SC upholds dismissal of erring IAF officer

Failure to pay property tax on time is a conduct most unbecoming of an officer of the Indian Air Force, ruled the Supreme Court New Delhi: In a judgement that gives the government wide discretion to include various acts of forbidden character as misconduct by a public servant, the Supreme Court of India has upheld the dismissal of an Indian Air Force (IAF) officer who failed to pay his property tax on time. Upholding the dismissal of officer Praveen Bhatia, the court agreed with the with the IAF counsel's argument that Bhatia's act of filing the property tax belatedly after a gap of six years was a "conduct most unbecoming of an officer of the Indian Air Force". Bhatia who failed to pay his property tax on time was stripped of his uniform and pension by the IAF after his father-in-law informed on him had challenged the IAF decision on grounds that the failure to submit property returns within time could not be construed as a misconduct, serious enough to warrant grave punishment as compulsory retirement without the pensioner benefits. Giving its verdict on the case, the apex court also observed that while it may not be possible for the government to draw an exhaustive list of acts which might be termed as misconduct. "The range of activities which may amount to acts which are inconsistent with the interest of public service and not befitting the status, position and dignity of a public servant are so varied that it would be impossible for the employer to exhaustively enumerate such acts," the apex court said. It has, therefore, to be noted that the word 'misconduct' is not capable of precise definition, said the bench adding that misconduct implies a forbidden act. Ironically, Bhatia lost his job due to machinations by his father-in-law Mulkh Raj Kakkar, a government contractor, who expected his son-in-law's help in his getting contracts from the IAF. Commissioned in the IAF in 1973, Bhatia got married to Kakkar's daughter in January 1986. But as he refused to help his father-in-law in getting IAF contracts, his marriage too began getting affected with Kakkar eventually lodging a complaint against him with the IAF that he used to mistreat his daughter. In his complaints, Kakkar also divulged some other acts of omission and commission of his son-in-law, including non-payment of property taxes by him between 1981 and 1986. The IAF refused to act on Kakkar's complaint about Bhatia's marital discord, saying that it was his personal matter. But the IAF did constitute a Court of Inquiry (CoI) to probe Bhatia's various other acts of omission and commission as divulged by Kakkar. The CoI exonerated Bhatia on all other counts, but held him guilty of not filing property tax in time and ordered his dismissal in June 1992, when Bhatia had already served as an IAF officer for 18 years and 11 months—13 months short of becoming eligible to get his retirement benefits. Though Bhatia pleaded with the IAF and later with the Bombay High Court to at least make him eligible to get his retirement dues, his pleas were ignored. Bhatia finally came to the apex court in 2006, but his dismissal for not paying the property tax has now been upheld.
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