The Supreme Court on Monday effectively stayed the transfer of Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) judicial member Justice Dharam Chand Chaudhary from the principal bench at Chandigarh to the Kolkata bench of the tribunal.
A Bench of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra also sought an explanation for the transfer from the AFT Chairperson. It said in its order,
"We direct that AFT Chairperson in a sealed cover informs the Supreme Court Registrar as to why the transfer was given effect to. Pending further orders Shri Chaudhary need not assume charge in Kolkata. The execution applications being heard in Chandigarh shall not be disposed of without leave of this court."
It went on to note,
"Ordinarily, this Court is circumspect in interfering with orders involving transfers. But here a judicial member of AFT has been transferred from Punjab to Kolkata. Bearing in mind the conventional wisdom by which the excercise of power of judicial review is subject to self imposed restraints it is needed to note the grievance of the Bar Association."
The Court was hearing a plea by the AFT Bar Association at Chandigarh seeking a stay on the transfer order issued by the AFT Chairperson. The Association had alleged that the transfer was a consequence of the strict orders passed by Justice Chaudhary against senior government officials of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The Bar Association has been on indefinite strike to protest the transfer of Justice Chaudhary, which it termed a "direct assault on the independence of the judiciary."
While transferring Justice Chaudhary, the Chairperson had also transferred to himself the contempt case filed against a Defence Accounts Department officer for failing to implement judgments of the Supreme Court, a case that was slated to be heard by Justice Chaudhary before his transfer.
After hearing arguments highlighting this chain of events, the Bench noted,
"Petitioner submits that transfer is mala fide and this needs to be appreciated at a correct stage. At this stage it appears that orders passed since December required Centre to comply. In these circumstances, the transfer would merit close scrutiny. The transfer of a judicial officer in the background where he was dealing with applications seeking compliance of orders for pension to Naib subedars."
The Bar Association also argued that the control of the Union Defence Ministry over the AFT is contrary to Constitution Bench judgments of the Supreme Court. The Court issued notice in the plea, and directed that the AFT Chairperson's report be submitted before the next date of hearing, on Friday, October 13.
Thereafter, the AFT bar associations at Jammu and Lucknow also expressed solidarity with the AFT Chandigarh Bar Association in objecting to the transfer of Justice Chaudhary.
More bar associations have since joined in supporting the AFT Chandigarh Bar Association in its protest.
These associations include the district bar associations in Chandigarh, Panchkula and Kurukshetra, and the Veteran Air Warrior Association in Haryana.
The Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) Bar Association is the latest association to join the protest against the transfer.
The Bar Assocation had written another letter to the CJI, alleging that Defence Minister of India Rajnath Singh openly admitted to interfering in the transfer of Justice Chaudhary.
The letter claims that during an event conducted by the Defence Accounts Department on October 1, the Minister openly acknowledged the Ministry's involvement in the transfer just before a contempt case was to be heard.
The letter also referred to the Minister urging members and the Chairperson of the AFT a few days earlier to slow down case disposal, stating that "justice hurried is justice denied."