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Chawla as EC: Monstrous folly

Chawla as EC: Monstrous folly

Author: A Surya Prakash
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: July 19, 2005

IAS officers told the Shah Commission of Enquiry that Mr Navin  Chawla, then secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, wanted them  to detain persons under the dreaded MISA without examining the grounds  of detention and to later 'fabricate' the evidence. The Superintendent  of Tihar Jail said that Mr Chawla wanted construction of cells with  asbestos roofs to 'bake' certain persons and to throw some 'troublesome  detenus' (read opponents of the Emergency) into the lunatics' cell.

Armed with this evidence and the testimony of many others including the  then Lt Governor of Delhi, the Shah Commission, which inquired into the  excesses during the Emergency, indicted Mr Chawla for having been  'authoritarian and callous' and for gross misuse of power "in cynical  disregard of the welfare of citizens". Further, it declared that he was  "unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play  and consideration for others".

Meet Mr Navin Chawla, a member of Sanjay Gandhi's extra-constitutional  cabal, which snuffed out democracy and constitutionalism between June,  1975 and March, 1977. Some weeks ago, the President, as the readers may  be aware, was 'pleased' to appoint him as a member of Election  Commission of India! For all those who have lived through that nightmare  called the Emergency, the appointment of Mr Navin Chawla, a man  completely at odds with democracy itself, as an Election Commissioner,  constitutes a terrible folly that needs to be quickly undone.

The Shah Commission Report provides ample evidence of Mr Chawla's  cynical disregard of basic constitutional values. The Second Interim  Report, submitted in April, 1978, dealt extensively with the ruthless  manner in which some officers like him (he was Secretary to the Lt  Governor of Delhi) misused their powers. Here is a brief summary:  Additional District Magistrates Mr P Ghosh and Ms Meenakshi Dutta Ghosh  (ADMs) told the commission that in a large number of cases, the grounds  of detention were furnished to them after they issued detention orders.  Mr P Ghosh said that Mr Navin Chawla had summoned him along with Mr GC  Srivastava (another ADM) and told them 'to fabricate the grounds'. After  a few days he was again summoned by Mr Chawla and was told that the Lt  Governor "would not hesitate to put even senior IAS officers behind the  bars under MISA if he found them lacking in cooperation in the matter of  MISA detentions". Mr Srivastava told the commission that he was asked by  Mr Navin Chawla to issue as many as 100 to 150 orders per month. "It is  evident," the commission said that whether an individual should be  detained under MISA or not was not left to the detaining authorities  "but was decided by Shri Bhinder or by Shri Navin Chawla or Shri Bajwa".

However, even more disturbing was the evidence of Mr Chawla's  gestapo-style operations. The commission found that a special  sub-committee had been constituted "to interrogate certain persons who  had tendered apology for their past political activities". This  sub-committee included a psychiatrist. The commission said the purpose  of this interrogation, conducted in jail, was to ascertain the  genuineness of the political conversion of these persons. Ms Chandra,  Special Secretary, Home, Delhi Government, told the commission that this  special sub-committee was Mr Chawla's idea. "...one wonders if this was  an attempt at political indoctrination of the opponents of the emergency  regime," the commission observed.

The Shah Commission obtained clinching evidence of the  extra-constitutional power wielded by Mr Chawla at that time. The then  Lt Governor, Mr Krishan Chand, admitted that his Secretary had enormous  powers when it came to throwing people in jail. He told the commission  that whatever Mr Chawla said in regard to detentions was accepted.  Further, "Shri Krishan Chand has also said that the PM had handed over  the running of Delhi to Shri Sanjay Gandhi and four-five officers who  were close to Shri Gandhi used to receive direct orders from him. He has  admitted that whenever some 'instructions' were given to him by Shri  Navin Chawla, he took them to be emanating from Shri Sanjay Gandhi."

This is an extraordinary confession by the man who was Delhi's Lt  Governor during the Emergency. He admitted that he received  'instructions' from his Secretary, Mr Navin Chawla!

We now come to the most damning piece of evidence against Mr Chawla. Mr  Batra, the Superintendent of Tihar Jail, told the commission that CBI  and intelligence officials freely visited the jail and met the detenus  on the orders of Mr Chawla. The commission observed that "though Shri  Navin Chawla had no position in the jail hierarchy, he was exercising  extra statutory control in jail matters. The Jail Superintendent told  the commission that Mr Chawla had suggested the construction of some  cells with asbestos roofs to 'bake' certain persons. A proposal to this  effect was also processed but given up eventually due to certain  technical reasons. Further, Mr Chawla had on one occasion suggested that  certain troublesome detenus 'should be kept with the lunatics'."

Mr Chawla claimed that the Lt Governor had given him this task. The Lt  Governor, however, denied having made Mr Chawla responsible for Tihar  Jail in any manner.

Based on the oral and documentary evidence obtained by it, the  commission delivered the following indictment: "It is clear on the  evidence that S/Shri PS Bhinder, KS Bajwa and Navin Chawla exercised  enormous powers during the Emergency because they had easy access to the  then prime minister's house. Having acquired that power, they used it  without considering whether the exercise was moral or immoral, legal or  illegal. The commission is of the opinion that though the involvement of  these officers may vary slightly in degree, their approach to the  problems of the period relating to the citizens was authoritarian and  callous. They grossly misused their position and abused their powers in  cynical disregard of the welfare of citizens and in the process rendered  themselves unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of  fair play and consideration for others. In their relish for power they  completely subverted the normal channels of command and administrative  procedure." At another point the commission said, "tyrants sprouted at  all levels overnight - tyrants whose claim to authority was largely  based on their proximity to power".

The Union Government informed Parliament on May 15, 1978, in its  'Memorandum of Action Taken' that it had "accepted the findings,  observations and recommendations of the commission". Since the Union  Government 'accepted' the recommendations of the commission and told  Parliament so, how can Mr Navin Chawla, who is "authoritarian and  callous" and "unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude  of fair play" become, of all things, an Election Commissioner?

Mr Chawla's appointment as EC is, therefore, a monstrous blunder. The EC  has the responsibility to not only conduct elections but also to protect  political pluralism and deepen democracy. Therefore, an abiding  commitment to democracy and the core values of our Constitution is a  fundamental qualification for an Election Commissioner. Given the  findings of the Shah Commission, how is one to believe that Mr Chawla  will hold the scales even? To elevate such a person to the office of  Election Commissioner is the ultimate insult one can heap on the  Constitution. The sooner this monstrous error is corrected, the better.

In conclusion one must refer to yet another telling observation of the  Shah Commission. It said: "A calculated effort was made to place persons  in vital positions who were willing to further the interests of the  centre of power in gross violation of established norms and practices."  Are we now going to revisit that nightmare? Who proposed to make Mr  Chawla an Election Commissioner? How committed is the promoter of this  idea to democracy? Was the President, Mr APJ Abdul Kalam, informed of Mr  Chawla's antecedents when the file was put before him? Mr Kalam must  exert his moral authority on the Government and get it to undo the  mischief. India's constitutional well-being cannot and should not be  sacrificed for the sake of a partisan, undemocratic careerist.

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