Srinagar: The Centre’s decision to extend the jurisdiction of the Central Administrative Tribunal’s (CAT) Chandigarh bench over Jammu and Kashmir has triggered widespread resentment in the newly created Union Territory (UT).
All major political parties, lawyers and members of civil society in J&K have criticised the move. The chief justice of the J&K high court even wrote to the Centre, asking for permanent benches of the CAT in J&K, but was rebuffed by the tribunal’s chairman.
When Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was still in place, any amendment made to the Indian Constitution applied to the state only through a route prescribed under Article 370. That is, the amendment would be accepted in the state only after the J&K cabinet agreed to it. Thus, provisions relating to tribunals (Articles 323A and 323 B), which were inserted by the Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976, were not applicable to J&K and neither was the Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985.
However, on August 5, 2019, the BJP-led Central government made all provisions of the Constitution applicable to J&K through the Constitution (Application to Jammu & Kashmir) Order, 2019, on the concurrence of the governor of J&K, who is a representative of the Centre. A day later, President Ram Nath Kovind, on the recommendation of parliament, declared that all key provisions of Article 370 would cease to be operative. These changes, effected unilaterally by the Centre, paved the way for the application in J&K of Articles 323A and 323B and the Administrative Tribunal Act, 1985, which govern the creation and functioning of the CAT and state administrative tribunals.
Before the reorganisation of J&K, the service issues of state government employees were adjudicated by the J&K high court, while those of Central government employees were heard by CAT. Now J&K cannot have its own tribunal to hear the issues of union territory employees because the 1985 law provides state administrative tribunals only for states.
The new order
On April 29, 2020, the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT) of the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, extended the jurisdiction of CAT’s Chandigarh bench over the J&K and Ladakh UTs. This means CAT’s Chandigarh bench will hear all matters of UT (formerly state) employees and Central government employees in J&K.
This move evoked widespread criticism in J&K. Political parties and lawyers’ bodies assert that it will hamper access to justice for the 4.9 lakh employees of the UT.
“How will a circuit bench of CAT Chandigarh do justice to employees here, when more than 31,000 cases relating to service matters are already pending in the high court?” asks former advocate general and senior lawyer Jehangir Iqbal Ganie. “It will be a tough task for a circuit bench to decide such a large number of cases.”
Ganie added that in the absence of a permanent bench in Srinagar or Jammu, litigants will find it difficult to cope with urgent matters given that they are supposed to approach the bench in Chandigarh directly.
The bodies that represent lawyers demand permanent CAT benches in Srinagar and Jammu rather than the extended jurisdiction of the tribunal’s Chandigarh bench to J&K.
In response to the criticism, the Centre said on May 1, 2020, that “no petitioner or lawyer will need to go to Chandigarh as such matters will be heard by the CAT bench in J&K itself.”
It added that the CAT bench will hold more frequent sittings in J&K to dispose of service matters of UT and Central government employees. “It is reiterated that earlier also the CAT bench used to hold its sittings in Jammu and Kashmir to dispose of service matters related to central government employees,” reads the statement.
Letter from the chief justice
Last week, J&K high court Chief Justice Gita Mittal wrote to Union minister of state Jitendra Singh, seeking the establishment of an administrative tribunal with multiple benches and permanent seats in Jammu and Srinagar.
In the letter, she said: “Only a single circuit bench of the Chandigarh bench of the tribunal would be hopelessly insufficient to provide efficacious dispensation to the disputants in service matters in the UT of J&K as well as in Ladakh.”
The chief justice also said that the pendency of service matters before the Jammu or the Srinagar wing of the J&K high court was more than the pendency before the principal bench in Delhi and way more than that before the administrative tribunals in Allahabad, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Jabalpur among others.
But Justice J.L. Narshima Reddy, chairman of CAT, rebuffed Justice Mittal’s recommendation. “The establishment of Benches at various places and to ensure disposal of the cases is the responsibility of the Tribunal and the High Court need not be so apprehensive,” reads the “clarification” issued by the CAT chairman.
He even reprimanded Justice Mittal for making the “contents of the letter public.” “DO letter happens to be the communication between its author and the addressee and it is not made public particularly when it is between highly placed dignitaries,” he said.
The CAT chairman even claimed that Jitendra Singh denied having received any such correspondence from Justice Mittal. “Since the News item was only about establishment of the Benches, and is a matter of relevance for the Central Administrative Tribunal, I contacted the Hon’ble Minister to know about the subject. He informed me that he did not receive the letter either in the form of a hard copy or through e-mail,” he said.
However, Justice Mittal has received support from different quarters for her recommendation.
“What was expected from the government and public representatives to be highlighted was advocated by Chief Justice Gita Mittal,” said Ravinder Sharma, chief spokesperson of the J&K Congress party.
In a tweet, the Peoples Democratic Party said the “clarification” issued by the CAT chairman is “contemptuous” and an “attempt to embarrass judiciary of J&K.”
B.S. Slathia, former president of the Jammu Bar Association, said the CAT clarification was a “direct and intolerable attack on the independence of judiciary.” In a post on Facebook, Slathia said: “Clarification issued by CAT chairman pertaining to a letter addressed by The Hon’ble Chief Justice of Common High Court of J&K and Ladakh UT to MoS in PM office, for permanent CAT benches in J&K, is a direct and intolerable attack on the independence of judiciary. Appeal to legal fraternity to stand united against such a clarification belittling our institution.”
State BJP embarrassed
The issue has embarrassed the state unit of the BJP, especially because personnel minister Jitendra Singh, is the party’s chief spokesperson for its J&K unit. It was his ministry which had issued the April 29 notification that extended the jurisdiction of the Chandigarh bench’s CAT to J&K.
Now, 31,641 pending service matters have to be transferred from both wings of the high court to the tribunal.
Meanwhile, a petition was filed by two Jammu-based advocates, Aditya Sharma and Rameshwar Padha, in the high court in the first week of May, which submitted that it is impossible for litigants and advocates to make a representation before the bench in Chandigarh due to geographic remoteness, financial constraints and unavailability of internet access.