17 judges sacked. Was it because of their caste?


Baba Umar
New Delhi

Ravi Shankar Sai, 53

PS Paikra, 51

Lakhan Singh, 59

Mansukh Karketta, 54

Narsingh Usendi, 55

Photo: Ub Photos

FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION, can be a lifelong struggle for those born on the ‘wrong’ side of the caste divide — even if they have served as judges for 20 years. When 17 Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe judges were ordered to take compulsory retirement by the Chhattisgarh government on 26 March, they naturally wondered if they were victims of personal or casteist vendetta. Having served and been promoted over the years in the natural course, why were they suddenly fired? What makes their predicament all the more galling is that the Chhattisgarh government has not provided any reasons for this forcible retirement, except for a vague, sweeping statement that their performance was not up to the mark.

While the 17 were sacked, the general category judges got extensions despite poor grading

Apparently, the state law department took the decision on the basis of the Chhattisgarh High Court’s recommendation and was reportedly equivalent to the punishment for serious ‘misconduct’ and alleged involvement in ‘nepotism’. However, all the SC/ST judges, most of whom have 5-10 years of service still remaining, smell a “grand conspiracy” in the decision. For them, as for the litigant public, justice will be a long time coming. They have already appealed against their summary dismissal in the Consumer Forum and the special court that hears cases under the Scheduled Caste/Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act. Then, if this does not serve the purpose, the aggrieved judges also plan to appeal in the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the early retirement forced on the judges is no time to relax. “My past records and performance speak for me. I want to know the yardsticks they chose to fire me. If it is my caste, they should spell it out clearly,” says PS Paikra, 51, of Korba district.

Paikra, who was serving as additional district judge in Durg, has nine more years of service remaining. Until last October, he worked as additional district judge (ad hoc) at a fast-track court and was soon regularised as additional district judge in Durg district court.

“They regularised me for my performance, usefulness and integrity. I don’t understand what happened in a few months that I was considered unfit for the task,” he says.

In the unprecedented decision, these judges, who had either completed 20 years in service or were more than 50 years old, were ordered to retire compulsorily under sub-rule 2 of Rule 13 of the state’s Higher Judicial Service (Recruitment and Condition of Service) Rules, 2006. The recommendation was made to the state government by the legal department, saying that this decision was based on their performance. The recommendation was accepted by the state government and orders on their retirement issued.

OF THE total 17 judges, three are SC and rest are ST. They were serving as district and sessions judges or additional district and sessions judge at Surguja, Dantewada, Bilaspur and Raigarh districts.

Narsingh Usendi, 55, another ST judge was posted as additional district and sessions judge in Bastar district’s Kanker area and retired in ‘public interest’ through an order 2309/756/XXI-B/C.G./2011 sent by the government’s law and legislative affairs department.

He says had he performed badly during his decades-long career, there would have been complaints and departmental investigations against him “which actually never happened”. So, if there is no body of evidence against him, why the sudden dismissal which amounts to a stigma?

“I won’t challenge the rule but its implementation. It has been used to target officials belonging to the tribal community,” alleges Usendi. Adding, “Without any notification, preliminary investigation or departmental inquiry, the government rule to compulsorily retire officials has been bent.”

Usendi and his colleagues also point out that this is against the principles of natural justice.

Usendi says the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) — that takes note of judicial officers’ work every year — is prepared by district judges and other higher judicial service officers “who have maltreated us by giving us lower grades”.

Outlining his case, he alleges, “Had it been judges of SC/ST category preparing this report, we wouldn’t be targeted. There is no district judge of SC/ST category which is why our ACR has been wrongly prepared. All this, to trigger our expulsion.”

Most of the ‘compulsorily retired’ judges are from 1976-87 batches and it is feared the government decision has an underlying agenda — to benefit 20 judicial officers of the 1990 batch who will get promoted to the positions they vacate.

Mansukh Karketta, 54, who was among 12 ST judges slated to get selection grade, can’t believe his fate. He says the 2006 law has triggered fear among many other SC/ST judicial officers who are on the verge of notching up 20 years of judicial service or crossing 50 years of age.

“Adding to the insult is the method in which ACR was prepared. There are many in general category who have been rated as ‘worst-performing officers’ every year according to their ACRs, yet they have been retained,” says Karketta of 1987 batch.

Citing examples of several other judges from the general category, he said they have been granted extensions despite “poor grading”. “I still had six years of service remaining but my caste proved unfavourable for me as well as others,” he says.

As usual, officials chose to remain tightlipped about the issue.

Law Secretary AK Samantary told TEHELKA that the order had come from the high court and the government had little role to play in the matter. “Besides, the decision was taken during the previous Principal Secretary’s term. I have recently joined. I can’t say much about it. It would be better if you ask someone in the high court,” he said.

When contacted, Chhattisgarh High Court Registrar General Arvind Srivastava refused to speak on the issue. “We don’t discuss official matters with the press,” he said, before ending the telephonic conversation.

Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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