Without getting into reasons for the judiciary-government stand-off over delays in filling vacancies in judicial appointments, what is generally overlooked is that a key element of the system by which justice is administered in the military now stands compromised. Of the 17 benches of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) which is more than an appellate authority only five are functioning as a result of their having no judicial member. While courts across the board are suffering on that score, the implications for the military are even less palatable: the strict “discipline” imposed on defence personnel makes an avenue for redressing grievances all the more necessary. And conversely, bringing delinquent personnel to book is delayed because “cases” remain pending for inordinately long periods.
There are close to 11,000 cases pending in the Army alone. Some submariners in the Navy have alleged personal vendetta in not being cleared for higher ranks in their specialised field and are seeking the intervention of the Tribunal. A committee set up by the defence ministry has noted, “It is a matter of grave concern that out of the total litigation related to the defence services pending before various Courts and Tribunals, a major chunk is of applications/petitions pending for execution of judgments and decisions of Courts and Tribunals”. Filling the vacancies will not be easy, few judicial officers are keen on serving on the AFT; it takes some time for new entrants to understand and appreciate the special brand of discipline requisite to efficient functioning of the military machine.
Even without the shortages, the Tribunal and its benches have not fulfilled the promise held out when they were constituted seven years ago. The system itself has its shortcomings: it functions under the defence ministry Rs “against” whom many of the appeals are filed so there is confidence-deficit among those seeking redress. And until a higher judicial verdict was delivered, the ministry, and the Service Headquarters ignored the Tribunal&’s directives. That it lacks “contempt” powers weakens its authority. And since defence personnel have fewer courses than other officials for seeking “justice”, the impact is indeed grave for those who feel they have not got a fair deal.
Prior to the setting up of the AFT a common grouse of military personnel was that civil courts took much too long to dispose of their cases Rs now the same is holding true of the AFT. An added sore point is that the defence minister and his top bureaucrats, as well as the “brass” accord low priority to the Tribunal Rs so too does the judiciary it would appear. The casualty has been efficiency and morale, as critical to the national security effort as weaponry.