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Blazer in Bihar heat? Patna HC’s rebuke on civil servant’s attire reignites dress-code debate

'Should button collar and wear blazer,' said judge. But many in legal fraternity as well as civil servants argue that the officer's attire wasn't inappropriate, blame 'colonial-era mindset'.

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New Delhi: “Have you entered a cinema hall?” Justice P.B. Bajanthri asks a bewildered Bihar government civil servant in a month-old footage of a court hearing that has gone viral. The Patna High Court judge then proceeds to reprimand the senior IAS officer for appearing in court in “inappropriate attire”, while the civil servant struggles to give an explanation for his dress.

The officer in question was Anand Kishor, Chairman of the Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB) and Principal Secretary for Housing and Urban Development in the state. He was dressed in a formal white shirt and trousers for the hearing.

According to Justice Bajanthri, Kishor — who was awarded the Prime Minister’s award for excellence in public administration in April — should have at least buttoned his collar and worn a blazer to court.

The judge further asks Kishor if he had attended the civil service training institute in Mussoorie and if they had not told him “how to appear in court”.

“What is wrong with IAS officers in the state of Bihar? They do not know how to appear in court?” the judge wonders again, in response to which the IAS officer mumbles that there are “no official directions” and mentions the “summer season”.

As seen in the video, the judge’s outburst leaves lawyers in the courtroom perplexed, probably because none of the high courts or the Supreme Court has set rules that define a “decent dress code” for civil servants.

Yet, judges have often spoken out about how they expect a senior civil servant to be dressed for a hearing and have regularly emphasised that officers should follow the dress code that is told to them during the training programme imparted to them before they formally join the services.

The legal fraternity seems divided on the issue. Lawyers who witnessed the proceedings in Patna High Court told ThePrint there was nothing “unusual” or “inappropriate” about Kishor’s attire.

ThePrint also reached civil servants to know their views on what is an appropriate dress code for court. They all said their service rules do not speak of any specific attire. However, during training they get a handbook which states that bureaucrats should be decently dressed.

“To insist that a government officer should be in a tie and coat shows a colonial-era mindset,” said a Delhi government officer. “There was nothing inappropriate about the bureaucrat’s attire in the Patna High Court.”

Also read: Patna HC judge, who was taken off duty after ‘corruption’ remark, reassigned judicial work

Not the first time

A senior Bihar government counsel in Patna High Court told ThePrint that Justice Bajanthri had earlier pulled up a district magistrate — a 2014-batch IAS officer — whose appearance did not conform to a dress code.

Similar to Kishor, this officer had not buttoned his collar and was not wearing a blazer. “When asked why he was not in a proper dress, the officer admitted that he should have worn a tie and come,” a lawyer told ThePrint.

In 2018, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice J. Chelameswar rebuked an IAS officer from Rajasthan for wearing a colourful shirt with trousers to court. The bench did not find it “sober and decent” and, therefore, declined to hear the case on that day. The matter was taken up the next day when the senior officer returned to court neatly dressed in a royal blue suit. He apologised unconditionally to the bench for the clothing he had worn on the previous day.

“Irrespective of whether there are rules or no rules, bureaucrats are always expected to wear sober and decent dress while appearing in courts,” the bench had observed.

In 2017, a Bihar chief secretary also felt the heat for dressing ‘improperly’. The bench, also led by Justice Chelameswar, had summoned the officer to explain the delay on Bihar government’s part to file an appeal in a property dispute. But it adjourned the hearing because of the officer’s attire. The next day, the chief secretary presented himself in a bandhgala coat and black trousers, prompting the bench to ask him: “Do you go for your meetings (with the CM) in informal dress?”

In 2017 itself, the Himachal Pradesh High Court noted in one of its orders that wearing jeans, checked shirt or a colourful printed sari to a courtroom “can undermine the majesty of law”. It directed the state’s chief secretary to issue directions to all government officials to dress appropriately while appearing in courts.

These instructions were issued after a junior engineer wore jeans and a multi-coloured checked shirt to court. The court was “appalled” when she said she dressed the same even for work.

The court order was promptly adhered to by the state, which issued a circular asking government officers to be attired in “appropriate, formal, clean, modest and decent clothes in sober colours, which should not look gaudy”, when attending the court or office.

Non-adherence to a dress code also irked judges of the Odisha High Court in October 2019. Taking note of it, the office of the state Advocate General in 2019 sent a missive to the Odisha government’s chief secretary, saying government officers “must wear sober and decent dress” when appearing in court.

Different arguments

The legal fraternity has differing opinions on what is an ‘appropriate’ dress code for court.

Former Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta believes that Justice Bajanthri’s remarks were unwarranted since the civil servant was perfectly dressed. “Nowhere is it provided that a bureaucrat should be in a blazer or tie. The only requirement is that the officer should be appropriately dressed. The judge went overboard with his reaction. As judges, we should be bothered about deciding cases,” he said.

Advocate Shashank Shekhar Jha, too, said judges should not insist on a tie and coat, but only decent dressing. In the two instances at the Patna High Court, both officers were clad in formal attire. “During summers, one cannot expect to close the collar button or wear a coat,” Jha said.

But former Additional Solicitor General and senior advocate Atmaram Nadkarni, who defended the IAS officer from Rajasthan in the apex court in 2018, said civil servants represent a state in court and are, therefore, required to be dressed properly.

“Bureaucrats should be dressed formally in court, just as they do when they have to attend formal meetings or ceremonial functions. You cannot appear in court in just a shirt and trousers,” Nadkarni said. He added that the dress code for lawyers also makes it compulsory to keep the shirt buttoned with a band.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: HC pulls up Bihar govt for ‘neglecting’ rural areas, orders filling up of doctor vacancies

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