About Navin B. Chawla
Navin Chawla (born 30 July 1945, New Delhi) is a well known and recognized Indian bureaucrat (1969-2005), later an occupant of one of India’s most prestigious constitutional offices as Election Commissioner (2005-2009), and then Chief Election Commissioner of India (April 2009- July 2010), stepping down at the mandated age of 65 years. His parents were well known medical professionals, who ensured a liberal upbringing. His schooling was at the prestigious residential public (private) school, The Lawrence School Sanawar (1953-1961), before he moved to the nationally acclaimed St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University (1962-65), went on to London University (1965-67), and the London School of Economics (1967-68). Several years later he attended Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford (1997). During the course of his civil service career, he was assigned a number of responsibilities, and although there were occasional stints in other Union Territories, his working life remained largely in New Delhi. He rose gradually to the higher reaches of the civil service (IAS), becoming Additional Secretary to the Government of India (2001), and then full Secretary to the Government (the highest level of the Civil Service), before being appointed to Constitutional office. He completed (to national and international acclaim) India’s General Election 2009, which was met with widespread admiration in the national and international media and which effectively silenced political criticism from some political quarters of allegations of bias. He is also well recognized as the biographer of Mother Teresa which biography entitled ‘Mother Teresa’ wasfirst publisher in the UK in 1992 and has seen many translations and editions since then. He also co-authorised “Faith and Compassion” a life of Mother Teresa with pictures published in the UK in 1997.
Early life & Education
He studied the prestigious Lawrence School, Sanawar, Himachal Pradesh, (1953–1961) where he received his Senior School Certificate. (At the age of 8, he was the recipient of the Government of India Scholarship for his first two years at The Lawrence School after a rigorous All-India Examination). He went on to read History at St. Stephen College (1962-65) and received a Bachelors degree. He undertook a second BA (Hons.) course from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1965-1967). This was followed by a diploma in Social Administration from the London School of Economics (1968). He was a Fellow of Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University (1996-1997).
Navin Chawla is an officer of the 1969 batch of the Indian Administrative Service (The intake is on average 100-120 per year selected, after a rigorous examination and interview, for which examination over 100000 contestants apply). His career path saw him through challenging and varied assignments, from successfully running India’s then largest consumer cooperative (the Super Bazar), tomid career as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (1992-95), when India opened to an open sky telecasting regime, to the Ministry of Home Affairs (1997), and Chairman of Delhi’s Electricity Authority. It is noteworthy that the principal opposition party (NDA) that was later to accuse him of political bias when he was appointed to the Election Commission, itself promoted him in the face of stiff competition to the rank of Additional Secretary to the Government (2001), then Special Secretary (2003) and finally to the highest rank of Secretary (2003) testimony to an outstanding civil service record over 35 years.
Election Commissioner and Chief Election Commissioner of India
He was appointed as Election Commissioner in 2005 to fill the vacancy caused by the elevation of BB Tandon as Chief Election Commissioner. He served as Election Commissioner from 16 May 2005 to 20th April2009, and took over as Chief Election Commissioner on 21st April 2009 upto 30 July 2010, when his term ended at the constitutionally mandated age of 65. He oversaw the Indian General Election to the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) in April-May 2009. Despite earlier carping by the main opposition about alleged bias in favour of the Congress party, he proved to be a textbook Chief Election Commissioner and conducted elections in a totally even-handed manner. In the process of ensuring a level playing field, he drew criticism during the election process from ruling Congress party in power in the States of Rajasthan, Assam, Andhra Pradesh as well as its ally in TamilNadu, the DMK.The rigorous and difficult election process involving 715 million voters, almost 835000 polling stations and a deployment of almost 11 million personnel, concluded to widespread national and international acclaim, with almost all major newspapers editorially acclaiming not only the most difficult of electoral enterprises in the world, but also the quiet and determined efficiency of the Election Commission that resulted in barely a complaint during and after such a gigantic exercise. One of Indian leading TV channels (NDTV) conferred on him and the ECI the honour of India’s Icon of the Year award for the last 21 years, and congratulations poured in from leaders and leading newspapers in the world.
Diamond Jubilee Celebration of ECI
On 25thJanuary, 2009, Chawla presided over the celebration of the Election Commission of India’s 60th anniversary (on the lines of the celebration of its 50th anniversary a decade earlier). The occasion was unprecedented, as the Commission’s invitation was accepted by the largest cross section of India’s polity. President Pratibha Patil of India presided. On the dais also were Vice President of India Hamid Ansari, Speaker Meira Kumar, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the ruling UPA Sonia Gandhi, Leader of the opposition National Democratic Alliance Sharad Yadav, the Law Minister, and, of course, the Chief Election Commissioner and the two Commissioners. By any account it was an unprecedented tribute to the ECI. Equally significant was the presence in the audience of the leaders of practically every recognized political formation. Additionally, over 35 Electoral Commissioners travelled from all parts of the world to be present. Some of them, were later to remark that they had never seen such an assemblage of leadership, government and opposition, in their countries. Those present also noted the significant praise accorded to the ECI by the Leader of the Opposition, Smt.Sushma Swaraj.
Initiatives as Chief Election Commissioner
- Sought a Constitutional amendment to bring on par the process of removal of Election Commissioners with that of the CEC, i.e. by impeachment bytwo thirds of MP’s present and voting. In the process he has sought to complete the process laid down in the Seshan judgement of the Supreme Court, granting functional autonomy and equal emoluments to all Election Commissioners on par with the CEC.Citing two previsions episodes, (including the demand by his predecessor for his removal), Chawla wrote to the Prime Minister and urged his Government for an early amendment to give protection henceforth to Election Commissioners against attempts at arbitrary removal before closure of term. The letter was written by the CEC after the full Commission met and endorsed this initiative.
- Called for radical reformsal to enable approx 1 million eunuchs to exercise a preference to vote in a new category of “Other”, instead of being compelled to vote as ‘Male’ or ‘Female’, The issue was first raised by students at the KIIT Law School, Bhubaneshwar Orissa, during a lecture by the CEC (see lecture series). It was again raised a few weeks later by a student at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. As no statuary amendment was needed, Chawla presided over a full Election Commission decision, which approved a change in the Rules. This reform has since become a major human rights issue, and is being taken up by some other Election Commissions and human rights organisations.
- Close on the heels of its radical reform allowing eunuchs to describe themselves as ''other'', the Election Commission discussed Chawla’s proposal to redress the legal anomaly under which undertrial prisoners have the right to contest elections but cannot vote.
At various forums Chawla spoke about enfranchising undertrial prisoners, although the Supreme Court of India had on more than one occasion validated the existing restriction, Section 62(5) of the Representation of Peoples Act. Expressing disagreement with the Supreme Court's view, Chawla believed that he found it more logical to deny undertrial prisoners the right to contest, rather than deny them the right to vote. He once commented: ''While I got the idea of conferring formal recognition on transgender persons from meetings with students, I owe my sensitivity to to undertrial prisoners to my association with Mother Teresa,'' Chawla said at a seminar on electoral reforms.
- Special facilities for visually impaired voters were provided when 1.3 million Electoral Voting Machines were adapted to enable visually-impaired but Braille literate voters, to cast their vote independent of any assistance, all over the country. Some special auxiliary polling stations were also set up at institutes of the visually impaired.
- In time for the 2009 GE, 82% of all eligible voters (approx 582 million) were provided Electoral Photo Identity Cards (EPIC). Before demitting office, Chawla set a target to achieve 100% production and distribution of EPIC cards to the entire voting population of the India by December 2011. (The figure has since exceeded 90%).
- Banned withdrawal by the Executive of electoral-related offences, decreeing that closure could only be permitted by a Court of Law
Association with Mother Teresa
Chawla first met Mother Teresa in 1975 and she reposed her confidence in him till she passed away in 1997. Since her death, he has annually commemorated her on her birth anniversary (26 August), an unbroken tradition in “The Hindu” newspaper and other reputed Indian newspapers (see Articles). From 1975 onwards, he assisted her with her work in Delhi and elsewhere in India. She permitted him to write her biography in 1987. (“Write about the worknot about me” she had said), which resulted in the publication of “Mother Teresa” , the biography, published first by Sinclair-Stevenson in the UK in 1992. The book was very well received from the start, in India, the UK and other countries where it was translated into several languages. Navin Chawla retained his relationship with Mother Teresa for all 23 years often travelling with her. He visited her branches all over India and in many places overseas. After her passing away in 1997, he continued to maintain ties with her successor Sister Nirmala and now with the Present Superior General Sister Prema, as with other Sisters and Brothers of her Order. What many find remarkable is that Mother Teresa reposed so much confidence in someone not of her faith (Chawla is a Hindu). Sister Gertrude the oldest companion of Mother Teresa still alive, always refers to Chawla as ‘Mother’s son’. It was, in all respects a remarkable Guru-Shishya relationship. (see Articles on Mother Teresa). In September 2010, Unesco Headquarters in Paris decided to honour Mother Teresa in her Birth Centenary year. Chawla was unanimously selected by the Missionaries of Charity and the Government of India to deliver the keynote address. The royalties from his two books on Mother Teresa (See Books) are ploughed back into charities, to both assist leprosy related causes and help disabled youth to acquire vocational skills
Working withthe leprosy affected in his spare time, he availed of a 9 month Study Leave facility in 1986 to get a first hand view of the leprosy situation existing in the country, which led to him to write a book entitled “The Vocational Rehabilitation and Social Re-integration of the leprosy affected in India”. It is noteworthy that the book was released by Mother Teresa herself in the presence of Mr.B.G. Deshmukh, then Cabinet Secretary in 1987. He continues to espouse leprosy related causes (See Articles).
Inspired by Mother Teresa, Chawla has worked on the sidelines of his bureaucratic career for these causes. In earlier years, he and his family helped as volunteers in Mother Teresa’s houses in Delhi. After his acclaimed biography was published, he began to donate its royalties. Some six years before his civil service career was drawing to a close, (and not knowing that he would be appointed to Constitutional office), he and his wife Rupika set up two foundations, one in Delhi and another in Jaipur to provide completely free vocational training for disabled youth or the children of leprosy patients, who bore lifelong stigma. He has contributed over Rs. 55 lakhs almost ( overUS $ 100000) of his royalties to these causes. After he was appointed to Constitutional office, both he and his wife stepped down from the chairmanships of these Trusts, which are presently headed by two most distinguished former civil servants
Both when he was in the Election Commission, andpost – retirement, he has accepted a number of invitations to speak on campuses all over the country. It was during one of his lectures, in the Q and A session that the issue of the transgenders was raised which he implemented thereafter
He has attended several conferences onelection related subjects, and has been invited by Electoral – related bodies to act as an Observer to witness elections overseas