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Above: P Pramod Kumar was cleared by the apex court of all charges but the Tamil Nadu government is yet to give him a fresh assignment 

Opinion is divided among Tamil Nadu bureaucrats about the apex court decision restricting suspension of government officers to “short duration”

~By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

In a ruling with far-reaching consequences, the Supreme Court has held that suspension of a government employee must necessarily be for a short duration only. The apex court said this last week while upholding the revocation of suspension of P Pramod Kumar, Inspector General of Police, Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court also upheld the Madras High Court’s judgment which quashed the charge memo issued against Kumar by the CBI.

Recalling a 2015 Supreme Court judgment, the division bench consisting of Justices SA Bobde and L Nageswara Rao said: “This Court in Ajay Kumar Choudhary Vs Union of India, (2015) 7 SCC 291, has frowned upon the practice of protracted suspension and held that suspension must necessarily be for a short duration only.” Kumar was an IPS officer of the 1989 batch hailing from Bihar and belonging to the Tamil Nadu cadre. When he was posted in 2009 as Inspector General of Police (IGP) in the Western Zone of Tamil Nadu, comprising important districts like Tiruppur, Coimbatore, Erode and others, a scam came to light in that region. Called the “Paazee scam”, the modus operandi of the promoters of Paazee Forex Trading Company was to collect money from people on the promise that it would be tripled in just a few months. A large number of people deposited money only to find out much later that the concerned company was basically fraudulent in nature. Thousands of cheques issued by the company bounced, sending investors into a state of panic.

The depositors’ anger forced the police to take immediate action. This was when Kumar, who was the IGP of the zone, made his entry. It was alleged that Kumar received ₹1.85 crore from the Paazee Company to protect three directors of the firm. Initially, the case was handled by the Tiruppur police. Then it was handed over to the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department or CBCID of the Tamil Nadu police in February 2010. Later, on February 18, 2012, the case was handed over to the CBI due to the alleged large-scale involvement of police officers of Tamil Nadu. On May 2 the same year, Kumar was arrested by the CBI in New Delhi. He was suspended on May 10, 2012, by the Tamil Nadu government and also issued a charge memo by the CBI.

Money Talks

A curious aspect of this saga is the advocate whom suspended police officer Pramod Kumar hired to fight his case in the Supreme Court. When former Union Finance Minister and Senior Counsel P Chidambaram appeared for Kumar in the apex court, it raised eyebrows, particularly among politicians and serving and retired top bureaucrats. Those who lost their hard-earned money in the ‘Paazee scam’ are furious, but they did not go overboard in displaying their anguish, disapproval and disappointment. “Chidambaram is a great lawyer. He is one of the finest legal brains India has ever produced. In fact, somebody should represent Pramod Kumar. Suppose there is a person who is economically poor and not in a position to hire a lawyer, the court will bring him a lawyer from the free legal aid board. Kumar has a prerogative to hire any lawyer of his choice, and equally, Chidambaram has a right to represent any client, irrespective of heinous crimes and charges levelled against a person,” said one of the victims. “Chidambaram is not only a lawyer, but also a politician so this will not go down well with the people who lost their money in this scam,” says G Satheesh Babu, a small grocery shop owner in Coimbatore and a close relative of a woman who lost over one lakh rupees in the scam. “The irony of the situation is that not only myself, but also our entire family including that particular woman who lost her money, were dedicated Congress supporters for four generations,” adds Satheesh Babu.

This situation, of top politicians–cum– lawyers representing a known criminal or going against the wishes of almost the entire population of a state on a particular issue, has affected the Congress party in the past too.

In October 2010, Congress spokesperson and senior Supreme Court lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi appeared in the Kerala High Court for top lottery owners of Kerala. At that time, the Congress was aggressively campaigning against lotteries in Kerala. In fact, the Congress spokesperson in New Delhi, Janardan Dwivedi, remarked in an open press conference: “The party has taken serious note of Singhvi’s action. The matter is under consideration by the party and therefore, it is implied that he (Singhvi) will not brief.”

Just a couple of hours after Dwivedi’s statement, Singhvi announced, “No conflict of interest was ever intended, it was purely under personal capacity. Nevertheless, keeping in view the sentiments, larger interests and interests of the party, I have decided not to appear in this case.”

Kumar challenged his suspension and disciplinary proceedings before the administrative tribunal. The tribunal lifted the suspension, but refused to quash the charge memo issued against him. Then Kumar went to the Madras High Court, challenging the trial court order. On January 12, 2017, the Madras High Court upheld the tribunal’s order which lifted Kumar’s suspension and also quashed the disciplinary proceedings and exonerated him, stating that there was no credible evidence to suspend him and also no material available to issue a charge memo.

Challenging this, the Tamil Nadu government went to the Supreme Court and a bench headed by Justices Bobde and Rao heard the case. After hearing both sides, the judges ruled that there was no credible evidence available against Kumar and hence upheld the Madras High Court order. It was at this stage that the Supreme Court held that suspension of a government employee must necessarily be for a short duration only.

Opinion is divided among senior and retired bureaucrats about the long-term impact of the verdict. Some say it is a complicated one and may affect the fight against corruption. “The apex court says that suspension must be for a short period only. There are hundreds and thousands of corrupt officials in Tamil Nadu. The total strength of Tamil Nadu government employees is slightly over 11 lakh. Out of this, a few thousand employees are under suspension even now. A majority of them were charged with indulging in corruption. Now, even before the disciplinary committees clear them of all charges, they have to be reinstated by revoking their suspension orders, as per the Supreme Court judgment in the Pramod Kumar case. This will have far-reaching consequences. Out of the few thousand employees under suspension, even by conservative estimates, there will be at least a few hundred heavily corrupt officers. Reinstating them will create a nightmarish situation for the government. I strongly believe this judgment may have the potential to affect, at least at a moderate level, the fight against corruption. It’s sad that the highest court of the land has not taken this reality into consideration while delivering its judgment,” says a recently retired deputy secretary level officer of the Tamil Nadu government.

Suspension is a peculiar issue as far as Tamil Nadu government officials are concerned. For example, a 54-year-old state government employee is suspended on some charges, whether a clear corruption case or breach of the service rules like participating in a political activity, etc. The suspended employee will get half of his last drawn salary. In the above example, if the concerned employee was drawing ₹50,000 as his monthly salary, then after suspension he will receive only ₹25,000 from the next month onwards. At the age of 58, he will retire (in Tamil Nadu the retirement age of state government employees is 58). But after retirement, he will not get anything, ie neither half the salary he received, nor pension.

Some officers say this judgment of the Supreme Court is a ticklish one. “I am not saying this judgment is a bad one. But at the same time, I cannot accept this fully. There is huge corruption in Tamil Nadu. And among those suspended, I personally know that a few hundred are heavily into corruption. They will never change. Reinstating them immediately after a stipulated period will definitely not help the government’s sincere efforts to, if not completely, but to a large extent, eradicate corruption,” says A Venkatathiri, a 75-year-old former Tamil Nadu government employee.

But there are others who take a contrary view. They refer to the Ajay Kumar Choudhary Vs. Union of India case in which the Supreme Court had clearly pointed out that “the currency of a suspension order should not extend beyond three months, if within this period, the memorandum of charges or chargesheet is not served on the delinquent officer or employee; if the memorandum of charges or chargesheet is served, a reasoned order must be passed for the extension of the suspension. As in the case in question, the government is free to transfer the concerned person to any department in any of its offices within or outside the state, so as to sever any local or personal contact that he may have and which he may misuse for obstructing the investigation against him. The government may also prohibit him from contacting any person, or handling records and documents, till the stage of his having to prepare his defence”. So, it would not be appropriate to say that the Supreme Court has quantified suspension in a loose timeframe. Rather, the judgment is unique in the sense that it reinforces the concept of suspension being punitive in nature if it is for an indeterminate period, or if its renewal beyond three months is not based on sound reasoning contemporaneously available on the record.

They also reject the fears expressed by some that the order will affect the war on corruption. They say the order of the Supreme Court does not talk about punishment in corruption cases or otherwise. The order mainly deals with the cases of suspension of All India Services officers, which technically is not considered punishment. It in no way gives respite to those indulging in corrupt practices, but provides a shield to those who are being harassed by way of prolonged suspension without justifiable reasoning. It also focuses on the irregularities of the disciplinary authority in cases dealing with All India Services officers.

Also, the Court in its order has not disputed the power or jurisdiction of the state government for continuing the officer’s suspension pending criminal trial. There is no doubt that the allegations made against the officer are serious in nature. The order also talks about the liberty given to the investigating agency to approach the Court, in case the officer indulges in tampering with evidence. The Court also observes that no useful purpose would be served by continuing the officer’s suspension. The government of Tamil Nadu has the liberty to appoint the officer to a non-sensitive post as indeed it has legal options in the form of filing review and curative petitions before the apex court itself.

As of now, it is not clear as to what the Tamil Nadu government is going to do next in the matter. Whether the government will immediately appoint him somewhere else or if it will wait for a few more months, especially given that the Lok Sabha elections are around the corner, is the main question. After the apex court verdict, the Tamil Nadu government has no option but to reinstate him in service but the question on everyone’s lips is: where will he be accommodated?

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