01 March 2019
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a plea by Lt. General Ravi Dastane (since retired) challenging the appointment of then Lt. General Dalbir Singh Suhag as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) Eastern Command, which was a precursor to his appointment as the Chief of Army Staff.
Dismissing the petition by Dastane for "lacking in merit", the bench of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Hemant Gupta said that an officer has "no vested right to claim promotion on the basis of seniority alone. But that does not mean that the authority entitled to make the appointment must ignore seniority."
"The emphasis on fitness in every respect is an indicator that the post is a selection post", the court said, pointing out that the seniority that brings with it experience of handling situations and experience in perspective and planning can't be ignored.
"Officers of the army who attain the rank of Lieutenant General progress through the hierarchical structure after fulfilling rigorous criteria of assessment. The principle that the appointment of an Army Commander is made by selection does not require that the criterion of seniority should be ignored," said Justice Chandrachud.
The principle that seniority alone does not confer a right to appointment to a selection post does not mean that the authority making the appointments must be oblivious to seniority, the court said.
"Placed below the COAS, the post of Army Commander is of crucial significance to the organisational structure of the Army," it said.
Seniority may be a relevant consideration as it brings with it "experience of organisation, experience in handling situations and experience in perspective and planning," the court said. The post of Army Commander, however, "remains a selection post," it said.
While making appointments to such crucial posts which carry enormous functional responsibilities bearing on the defence needs of the armed forces and ultimately of the nation, a "range of relevant considerations can be borne in mind," the court said.
Having said this, the court said: "It would not be appropriate in the course of judicial review to confine the appointing authority to a narrow range of considerations. The appointing authority is best suited to determine who among the officers in the rank of Lieutenant General is suited for appointment against a vacancy."
Dastane had challenged the appointment of Suhag as the GOC-in-C Eastern Command which paved the way for his appointment as the next Army Chief succeeding the then incumbent Gen Bikramjit Singh.
When the names of Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag as GOC-in-C Eastern Command and Lt. Gen Sanjiv Chachra as GOC-in-C Western Command were sent to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, there was no administrative, disciplinary or vigilance proceedings against Suhag.
However, while their names were being considered, a disciplinary vigilance (DV) ban was imposed on Suhag by the then Army Chief Gen V.K. Singh and it was communicated to the Cabinet Secretariat.
This resulted in putting on hold Suhag's appointment as GOC-in-C Eastern Command.
However, Suhag's appointment as GOC-in-C Eastern Command was cleared after Gen Bikramjit Singh reversed the DV ban by Gen V.K. Singh after going through the response by Suhag to the show cause notice issued to him.
Suhag retired as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) on December 31, 2016 while Chachra, who was appointed GOC-in-C Western Command, retired on May 31, 2014. Dastane retired on September 30, 2014.
General Dalbir Singh, the third respondent, was appointed the Chief of Army Staff and retired from service on December 31, 2016.