Supreme Court: In an appeal filed by the State against the judgment of Madhya Pradesh High Court, wherein the Court set aside the order passed by the Superintendent of Police (‘SP’) communicating to the respondent that he was found to be unfit to be recruited as a constable, after he disclosed his involvement in a criminal case; and relegated the matter back to the competent authority for passing a fresh order, the division bench of Hima Kohli* and Rajesh Bindal, JJ. while upholding the judgment dated 17-11-2017, passed by the Single Judge, quashed the impugned judgment passed by the Division Bench of the High Court, and said that even though the respondent had truthfully declared that he was involved in a criminal case, as per the judgement, this was not a case of clean acquittal, as it was based on benefit of doubt. Therefore, it was held that the said decision taken by the State Government is not tainted by any malafides or arbitrariness for the High Court to have interfered therewith.
In 2015, a criminal case was registered against the respondent for offences under Sections 341, 354(D) of the Penal Code, 1860 and Sections 11(D)/ 12 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (‘POCSO’). It was alleged that the respondent along with the other co-accused had wrongfully restrained the complainant (a minor) and tried to outrage her modesty. Despite the complainant spurring the repeated efforts made by the accused to befriend her, he had persistently stalked her, threw a letter and flowers at her and insisted that she speaks to him.
During the trial, the complainant had turned hostile. A compromise was arrived at between the complainant and the respondent and based on the compromise application preferred by the parties, the charges framed against him under Section 341 of the IPC, were compounded. As the other offences for which the respondent was charged, were non-compoundable, the case continued but because the prosecutrix and the witnesses turned hostile, thus the Trial Court passed an order, acquitting the respondent of the charges framed under Section 354(D) of the IPC and Section 11(D)/12 of the POCSO Act.
In 2016, the respondent was selected for the post of constable after clearing the examination conducted by the State Government. In the verification form, the respondent disclosed information about his involvement in the aforesaid criminal case. Thereafter, the Superintendent of Police (‘SP’) communicated to the respondent that was found to be unfit to be recruited.
Aggrieved by the aforesaid decision taken by the SP, the respondent preferred a writ petition before the High Court praying that the order dated 24-08-2017 be quashed and directions be issued to reinstate him in service with all consequential benefits. Thereafter, vide judgement dated 17-11- 2017, the Single Judge dismissed the writ petition. The aforesaid order was challenged by the respondent in an appeal1 filed under Section 2(1) of the Madhya Pradesh Uchcha Nyayalaya (Khand Nyayapeeth Ko Appeal), whereby the Division Bench quashed and set aside the order dated 24-08-2017 passed by the Competent Authority and the order dated 17-11-2017, passed by the Single Judge and remanded the matter back to the Competent Authority to pass a fresh order in the facts of the instant case. Aggrieved by the said decision, the State filed the present appeal.
Whether the State has erred in rejecting the candidature of the respondent for the post of Constable, despite the latter having truthfully disclosed in his affidavit the fact that he had faced trial in a criminal case which had resulted in his acquittal?
The Court said that the respondent had not withheld material information from the State while participating in the selection process for the subject post or at the time of filling up the affidavit/verification form.
Further, after referring to Pawan Kumar v. Union of India, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 532 , it said that he standard for assessing the suitability of a candidate is measured by the employer based on various factors including the nature of the post, nature of duties, effect of suppression over suitability, etc. However, no hard and fast rule can be laid down in this regard.
The Bench emphasised that a candidate who proposes to participate in a selection process, must furnish true and correct information in respect of his character and antecedents in the affidavit/verification form required to be filled up during the selection process or after induction in the service. A candidate who makes a false declaration or suppresses material information or furnishes half—baked information which may not be the whole truth, can be visited with adverse consequences to the point of his exclusion, even though he may have qualified in the entire selection process, based on the said falsity/suppression.
The Court took note of Avtar Singh v. Union of India, (2016) 8 SCC 471, wherein the Court laid down broad guidelines for verification of disclosures made by a candidate to the employer for deciding as to whether the incumbent would be fit for appointment or not. The Court noted that an employer has the discretion to terminate or condone an omission in the disclosure made by a candidate. While doing so, the employer must act with prudence, keep in mind the nature of the post and the duties required to be discharged. Higher the post, more stringent ought to be the standards to be applied. Even if a truthful disclosure has been made, the employer is well within its right to examine the fitness of a candidate and in a concluded criminal case, keep in mind the nature of the offence and verify whether the acquittal is honourable or benefit has been extended on technical reasons. If the employer arrives at a conclusion that the incumbent is of a suspect character or unfit for the post, he may not be appointed or continued in service.
The Court said that even though the respondent had truthfully declared that he was involved in a criminal case, as per the judgement, this was not a case of clean acquittal. It is evident from the facts narrated that after the chargesheet was filed, the respondent had arrived at a compromise with the complainant and filed an application under Section 320 CrPC, based on which the offence under Section 341 IPC was compounded. As for the remaining offences for which the respondent was charged i.e. Section 354(D) of the IPC and Section 11(D)/12 of the POCSO Act, they were non compoundable and therefore, the matter was taken to trial. The respondent was acquitted by the trial Court primarily on account of the fact that the complainant did not support the case set up by the prosecution and the other prosecution witnesses had turned hostile. In such circumstances, the respondent’s plea that he had been given a clean acquittal in the criminal case, is found to be devoid of merits.
Thus, the Court said that the charges framed against the respondent involve moral turpitude and though he was acquitted as the prosecution witnesses having turned hostile, the State Government was well within its right to exercise its discretion against the respondent and terminate his services on the ground that he was unfit for appointment in the police department.
The Court said that one must be mindful of the fact that once appointed to such a post, a responsibility would be cast on the respondent of maintaining law and order in the society, enforcing the law, dealing with arms and ammunitions, apprehending suspected criminals and protecting the life and property of the public at large. Therefore, the standard of rectitude to be applied to any person seeking appointment in a Law Enforcement Agency must always be higher and more rigourous for the simple reason that possession of a higher moral conduct is one of the basic requirements for appointment to a post as sensitive as that in the police service.
Thus, the Court opined that mere acquittal of the respondent in the criminal case would not automatically entitle him to being declared fit for appointment to the subject post. The State Government has judiciously exercised its discretion after taking note of all the relevant factors relating to the antecedents of the respondent. In such a case, even one criminal case faced by the respondent in which he was ultimately acquitted, apparently on the basis of being extended benefit of doubt, can make him unsuitable for appointment to the post of Constable. Therefore, it was held that the said decision taken by the State Government is not tainted by any malafides or arbitrariness for the High Court to have interfered therewith.
[State of M.P. v. Bhupendra Yadav, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1181, decided on 20-09-2023]
*Judgment Authored by: Justice Hima Kohli