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The trouble with Mr Chawla

The trouble with Mr Chawla

Author: Ashok Malik
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 14, 2007

Why is this consummate Delhi insider just so controversial?

Old-timers in Delhi remember Navin Chawla as an affable sort of chap. A talented lad at St Columba's, son of an upstanding doctor couple, biographer of Mother Teresa, married to perhaps India's best art restorer, Rupika. With a CV like that, really, you can scarcely go wrong.

Yet, so often for Navin Chawla, things have gone wrong. As election commissioner, he's in the eye of a storm this week (see accompanying story). Indeed, just consider the controversies he's been implicated in in the recent past:

* As Information and Broadcasting Secretary, the job he quit when he was sent up to Nirvachan Sadan, he was accused of harassing foreign news channels by delaying routine clearances, charged with holding up the Tata-Sky DTH proposal.

* In 2004, he was accused of receiving money from Congress MPs' Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) for a trust run by his wife.

* His family trusts allegedly got land allocated to them by a Congress-led Government in Rajasthan, at less than the market rate.

Chawla is not the first IAS officer with an apparent history of sharp practice. Even so, he is among the more colourful ones to end up in constitutional office. Yet, grant the man this - his identification with the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family has been absolute. It has seen him through bad days and good ones. It led to question marks about his empanelment as Secretary, but key figures in the NDA Government, ever keen to ingratiate themselves with the capital's permanent establishment, waved him through.

As such, Chawla survived the twists and turns of history and of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the rare Sanjay Gandhi acolyte who grew close to Rajiv Gandhi too. As the story goes, Rupika Chawla and Sonia Gandhi were together in an art restoration course at the National Museum. It was the beginning of a fruitful friendship.

Knight of darkness

If the BJP has reasons to remember Chawla, it is for his role during the Emergency, 1975-77. A young IAS officer, Chawla was only Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi at that point. Yet, as the Shah Commission - set up to investigate the Emergency's excesses - recorded, he issued and implemented illegal orders, sometimes bullying his seniors in the civil service. He drew his strength from his access to the Prime Minister's household.

The Shah Commission's interim reports - part I: March 11, 1978, and part II: April 26, 1978 - make fascinating reading. Chawla's indictment ran from the brazen to the downright terrifying. It began innocuously enough with a report on the requisitioning of Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses for Congress rallies: "The buses were booked on the basis of telephonic instructions received from Shri Navin Chawla ... The details regarding the number of buses and the parties and places to which they would report were given by Shri Navin Chawla."

It was a different India. "On June 13, 1975," the Shah Commission said, "the entire fleet of 983 buses plying on the Delhi routes was taken off the road and the buses were diverted to converge on the Prime Minister's house."

The transport manager also played propagandist: "A number of films were produced by the Films Division to project the image of Shri Sanjay Gandhi... Shri Navin Chawla... was virtually nominated as consultant for these films." Chawla claimed he was following the Lieutenant Governor's orders and denied initiating any publicity for Sanjay Gandhi.

Lock them up

Chapter XI of the Shah Commission's Interim Report II dealt with the "1,012 persons detailed under MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act] during the period of Emergency". Before the Emergency, only the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and the District Magistrate (DM) were empowered to issue detention orders under MISA.

On July 3, 1975, this authority was extended to five additional DMs (ADMs) as well. The DM and the ADMs were directed to expeditiously issue arrest orders, as and when requests were made by the police: "The detaining authorities were not required to bother much about the adequacy or veracity of the grounds of detention." Crucial to this endeavour was the Lieutenant Governor's Secretary.

The Shah Commission sought evidence from the ADMs: "S/Shri P Ghosh, GC Srivastava and Smt Meenakshi Dutta Ghosh have further stated that they were called by Shri Navin Chawla sometime after the additional district magistrates had been empowered to issue detention orders and were told to issue as many orders as possible."

The ADMs recalled that "Shri Navin Chawla had summoned... and told them to 'fabricate the grounds' whenever they found the grounds supplied by the police to be inadequate".

There was more: "Shri P Ghosh... was again summoned by Shri Navin Chawla and was told that the Lieutenant 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'."

A committee headed by the Lieutenant Governor was set up in October 1975 to review detention cases. Cases to be taken up by the committee were pre-cleared by a three-member sub-committee that included Navin Chawla: "The main, if not the only, criterion for the recommendations was the severance of an individual's relations from his political party following a declaration of his support to the 20 point programme of the then Prime Minister."

There was also a hint of concentration camp approach: "A special sub-committee to interrogate certain persons who had tendered an apology for their past political activities was constituted ... (It) included a psychiatrist also. The purpose of the interrogation, conducted in jail, was to ascertain the genuineness of the political conversion of the persons. Smt S Chandra [then special secretary (home), Delhi] has stated that this special sub-committee was Shri Navin Chawla's idea."

Jail tale

What happened to the political prisoners in Tihar? This is how the Shah Commission saw it: "Though Shri Navin Chawla had no position in the jail hierarchy, he was exercising extra-statutory control in jail matters and sending instructions on all matters including the treatment of particular detenues. Shri 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."

Parole was used as "an incentive to promote family planning". This "freedom for sterilisation" formula was also Chawla's: "According to Shri Krishan Chand [then Lieutenant Governor] Navin Chawla had given an assurance to the detenues to release them on parole if they got themselves sterilised."

However, when it came to allowing student prisoners to appear for examinations, there was no relaxation, no parole. As Chawla admitted, student prisoners were "considered a high security risk". Other officials remembered Chawla "used to deprecate in very strong language the activities of the students in general and the student detenues in particular".

One sample stood out. "It was seen that in one case the Delhi University agreed to open a special centre... just a mile from Tihar Jail," the Shah report said, but it was to no avail. The law student in question lost a year. His name was Arun Jaitley.

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