Community Certificate Verification Must Be Completed Expeditiously; Shouldn't Be Cancelled Ex-Parte Except In Most Exceptional Circumstances: Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has observed that the proceedings questioning the caste certificate of an employee, except in the most exceptional circumstances, can’t be conducted ex-parte.
The bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari further observed that in the proceedings where the genuineness of an employee belonging to a certain community is under consideration, the question doesn’t only pertain to his employment but also concerns his identity, and hence, the person must have a right to be heard and must be given the right to cross-examine the witnesses.
With this, the Court directed the Indian Bank to grant all post-retirement benefits to one R. Sundaram (appellant) who had served the bank for 38 years before he retired as a Scale 3 officer.
The appellant had moved the Supreme Court against the Madras High Court’s 2020 Judgment and order wherein his challenge to the denial of his post-retirement benefits was dismissed.
The case in brief
The Appellant had secured employment with the Indian bank on the basis of a community certificate dated November 15, 1975, certifying that he was from the Konda Reddy Community, a Scheduled Tribe.
During his tenure in the bank, the district collector concerned, without conducting any inquiry, canceled the community certificate granted to him. Aggrieved by the same, he moved to the High Court in 1998.
In August 2009, the HC remanded the matter back to the Tamil Nadu State Level Scrutiny Committee to conduct a fresh inquiry.
However, even after the High Court order, the verification with regard to his communal status of the Appellant was not concluded, and this led to the Appellant’s retirement without realization of his retirement benefits.
Now, to seek his post-retirement benefits, he again moved to the High Court in 2013 by way of filing a writ plea, and his plea was disposed of in July 2014 by directing the Scrutiny Committee to complete the enquiry within a period of eight weeks.
The enquiry got concluded in November 2017 with the finding that the Appellant, in fact, did not belong to the Konda Reddy Community.
Challenging the same, he again moved to the HC, wherein the Court, in December 2017, remanded the matter back to the scrutiny committee whilst quashing the show cause notice issued to him and the enquiry report.
The Committee again held an inquiry (ex-parte) and concluded that his caste certificate was not correct based on vigilance reports and other expert reports.
Against the same, he moved the HC, however, his plea and subsequently, a review plea was dismissed, prompting him to move to the SC.
Arguments put forth
Before the SC, it was argued that as per HC’s December 2017 order, the Appellant was to be given due opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses, and copies of all documents relied on by the Respondents were to be furnished to the Appellant, however, the same was not done.
It was further submitted that at the time when he was given the cessation order, no enquiry against him was pending and that in the entire process, he has been subject to harassment for almost 19 years.
On the other hand, the respondents argued that notice was duly served on the Appellant, and despite that, he did not show up in the proceedings.
It was also argued that due to the Appellant not showing up, the proceedings were adjourned, but even after the adjournment the Appellant did not show up, and hence the committee had no option but to pass its decision ex-parte.
Analysis by the Supreme Court
At the outset, the Court expressed its displeasure over the treatment meted out to the appellant as it observed that while applying for the post, he had supplied the Caste Document and the same was verified, however, after being given employment, the document re-evaluation proceedings were kept pending for 19 years, dangling like a sword on his head.
“After serving the Respondent bank for 38 years, the Appellant, two days before his superannuation received his cessation order without there being any proper enquiry. Further, on communication made to the respondent no.1, it was found that on the date of passing the cessation order, no case was pending against the Appellant. To us, a very clear pattern of harassment is visible, and there appears to be a sinister motive against the Appellant and his right to pensionary benefits,” the Court observed.
Further, referring to Madhuri Patil and Another Vs Additional Commissioner, Tribal Development and Others (1994) 6 SCC 241, the Court noted that the exercise of verification of community certificate must be completed expeditiously.
“In the present case however, as has been mentioned above, there has been an inordinate and unexplained delay of 19 years, an amount of time which cannot be fathomed within the ambit of reasonable time,” the Court further observed as it noted that two reports declaring the community certificate of the Appellant as fake were submitted after inordinate and unexplained delay.
Taking note of the fact that in the appellant’s case, the Court noted that though the inquiry was conducted twice, however, on both occasions, the opportunity of hearing was not accorded to the appellant, making it a case of violation the principle of “Audi Alteram Partem”, a principle of natural justice.
In this regard, the Court stressed that any person, whose entire identity, and their past, present and future rights are challenged, must at the least be given an opportunity to be fairly heard.
“A community certificate in cases of scheduled tribe communities, unlike any other piece of paper, is an acknowledgment of a person belonging to a community which has faced years of oppression. The Constitution of India guarantees certain rights to people from Scheduled Tribe communities on grounds of historical injustice, and for the translation of such rights from paper to real life, the community certificate in most cases becomes an essential document. This certificate, whilst being an acknowledgment of history, is also a document that tries to rectify such historical injustice by becoming a tool that fabricates constitutional rights into reality. In such a scenario where the validity of a community certificate is put to question, keeping in mind the importance of the document and the effect it has on people’s rights, the proceedings questioning the document cannot, except in the most exceptional circumstances, be done ex-parte,” the Court observed (emphasis supplied).
Against this backdrop, the Court found that the burden of proof on the respondents to disprove the nature of the certificate had not been discharged and hence, the Court presumed the community certificate of the Appellant to be genuine and held that the Appellant would be entitled to the post-retirement benefits accrued to him by way of his 38-year long service.
The Court also that the notice of the proceedings was in fact served upon one Mr. Sudarshan and not upon R. Sundaram, the appellant.
With this, impugned orders of the Madras HC were set aside and the Indian bank was directed to grant all post-retirement benefits to the Appellant which were denied to him along with 6% Simple Interest on account of unnecessary withholding of payment, from the date the payment was due to the date of actual payment
Case title - R. Sundaram vs. The Tamilnadu State Level Scrutiny Committee and Ors.
Case Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 207
Pension- The right to pensionary benefit is a constitutional right and as such cannot be taken away without proper justification-the grant of pensionary benefits is not a bounty, but a right of the employee, and as such cannot be denied without proper justification - Para 11 & 12.
Community Certificate- Court is appalled at the treatment given to the Appellant by the Respondents herein. The Appellant, before applying to the post reserved for ST candidates supplied all documents required in support of his claim as a ST candidate, and got the documents verified and approved. After being given employment however, the re evaluation of the authenticity of the documents of the Appellant have been kept pending for 19 years, dangling like a sword on the Appellants head - Para 13
Community Certificate - The exercise of verification of community certificate must be completed expeditiously - Para 16
Community Certificate - A community certificate in cases of scheduled tribe communities, unlike any other piece of paper, is an acknowledgment of a person belonging to a community which has faced years of oppression. The Constitution of India guarantees certain rights to people from Scheduled Tribe communities on grounds of historical injustice, and for the translation of such rights from paper to real life, the community certificate in most cases becomes an essential document. This certificate, whilst being an acknowledgment of history, is also a document that tries to rectify such historical injustice by becoming a tool that fabricates constitutional rights into reality. In such a scenario where the validity of a community certificate is put to question, keeping in mind the importance of the document and the effect it has on people’s rights, the proceedings questioning the document cannot, except in the most exceptional circumstances, be done ex-parte - Para 22