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When T.N. Seshan praised me after ‘most difficult election in Independent India’ – Punjab 1992

In An Intent to Serve, IAS officer Tejendra Khanna writes about his career as Delhi LG, and as chief secretary of Punjab during the President’s Rule years.

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When Chandrashekhar took over as Prime Minister in December 1990, he decided to reinstate an elected government in Punjab. General O.P. Malhotra (Retd), former Chief of Army Staff, was appointed as the Punjab Governor and shortly thereafter, I was selected by the Prime Minister to take over as Chief Secretary, Punjab. I was informed later that my image as a non-partisan officer with no political links was a key factor in my selection, apart from my administrative experience and reputation for effectiveness. Though the then Commerce Minister Subramaniam Swamy spoke to the Prime Minister more than once to persuade him not to shift me from my post as CCI&E, he was told that the decision to send me to Punjab would stand. Along with being appointed as Chief Secretary, I was also designated as the Chief Election Officer of the state.

The year 1991, according to Ministry of Home Affairs records, saw a spurt in terrorist violence including the stopping of two Delhi-bound trains in Ludhiana district on 15 June, when Hindu passengers were forced to alight from the train and gunned down. Later, in August, the Director General of Police Dalbir Singh Mangat sustained serious injuries in sequential twin bomb blasts in the Ludhiana Industrial Area of Dhandari Kalan. Innocent relatives of Punjab Police personnel were also killed to create pressure on them to ‘throw in the towel’ and quit service. A general climate of fear pervaded among the people and public movement tapered off sharply after sunset.

I demitted the office of CCI&E on the forenoon of 14 January 1991 and took charge as Chief Secretary on the same afternoon. The next morning, at my first meeting with Administrative Secretaries of various departments, I told them about the PM’s mandate to me. There were thirty-nine Administrative Secretaries in position. Punjab has 117 Vidhan Sabha seats. I announced at the meeting that while coordinating support would be extended by the State Election Department, each of the Secretaries would be assigned three assembly constituencies, for ensuring adequacy of infrastructure, including access roads, government buildings, rest houses, etc., as well as assessing the security situation—in consultation with the Police. Security was to be geared up well before the actual calling of elections by the Election Commission of India. By involving all the Secretaries in such a manner, my message to them was that realizing the PM’s mandate would be a combined and well coordinated team effort.

Also read: Religious intolerance main driver of insurgency in Punjab of 1980s. State’s watching it again

I accompanied Governor General Malhotra for his Republic Day address at Tarn Taran, a hotbed of militancy. He delivered his speech in Punjabi and it was an emotional call to the youth to shun violence and return to the path of peace and shared communal goodwill, as preached by the revered Sikh gurus. The people of Punjab are sensitive and emotional, and the Governor’s speech evoked a genuinely positive response.

The Governor agreed with my proposal to launch state-wide Peace Marches after Republic Day and lasting till Baisakhi on 13 April, with the participation of prominent politicians, civil servants and citizens at large. This activity was successfully carried out across districts and subdivisions all over the state, and elicited large-scale participation by citizens, thereby helping to create a climate where people were fed up of the violence being perpetrated in the name of religion and a separate Sikh national identity. In a letter written by P.C. Hota, topper of the 1962 civil services examination, sent to me on the eve of my retirement from service in December 1996, he wrote:

As a civil servant, you have distinguished yourself as a very systematic and brilliant performer in any assignment you have handled either in the State or in the Government of India. I distinctly remember how during the height of terrorism in Punjab, because of your totally fearless approach and skillful management, the availability of ‘power’ in Punjab improved satisfactorily. As Chief Secretary of Punjab, your ‘padayatra’ in terrorist-ridden cities/towns to inspire confidence among the common people is a memorable event. The historians have recorded that the Lawrence brothers—one a soldier and the other a civilian—had done a lot for Punjab. But in recent years, I cannot recall anyone in public service who did for Punjab as much as you did.

Though the Election Commission of India originally announced that Punjab elections would be conducted towards end of June 1991, two factors led to their cancellation, just a week or so before the process was due to begin. The first was the targeted killing of Hindu passengers on two trains headed from Amritsar to Delhi. The second was the swearing-in of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as the leader of the Indian National Congress Party in the Lok Sabha. In view of the precarious situation, both in terms of the security and the politically unsettled environment prevalent in the state, the Election Commission of India went by the advice of the central government and cancelled the elections.

Also read: Did Ashok Lavasa case change it all for EC? Why India needs a TN Seshan: Ex-IAS officer

A fallout of the peremptory cancellation was the resignation of the Punjab Governor General O.P. Malhotra, who felt let down that he had not been consulted before such a major decision was taken and announced.

Ultimately, elections to the Punjab Vidhan Sabha were held in the last week of February 1992. Despite the boycott by the Shiromani Akali Dal, who felt that the security conditions were not conducive for the polls, the elections went off peacefully, barring a few stray incidents aimed at disrupting them. Apart from the Indian National Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the left-wing parties CPI and CPI(M) participated. The Congress secured a clear majority and S. Beant Singh was sworn in as Chief Minister at the end of the month.

Detailed planning including gearing up of polling venues, deputation and training of poll personnel, transportation logistics, layered security arrangements—both static and mobile—several pre-poll review meetings with the District Election Officers (Deputy Commissioners) and District Superintendents of Police (SSPs) enabled the efficient and snag-free conduct of the polls.

A special letter of appreciation was sent by T.N. Seshan to the Punjab Governor, commending my role as the Chief Secretary-cum-Chief Election Officer, in successfully conducting what was described as ‘the most difficult elections in the history of Independent India’. The letter read as follows:

Shri Surendra Nath
Governor of Punjab Raj Bhawan Chandigarh.

Dear Mr Governor,

I write this to place on record my sincere appreciation for the extraordinary hard work and devotion to duty displayed by Shri Tejendra Khanna, Chief Secretary, Punjab during the just concluded general elections in the State of Punjab. Both in his capacity as Chief Secretary and Chief Electoral Officer, he had to face extraordinarily heavy odds.

The boycott of elections by some, the threats of physical harm to voters, poll personnel and political workers, and the law and order situation in the state generated an unprecedented challenge which had to be faced. Shri Khanna meticulously planned and executed all the work with thoroughness, dedication and an exemplary devotion to duty. He has left, for generations of civil servants, an example fully worthy of emulation.

Kindly convey to Shri Khanna my warmest appreciation. Kindly also have a copy of this placed in his CR dossier.

With regards,

Yours sincerely,

T.N. Seshan

This excerpt from ‘An Intent to Serve: A Civil Servant Remembers’ by Tejendra Khanna has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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