Major D.S. Sahney retired from the Army 30 years ago. Last year, a relative told the 76-year-old veteran that since he became partially disabled while serving in the Army, he was entitled to a higher pension. Sahney filed a petition before the Armed Forces Tribunal to get an enhanced pension, and within a few months, got a favourable judgment.
Although the tribunal awarded Sahney enhanced pension, it said he would receive arrears for only three years. It gave the Army three months to implement the order or else file an appeal in the Supreme Court. Seven months later, Sahney is yet to receive the enhanced pension and the arrears. He has filed an appeal in the AFT for the implementation of the verdict. “I support poor girls living close to my home in Delhi for their marriage. I was planning to use the arrears for financing e-rickshaws for youngsters,” said Sahney. These days, he can be seen outside the tribunal's office with his packed lunch and a water bottle, waiting to hear whether he should file an appeal in the Supreme Court or continue the battle in the tribunal. “Winning a case in the AFT is not of much importance as the forces do not implement its orders. As the AFT lacks the contempt of court powers, the institution has become a toothless tiger,” said Sahney’s lawyer, Major S.S. Pandey.
The AFT, which was set up in 2009, enjoys the status of a High Court. It was established to provide quick justice for military personnel. But the tribunal does not have adequate judicial members who are responsible for passing judgments. There is, however, no shortage of military personnel to serve on the tribunal as senior officers join the AFT soon after their retirement.
Seven years after it was set up, the principal bench of the tribunal in Delhi has become almost non-functional. “All three benches in Delhi, including the chairman’s bench, are lying vacant. After the last chairperson, Justice Prakash Tatia, left for Rajasthan four months ago, there is no chairperson as well,” said Pandey.
These days, a judge comes from either Kochi or Guwahati to hear cases in Delhi as a temporary measure and decides on cases along with the administrative members, who are mostly officers of the rank of lieutenant general. Former Supreme Court judge and founding chairperson of the tribunal, Justice A.K. Mathur, called the situation appalling. “With lack of judges in important benches, we will soon reach a situation where the AFT would become defunct,” he said. Regional benches in Chandigarh, Lucknow, Kolkata, Guwahati, Chennai, Kochi, Mumbai and Jaipur are also facing manpower shortage, and by the end of the year, there would be 16 vacancies of judges.
Along with the shortage of judges, the lack of power to punish or summon people against whom cases have been filed is also hurting the tribunal. “As chairman, I had demanded that contempt powers should be given to the tribunal which otherwise is handicapped in getting its orders executed. The attitude of the Army has to change as the generals should understand that tomorrow they may have to knock the door of the AFT,” said Mathur. The issue was raised by the tribunal before the parliamentary panel on defence, but the Army raised objections even against its officers appearing before the AFT, saying it would hamper operational readiness.
Another issue affecting the AFT is that of conflict of interest. The tribunal is under the ministry of defence, which appoints the judicial and administrative members. The ministry, however, is also a party in a large number of cases taken up by the tribunal. Recently, an outgoing judge applied to the ministry for an extension. He wanted a five-year extension and retire at the age of 70 instead of 65. His request was lying with the ministry till the last week of his retirement. It was during this period that a case filed by Major General Ranu Singh Rathore against the ministry and senior Army officers was shifted to five different benches of the AFT within a fortnight. He had previously won a case in Lucknow in which he exposed a nexus between ministry officials and Army officers for illegal promotions on the basis of forged documents.
Because of such conflict of interest, ex-servicemen have been demanding that the AFT be put under the ministry of law and justice instead of the ministry of defence. Recently, while hearing a plea from Major Navdeep Singh, the Punjab and Haryana High Court asked for bringing all tribunals under the law ministry. The retired officer had filed a petition on the basis of a Supreme Court judgment which said tribunals getting support from their parent ministries was not a healthy situation and they should all be under the ministry of law.
Vir Bahadur Singh, general secretary of the organisation called Voice of Ex-servicemen, pointed out that High Courts had been removed from the list of justice-seeking avenues of armed forces personnel. “In High Courts, we could file PILs and could file cases as organisations, but this facility is not available in the AFT where we have to appear as individuals. This makes justice expensive and unaffordable for most jawans,” he said.
He also pointed out the issue of conflict of interest in appointing lieutenant generals as members of the tribunal since petitioners have to approach them against decisions they had taken as Army commanders. “Within a few days of retirement, the lieutenant generals join these courts and take decisions on these very matters. How do we get justice?” asked Vir Bahadur.
Former AFT administrative member Lieutenant General Thomas Mathew agreed with the view that the tribunal should be under the law ministry, but he said there was no conflict of interest in appointing former officers as judges. He said an analysis of the judgments of the tribunal would show that most of them did not go in favour of the establishment. "I was there for more than four years at the AFT in Kochi. I never got any special request from any service headquarters regarding any particular case or hearing,” said Mathew. “I can say that about other colleagues of mine as well. So, there is no conflict of interest.”