An overview on Ranjit Thakur v Union of India

This article has been written by Dakshita Sharma Katare, Sushant University, Gurugram and curated by Himanshu Raj of CNLU, Patna.

The Concept behind the Case

The legal case of Ranjit Thakur v Union of India 1987 AIR 2386 is a case pertaining to Summary Court Martial.

Court Martial literally means a trial conducted in a military court or tribunal. In India, Court Martial is of four types, namely as- GCM, DCM, SGCM and SCM. Here, GCM stands for General Court Martial, DCM stands for District Court Martial, SGCM’s full form is Summary General Court Martial and SCM stands for Summary Court Martial. All the four of them have been defined along with their powers and features mentioned in the Army Act, 1950.

Summary Court Martial or SCM is the ground level court martial procedure with some features entirely unique to its own. It has been constituted to look after the issues of smaller nature. Its function is to punish the accused (a member of Indian Army), a soldier for any legal offence committed by him/her other than murder or rape of a civilian. The trial of these two offences is conducted in the regular courts, like any other citizen of India. It has the authority to sentence the offender in a grave manner, except giving a capital punishment and a long term imprisonment. It has the power to award with the punishment of imprisonment up to one year, if the officer conducting the SCM is of a rank Lieutenant Colonel or above and up to three months, if the officer conducting the SCM is of a rank Major or below. Any Commanding Officer of the corps, department or detachment to which the accused belongs can hold his/her SCM. That Commanding Officer solely constitutes the court and acts both as a judge and prosecutor. This power granted to the Commanding Officer has led to the biased and disproportionate judgements in the SCM. This power had been granted to maintain strictness and army discipline. But now, many feel that their rights are being hampered with, with all the supreme powers vested in the hands of the Commanding Officer who conducts the Summary Court Martial. Though the SCM is also attended by two other officers or Junior Commissioned Officers, yet they have no say in the proceedings and play almost no part in it.

In addition to this, in a SCM, the accused is not entitled with some counsel or defending officer in order to defend himself. But he is permitted to take the help of a friend in assisting him during the proceedings for defence purposes.

By and large, the system or the pattern followed in Summary Court Martials has led to a discontentment to those who have been martialed. This has led to several notable cases of appeal in the High Court and Supreme Court related SCM. One such case is Ranjit Thakur v Union of India.

Scenario: The Layout of the Case

In this case, Ranjit Thakur had sent a representation to the higher officers, in which he complained about the ill-treatment of his commanding officer towards him. This act of his was deemed to be an offence; hence by Section 80 of the Army Act 1950, he was given a rigorous punishment of being held handcuffed in the guard cell for 28 days. While serving this punishment, he committed another offence, this time of not obeying a lawful command given by his senior officer. He had not eaten the food he was ordered to eat by Subedar Ram Singh. By Section 41 (2) of the Act, he was summary court martialed for his act, just the next day of his commission of second offence, by his commanding officers in the presence of two officers junior to the latter. The result of the SCM was that not only did he plead guilty, but also was sentenced with an yearlong rigorous imprisonment along with being dismissed from the service by the addition  of clause that he was unfit for any future civil employment

For relief, he used Article 164 of the Act to gain remedy from the General Officer Commanding who rejected his appeal. He then appealed to the High Court which too granted no relief and rejected his appeal. Hereafter, he moved to the Supreme Court by filing a Special Leave Petition.

Guiding Factors: The Aforementioned Sections of the Army Act 1950

The Section 41 (2) of the Indian Army Act 1950 states that in case of disobedience of a lawful command of a superior officer, the offender is liable to be convicted by court martial.

The Section 80 of the same Act mentions the punishment to be given to any soldier except officers, JCOs and warrant officers. These include imprisonment in military custody, detention or confinement up to 28 days, extra guards or duties, deprivation of position (nature of appointment/ rank/ pay), severe reprimand or remand, fine (up  to 14 day’s pay of a month), penal deductions, any field punishment up to 28 days.

The Section 164 of the Act provides with the means to gain remedy against an order, finding or sentence of court martial. It mentions the procedure to gain the remedy and the authority from whom the remedy can be asked for.

Verdict: The Decision of the Court

The Supreme Court decided that the participation of the Commanding Officer had rendered the proceedings Coram non-judice which means “not before a judge” (i.e., the legal proceedings took place without jurisdiction and in the absence of the judge). In addition to this, the Apex Court also stated that the punishment was strikingly disproportionate to the offence committed by the appellant. Hence, the court allowed the appeal and quashed the proceedings and the subsequent orders of the Summary Court Martial. Also, the court ordered that appellant should be provided with all the monetary and service benefits once again, but it decided to not grant him the compensation for the one year long rigorous imprisonment already undergone by him.

Conclusion: The Critical Analysis

This case clearly reflects the rigidity and strictness of the Army rules and is a proof to the fact that the immense power in the hands of the Commanding Officer during SCM can be misused. The SC judgment is a motivation for all those who faced biased verdicts in SCM. The SC verdict is just in every aspect as it respects the Army Act 1950 and thus, does not allow compensation for the imprisonment. But it does consider the other orders disproportionate as relieving the appellant from service along with rendering him unfit for any civil service is too harsh and of greater magnitude than decided even by the statute.

It is commendable that the Supreme Court has looked into the matter of disproportionate punishment and relieved the appellant by providing him justice.