Chandigarh AFT Head's Transfer 'Under Pressure From Defence Ministry' Triggers Protests

The Chandigarh Armed Forces Tribunal bar association has said Justice Dharam Chand Chaudhary's transfer is a direct assault on the “independence of judiciary”.

Chandigarh: The Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) – a judicial body responsible for adjudicating service matters related to the armed forces in India – is in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

As soon as Justice Dharam Chand Chaudhary, heading the Chandigarh bench of the AFT, was transferred to Kolkata on Monday (September 25), the local bar association called the transfer a direct assault on the “independence of judiciary”.

The AFT chairperson had transferred Justice Chaudhary citing “administrative reasons in public interest”. However, the Chandigarh AFT bar association in a letter to the Chief Justice of India alleged that Justice Chaudhary’s transfer was a result of the strict orders passed by him against senior officials of the Ministry of Defence.

Asking the CJI to cancel Chaudhary’s transfer, the letter alleged that it all started when Justice Chaudhary took a grim view of non-implementation of various orders passed by his bench in the year 2017.

After repeated opportunities and non-adherence to submissions made on affidavit, he issued bailable warrants against senior MoD officials in contempt/execution applications in May this year, the letter further said.

Senior MoD officials then approached the Punjab and Haryana high court but failed to get any relief and were instead directed to file a compliance report to the Chandigarh AFT bench.

The letter then stated that after losing the case in the high court, the MoD officials instead of implementing the high court orders moved an application for transfer of contempt cases from the Chandigarh bench to the chairperson AFT in Delhi.

As per the letter, without issuing notice, the chairperson on the first date of hearing on September 15 transferred contempt cases from the Chandigarh bench to his own bench, despite the matter having been already adjudicated by the Punjab and Haryana high court.

Then on September 25, the chairperson transferred Justice Chaudhary, who in the past served as acting Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh high court, giving him less than 12 hours to relinquish charge.

Disturbing trend

Chandigarh AFT bar association president R.S. Panghal and secretary Ajay Sheoran said in their letter that the message behind Justice Chaudhary’s transfer is loud and clear – that if you pass orders for strict compliance of judgments against senior government functionaries, then this will be the result. Hence all AFT members should refrain from passing strict orders against senior MoD officials.

They stated that it was truly heartbreaking that after steps were taken to get the orders of the AFT executed which were lying unimplemented for years, the chairperson had first transferred the contempt proceedings from the Chandigarh bench to himself. He then also transferred the judicial member who was ensuring compliance and adherence to the rule of law.

“Not only that, the chairperson also transferred the execution proceedings pending in the other benches of the principal Bench to his own Bench,” they stated.

According to them, this brings to attention the functioning of the AFT under the MoD, which reflects a total conflict of interest and is in contempt of the laws laid down by the constitution benches of the Supreme Court.

Panghal and Sheoran cited UOI Vs R Gandhi (2010) and Madras Bar Association Vs UOI (2021) wherein it was held that the tribunal cannot be made to function under the parent ministries against which it has to pass orders and should be made to function under the Ministry of Law and Justice or the National Tribunal Commission.

They said that the continued functioning of the AFT under the MoD is a contempt of the above two judgments of the Supreme Court.

They then asked the CJI to save the dignity of the institution, the majesty of law and judicial independence, and take strict action in the matter by treating this as a letter petition by quashing the transfer.

They also asked for removing the AFT immediately from the control of the MoD so that the confidence of litigants and the legal fraternity is not threatened.

Bar in protest

Bar president Panghal told The Wire that in their general body meeting held on Tuesday, it was decided to abstain from work indefinitely to protest the transfer of Justice Chaudhary.

He said that they will take all possible measures to revoke the transfer since it was not only arbitrary but an assault on judicial independence.

He said that the independence of the AFT must be restored since it is an important judicial body for the welfare of thousands of armed forces personnel.

Secretary Ajay Sheoran said that Justice Chaudhary’s transfer order was illegal and done under pressure from the MoD.

“The treatment of Justice Chaudhary was unacceptable. He was given less than 12 hours to relinquish charge. We are in protest mode until his transfer is revoked,” he added