was nominated to the tribunal, he would have to demit office.


Besides, an appellant would have to exhaust the existing system of redress (court martial) before approaching the tribunal. There would be no short cuts. However, where there were inordinate delays in the redressal of grievances, the personnel could be allowed to move the tribunal. Also, the principal bench of the tribunal would be in Delhi and subsidiary benches would be later set up in major cantonments like Ambala, Pune, Lucknow, Kolkata, Bangalore, Jammu/Srinagar, Assam etc.


The establishment of a tribunal was almost a foregone conclusion as the Supreme Court had criticized the Indian military justice system in the case of Lt. Col. P. P. Singh vs. Union of India in 1982. While pointing out the blatant deficiency in the military law of the right of appeal against the order of court-martial, the Court strongly recommended the need for a separate Armed Forces tribunal to meet the end of the justice for the defence personnel.


In another case, regarding supersession of two Air Marshals in December 2004, the Government, on behalf of the Indian Air Force, approached the Supreme Court against the order of the Delhi High Court that had given the decision of restoration of promotion to the Air Marshal. The Apex Court upheld the judgment of the Delhi High Court, passed strictures and criticised the IAF for its biased and arbitrary promotion policy. Thus, embarrassing the IAF and the Government.


The Armed Forces personnel have for a long time been demanding the formation of a constitutional body to redress their grievances, which have been growing thanks to various factors, including their increasing role in maintaining peace within the country and on the borders. True, the provisions of redressal of grievances exist under the Army, Navy and Air Force Acts but they are outdated and insufficient to provide speedy justice.


Under the existing laws, the Armed Forces personnel have to submit representations or complaints through prescribed channels. In cases where the redressal prayed for was not granted, the intermediate authority would then forward the complaint to the body for final disposal. However, given that the service conditions of the Armed Forces differed greatly from the civilians owing to the exigencies involved, a separate tribunal was necessary. Not only had the personnel to work in different geo-climatic conditions such as deserts in the west, glaciers in the north, rains in the east and the high seas in the south but were also separated periodically from their families. Further, at times of war, they were expected to sacrifice of life for the country.


The Bill also states that cases referred to the tribunal must be settled within 90 days as is laid down in the Consumer Protection Act 1986 otherwise these too would be no different from the civil courts. Thus, defeating the exercise of delivering timely justice. Any delay over 90 days would mean that the person would not be able to reap the benefit of justice as Armed Forces personnel retire at an early age. In sum, speedy redressal would result in raising the morale of the troops. ----- INFA

(Copyright India News & Feature Alliance)

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