Thursday, February 29, 2024

Supreme Court finds directions of Armed Forces Tribunal de-hors its judgement, orders accommodation of woman naval officer in Permanent Commission

On February 26, 2024, Supreme Court's bench of .Chief Justice of India Dr Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud and Justice Hima Kohli delivered the judgement in Cdr Seema Chaudhary v. Union of India (Review Petition (Civil) No 1036 of 20230 in Civil Appeal No 2216 of 2022 exercising its inherent jurisdiction. The judgement was authored by Dr. Chandrachud. It found the directions of Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) was de-hors its earlier judgement. It ordered accommodation of Commander Seema Chaudhary, a  woman naval officer in Permanent Commission.   

The petitioner was commissioned in the Indian Navy as a Short Service Commissioned Officer (SSCO) in the Judge Advocate Generals’ (JAG) Branch of the Indian Navy on 6 August 2007. She was promoted on 6 August 2009 as a Lieutenant and, thereafter, on 6 August 2012 as a Lieutenant Commander. During the course of her service, she was granted an extension in November 2016 for a period of two years and, thereafter, for an equivalent duration in August 2018. On 5 August 2020, the petitioner was informed that she would stand released from service on 5 August 2021. The petitioner was an officer who was recruited before the Policy Letter of 26 September 2008 was issued. The Policy Letter stipulated that while women SSCOs would be considered for grant of Permanent Commission (PC) in stipulated branches (JAG, Education and Naval Architecture), the letter would have prospective effect. It was as a result of the application of the Policy Letter dated 26 September 2008 that the petitioner was initially not considered to be eligible for the grant of Permanent Commission. In the Court's directions dated  17 March 2020 in Union of India v. Lieutenant Commander Annie Nagaraja (2020) contained in paragraph 109.1 and 109.2, the Court noted that the statutory bar on the enrolment of women in the Indian Navy was lifted in terms of the notifications issued by the Union Government on 9 October 1991 and 6 November 1998 under Section 9(2) of the Navy Act. Moreover, this Court held that the policy decision of the Union Government dated 25 February 1999 would govern the conditions of service of SSCOs including women officers in regard to the grant of Permanent Commission in terms of Regulation 203 Chapter IX Part III of the 1963 Regulations.

The Court had specifically directed that the Policy Letter dated 26 September 2008, making it prospective and restricting it to specified cadres, would stand quashed and set aside. This Court directed that all SSCOs in the Education, Law and Logistic Cadres who were “presently in service”, shall be considered for the grant of PC. This entitlement arose from the Policy Letter dated 25 February 1999 read with Regulation 203 of Chapter IX of the Naval Regulations 1963. It is not in dispute that the case of the petitioner for being considered for the grant of Permanent Commission squarely arose in terms of the directions contained in paragraph 109.5 of the judgment. The petitioner was considered for the grant of Permanent Commission (PC) after the judgment of this Court, but has been denied on the ground that there were no vacancies.  

The petitioner had earlier moved to the Court under Article 32 of the Constitution, but was relegated to the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) by an order dated 24 August 2021. The AFT had issued certain directions in its judgment dated 3 January 2022.These  directions were challenged before the Court in Civil Appeal No 2216 of 2022, which was disposed of by the Court by its order dated 20 October 2022. To meet the ends of justice would made the Court to recall the order which was passed by it Court on 20 October 2022 in Civil Appeal No 2216 of 2022 pertaining to the petitioner on February 26, 2024. The Court observed that "Any directions de-hors the judgment of the Court could not obviously be issued."

The Court's order reads: "We accordingly order and direct that in the peculiar facts and circumstances of this case, the case of the petitioner for the grant of PC shall be considered afresh by reconvening a Selection Board. The Selection Board shall consider the case of the petitioner on a stand alone basis since it is common ground that she was the only serving JAG Branch officer of the 2007 batch whose case for the grant of PC was required to be considered. The consideration by the Selection Board shall take place uninfluenced by any previous consideration of her case for PC and uninfluenced by any observations contained in the order of the AFT."

The order clarifies that in the event that pursuant to the directions of the AFT, if a proportional increase in the vacancies is required to be created to accommodate the petitioner, this shall be carried out without creating any precedent for the future. We have issued this direction under Article 142 of the Constitution so as to ensure that while no other officer is displaced, a long standing injustice to the petitioner is duly rectified. Any Annual Confidential Report which has not been communicated to the petitioner shall not be considered for the purpose of the grant of Permanent Commission. The exercise of considering the petitioner afresh for Permanent Commission shall be carried out on or before 15 April 2024.

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