The 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service
CITATION for James Michael Lyngdoh
Ramon Magsaysay Award Presentation Ceremonies
31 August 2003, Manila, Philippines
In India, democracy took root despite extreme ethnic diversity and deep social cleavages. This remarkable success reflects the profound commitment of Indias founders to elected government. It also reflects the wisdom of Indias constitution, which in providing for elections also provides for a powerful nonpartisan commission to conduct them. It falls to the Election Commission of India to ensure that Indias important federal and state elections are well organized, free, and fair. This is no small task given the subcontinents 650 million voters and, these days, rising religious fundamentalism and raging communal hatreds. This immense and elaborate responsibility now rests on the shoulders of Chief Election Commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh.
Of Khasi tribal origin, Lyngdoh hails from the extreme northeastern corner of India. Imbibing moral rectitude from his father, a district judge, Lyngdoh completed his education in Delhi and entered the elite Indian Administrative Service when he was twenty-two. He quickly became known for probity and toughness and for favoring the underdog against politicians and the local rich. In one early post, his principled execution of mandated land reforms so enraged landlords that he was transferred before the year was out. Similar clashes with the powers-that-be marked his rise in the Service. But rise he did, eventually serving as Secretary, Coordination and Public Grievances, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. In 1997, the president named Lyngdoh one of Indias three election commissioners. By 2001 he was chief.
Lyngdoh soon faced crises in two of Indias most troubled states. In Jammu-Kashmir, where India was locked in a potentially explosive standoff with Pakistan and local secessionists, state elections fell due in 2002. Many people doubted that they could be conducted credibly. Lyngdoh thought otherwise. Pushing ahead despite a vicious cross-border assassination campaign and a boycott, he updated and verified the election rolls, introduced voter identity cards, and added a thousand new voting sites. He recruited nonpartisan poll officers for every polling station. And after warning the army to stand clear, he heightened election security by mobilizing the local police and paramilitary forces from outside the state. Then he urged the people "to vote fearlessly." Forty-four percent did so. Even Lyngdohs critics acknowledged that the polling had been fair, causing many in India to seize this triumph of "ballots over bullets" as a sign that the long-festering crisis of Jammu-Kashmir might yet be resolved peacefully.
Meanwhile, stirred by a terrorist attack in late February killing fifty-eight Hindu pilgrims, Hindus in Gujarat were slaughtering hundreds of the states Muslims and torching their homes and neighborhoods. When the Hindu ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dissolved the state government and called for elections amid the sectarian carnage, Lyngdoh used his authority to say no. Citing the large number of displaced persons and the pervasive atmosphere of fear in Gujarat, he postponed the elections. Although vilified for doing so, he stood his ground and carefully prepared for the delayed polls. He insisted, for example, that local officials and police who had been complicit in the anti-Muslim pogrom be transferred; he outlawed campaign activities that inflamed communal passions; and he set up special polling places for Muslim refugees. In December, under tight security the people voted, some 61 percent of them! Again, even skeptics agreed that the elections were fair and credible.
Lyngdoh, sixty-four, is a modest man known for his quiet ways and his transparent integrity. As a career civil servant, he has learned that it is best to avoid the limelight and the company of politicians. His impact lies elsewhere. As one admirer puts it, "He has always been a quiet fighter from within."
In electing James Michael Lyngdoh to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his convincing validation of free and fair elections as the foundation and best hope of secular democracy in strife-torn India.
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