With 5,262 judgments in 287 working days at the Chandigarh bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), the legacy of Justice Surinder Singh Thakur, who retired on Thursday, cannot be matched. On an average, he delivered 18 judgments a day.
With no judicial member appointed as his replacement, the AFT will close down till the arrival of the next judge, even as over 7,000 cases are still pending at the Chandigarh bench. After retiring from the Himachal Pradesh high court, he had joined AFT on March 9, 2015. He made the offices of central government and defence forces implement orders as he started attaching properties. In an interview with Hindustan Times, he spoke on a range of issues.
With your retirement, the AFT is closing down as the government has failed to appoint any new judicial member. Your own appointment was delayed. Your thoughts on system of appointments here?
My appointment was delayed. There is no coordination between departments to expedite matters before a person retires. I have learnt that the selection committee had sent the files for appointment, but these have been pending at the top-level for 2-3 months. A person loses interest in appointment if matters are delayed. Then, no one will come to the AFT.
Your opinion on whether high courts must hear appeals against AFT orders?
If appeals are allowed to be filed before the HC, then orders will not get implemented. The Central government will get stay on orders. The HC will also be burdened and expeditious disposal may not be possible.
What is your take on effectiveness of the AFT Act?
There are a lot of problems. Executing agencies are not defined. We do not have infrastructure to get our orders executed. Various departments, police, home do not respond to us in case of arrest of a person. There are no defined powers for proceeding under contempt. Non-bailable warrants are returned on flimsy grounds.
You started attaching properties of defence institutions which increased the rate of implementation of orders and also passed directions that cost imposed on central government will be passed on to petitioners.
I don’t know why execution petitions were pending before me. When we have the power to pass orders, we can execute it. I resorted to provisions of Sections 19 and 20 of the AFT Act. There is also a HC judgment that says that a tribunal has the power to execute orders. Taking a cue, I invoked the provisions of Section 21 of the Civil Procedure Code to get the compliance of orders done by attaching the properties of the central government. When I joined, the cost imposed on defence authorities had accumulated at the registry. This was finally returned to the ministry of defence (MoD). It was like taking cost from one pocket and putting it in another pocket. I ordered that cost be returned to petitioner because he is harassed a lot. We also passed orders to recover cost from defaulting officers who fail to comply with Supreme Court orders.
Why is the pendency of cases so high at the AFT?
After the formation of the AFT, intra-departmental orders passed under the Army Act have come under judicial review. Previously, very few matters were being agitated by any personnel in the HCs, where due to case load the matters used to be stuck. Army authorities did not fear that they were also to follow mandatory provisions. After the
AFT, the number of cases filed have increased. The defence authorities must help the AFT decide matters. Orders passed should be disseminated to all to avoid procedural lapses.