While sending out a very strict, sensible and significant message, the Apex Court as recently as on December 16 has in an extremely learned, laudable, landmark, logical and latest judgment titled CISF and others vs Santosh Kumar Pandey in Civil Appeal No. 8671 of 2015 in exercise of its civil appellate jurisdiction has laid down that police officers are not required to do moral policing. This was held while upholding the dismissal of a CISF personnel who was found to have harassed a couple at night. It must be informed here that the Court was deciding an appeal that was filed by the Central Industrial Security Force against a judgment of the Gujarat High Court which directed the reinstatement of a CISF officer named Santosh Kumar Pandey who was dismissed from service for misconduct.
At the very outset, this brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment authored by Hon’ble Mr Justice Sanjiv Khanna for a Bench of the Apex Court comprising of himself and Hon’ble Mr Justice JK Maheshwari sets the ball in motion by first and foremost putting forth in para 1 that, “This appeal, which has been preferred by Central Industrial Security Force (For short, “CISF”.) and two others, takes exception to the judgment dated 16.12.2014 in Special Civil Application No. 13718 of 2004, whereby the High Court of Gujarat has allowed the writ petition preferred by Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey and directed his reinstatement in service with 50% back wages from the date of his removal.”
To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 2 that, “Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey, who was working as a constable with the CISF, was posted at the Greenbelt Area of the IPCL Township, Vadodara, Gujarat, where he was charge-sheeted vide memorandum dated 28.10.2001 on allegations of misconduct, which allegations we shall refer to in some detail subsequently. Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey having denied the allegations, Deputy Commandant – N.K. Bharadwaj was appointed as the Inquiry Officer, who vide his report dated 28.01.2002 held that the charges levelled against Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey stand proven. Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey made a representation, and thereby questioned the inquiry report and claimed that he should be exonerated of the charges. The disciplinary authority, however, vide order dated 23.02.2002, agreed that the charges were proved and penalty of removing Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey from service was imposed. Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey had preferred an appeal that was rejected by the appellate authority vide order dated 08.05.2002. Revision petition filed by the Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey was rejected vide order dated 08.04.2003.”
As it turned out, the Bench then states in para 3 that, “These orders, including the inquiry report, were challenged by Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey vide Special Civil Application No. 13718 of 2004, which, vide impugned judgment, has been allowed, as per the directions set out above.”
Without mincing any words, the Bench then observes in para 5 that, “In our opinion the reasoning given by the High Court is faulty on both facts and law. To avoid prolixity, as there is a short issue that arises for consideration, we are not separately referring to the arguments by both sides, as these have been considered during the course of our reasoning.”
Be it noted, the Bench notes in para 6 that, “We begin by referring to the allegation of misconduct by Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey, on the intervening night between 26.10.2001 and 27.10.2001, when he was posted as a Constable on night duty at the Greenbelt Area of the IPCL Township, Vadodara, Gujarat. As per the chargesheet, on 27.10.2001 at about 1:00 a.m., Mahesh B. Chaudhry and his fiancée had passed through the area on motorcycle and had stopped in the corner, which is when Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey had come forward and had questioned them. Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey taking advantage had told Mahesh B. Chaudhry that he would like to spend some time with his fiancée. When Mahesh B. Chaudhry had protested and did not agree, Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey had asked Mahesh B. Chaudhry to give something to him. Mahesh B. Chaudhry had then given the watch he was wearing to Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey. On the next day, i.e. 27.10.2001, at about 8:00 p.m., Mahesh B. Chaudhry came back to the P.T. Gate with his friend Pradip Raghavan and had reported the incident. Senior officers took notice. Mahesh B. Chaudhry wrote a written complaint stating the facts. Respondent No.1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey was called and confronted. What transpired has been recorded and noted in the inquiry report, and the same will be noticed below, when we refer to the statements of the witnesses.”
It would be worthwhile to mention that the Bench specifies in para 14 that, “The order passed by the disciplinary authority considers the objections raised by Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey, and refers to the statements and evidence on record to hold that the charges were proven. On the question of withdrawal of the complaint, he elaborated that Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey had returned the watch and thereupon, Mahesh B. Chaudhry had returned to the CISF Office and made a written request stating that he would like to withdraw the complaint. We agree that the letter to withdraw the complaint will not nullify or exonerate Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey of the charges. Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey had accepted he had taken the watch from Mahesh B. Chaudhry on the intervening night of 26.10.2001 and 27.10.2001, which was returned after Mahesh B. Chaudhry had made a written complaint on 27.10.2001. On return of the watch, Mahesh B. Chaudhry had made a written request to withdraw the complaint.”
It cannot be glossed over that the Bench then states in para 15 that, “Paragraph 8 of the impugned judgment only partially records and refers to the facts stated by Mahesh B. Chaudhry, but does not refer the background, including the incident on the intervening night of 26.10.2001 and 27.10.2001. Significantly, the High Court did accept that Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey had returned the watch that he had taken from Mahesh B. Chaudhry. The last portion of the said paragraph, in fact, admits that Mahesh B. Chaudhry, on being questioned, had stated that Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey had made a demand of spending time with his fiancée.”
It is worth noting that the Bench then observes in para 17 that, “We have reservations regarding the reasoning given in paragraph 10 of the impugned judgment as it fails to take notice and properly apply the law of judicial review. Judicial review is not akin to adjudication of the case on merits, and adequacy or inadequacy of evidence, unless the court finds that the findings recorded are based on no evidence, perverse or are legally untenable in the sense that it fails to pass the muster of the Wednesbury principles (See Paragraph 14 in Central Industrial Security Force and Others v. Abrar Ali, (2017) 4 SCC 507.). Power of the High Court under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India enables exercise of judicial review to correct errors of law, including procedural law, leading to manifest injustice or violation of principles of fairness, without normally venturing into re-appreciation of evidence (See Paragraphs 12-16 in Union of India and Others v. P.Gunasekaran, (2015) 2 SCC 610.). The writ court, when disciplinary action is challenged, is primarily concerned with examination of the decision making process, which requires satisfaction that the competent authorities have held inquiry as per the prescribed procedure, and have duly applied their mind to the evidence and material placed on record, without extraneous matters being given undue consideration, and the relevant factors have been cogitated. The conclusions of fact, which are based upon evaluation and appreciation of evidence, when meticulously reached by the authorities, should not be interfered with merely because the court may have reached a different conclusion. Thus, error of law is apparent in the reasoning vide paragraph 10 of the impugned judgment.”
Most significantly, the Bench then leaves not even an iota of doubt making it indubitably clear holding in para 18 that, “On the question of proportionality of punishment, we have to observe that the facts in the present case are startling and distressing. Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey is not a police officer, and even police officers are not required to do moral policing, ask for physical favour or material goods.”
Finally, the Bench then concludes in para 19 holding that, “In view of the aforesaid factual and legal position, we accept the appeal and set aside the impugned judgment. Accordingly, Special Civil Application No. 13718 of 2004 filed by Respondent No. 1 – Santosh Kumar Pandey before the High Court will be treated as dismissed. The order of removal from service passed by the disciplinary authority is upheld. In the facts of the case, there shall be no order as to costs.”
All told, we thus see that the Apex Court has taken a zero tolerance approach in this leading case towards the men in uniform who indulge in misconduct and condemn the moral policing by the police. This alone explains why Apex Court upheld the dismissal of Santosh Kumar Pandey who was a CISF police officer from service for harassing a couple at night. The Gujarat High Court judgment was set aside and the punishment of dismissal was thus again restored.
(The writer is a lawyer based in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh)