Every year, on the eve of Republic Day, the Indian government gives out awards to best and brightest. And every year, the announcement of the Padma awards winners triggers a controversy.
This year, the squabbling was Atal Behari Vajpayee being ignored for the Bharat Ratna while his former secretary, Brajesh Mishra, got the Padma Vibhushan. Last year’s list had the likes of Sant Singh Chatwal, a jet-set New York hotelier now under a cloud for dodgy deals with Indian banks. He was decorated with a Padma Bhushan for lobbying with American senators on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Mishra’s Padma Vibhushan is for the same reason.
It is difficult to disregard the nexus between the UPA bestowing the nation’s second-highest civilian honour on a senior policy advisor from the BJP, after he broke ranks with his party and supported the UPA line on the nuclear issue.
That the taint of political patronage hits the awards even in this “non-controversial” year should make us pause. Are these quid-pro-quo anointments any different from the “Rai Bahadur” and “Khan Bahadur” titles with which colonial British rulers co-opted the more influential and pliant among the Indian natives into supporting their policies and legitimising their rule? Precisely to avoid such a repetition, our Constitution framers — led by freedom fighter Acharya Kripalani — inserted Article 18(1) abolishing all titles.
Successive governments manoeuvred around this proscription by naming them “national awards”. Kripalani, a Lok Sabha MP, then moved “The Conferment of Decoration on Persons (Abolition) Bill 1969.” His motion was defeated.
The descent in recent years has been alarming: a Padma Shri for a Bollywood actor charged with poaching the endangered black buck, and for a surrendered Kashmiri militant against whom cases of extortion and attempted murder are pending.
Personal whims and politics play their part. Rajendra Prasad ordered a Padma Shri for his favourite nurse and Rajiv Gandhi for his school principal. Gandhi gave MG Ramachandran a posthumous Bharat Ratna to woo the Tamil Nadu electorate, notwithstanding that MGR was cited for tax evasion. VP Singh’s Bharat Ratna for the late Dr BR Ambedkar betrayed an anxiety to bolster his pro-Dalit agenda. Zail Singh, Vajpayee and Dr.Manmohan Singh sought to honour their eye, knee and heart surgeons respectively. But Indira Gandhi took the cake: she decorated herself with a Bharat Ratna!
In the Balaji Raghavan v Union of India (1995), the Supreme Court upheld the decorations “as awards, not titles” on arguably thin grounds. On the awards violating the principles of equality and democracy, the court observed that the theory of equality does not mandate that merit should not be recognised.
The judgment cited Article 51-A (Fundamental Duties) which exhorts every citizen to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity. “It is therefore necessary,” the court reasoned, “that there should be a system of awards and decorations to recognise excellence in the performance of these duties.” But if doing one’s duty always calls for rewards by way of governmental recognition, and since following the law is a citizen’s primary duty, shouldn’t every law-abiding citizen then lay claim to these awards? Isn’t this an unseemly leap of legal reasoning by the country’s highest judiciary?
The court also noted that “it is axiomatic that the misuse of a concept does not change its inherent nature.” It failed to note the equally applicable axiom that the long-term systemic abuse of that concept debases it beyond repair, and thus renders it unsuitable for the very purpose for which it was instituted.
The judgment mandated that the awards shall not be used as pre-fixes with names and that the awardees in all categories be restricted to 50 or less. The number routinely exceeds 100: there were 128 awardees this year.
Moreover, is the government equipped to judge works of art, science, and literature? Does a private-sector entrepreneur with a negligible record of public service deserve a governmental honour? Doesn’t such an award compromise the independence and integrity of citizens beholden to criticise and protest against ill-advised government policies and actions? Do the truly great need any certificate for their greatness? MK Gandhi lost nothing for having been overlooked for the Nobel Peace prize.
Perhaps the ultimate put-downer came from the late film comedian David Abraham. When a government official informed him about his selection, the roving-eye bachelor joked: “I’ll take Padma, and you can keep her Shri.”