By V Y Kantak
Time was when scientist Michael Faraday refused presidency of the prestigious Royal Society in London with the humble request that he be allowed to "remain plain Michael Faraday to the last …if I accepted the honour which the Royal Society desires to confer upon me, I would not answer for the year."
Within a century of Faraday’s high-minded self-effacement, the Irish-born British newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe was declaring, "When I want a peerage, I shall buy one like an honest man". From then on, Britain’s legendary system of creating so-called "Pooh-Bah (Lord High Everything Else)" has come increasingly under strain because honouring the great and the good is only ever non-controversial when there is a national consensus on it.
In Britain, just as much as India, France or Bulgaria, this is often not the case. The cash-for-peerages scandal that engulfed former PM Tony Blair’s administration merely underlined the perils of handing out titles, which George Bernard Shaw memorably, if acerbically, derided as distinguishing the mediocre, embarrassing the superior and disgraced by the inferior.
It was considered one of the most ignoble chapters in the history of Britain’s system of ennobling the deserving. And it led to a review of the honours system with the government announcing last April that it would henceforth allow members of the public to serve on such selection committees. More crucially, it promised "more" to "engage the public in the honours system" by bumping up public nominations, which currently run at 6,000 each year.
Despite everything, however, the public plaudit must almost always have an element of faintly odious subjectivity. In October, France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy was grandly given Bulgaria’s highest honour, the Stara Planina medal, for his role and that of his ex-wife Cecilia in procuring the release of six Bulgarian medics imprisoned in Libya. But this couldn’t obscure rumours about whether the French traded arms and N-cooperation with Tripoli in exchange.
France itself is no stranger to raging controversies over honours. Early last year, the death of high-ranking civil servant and Nazi sympathizer Maurice Papon sent it into convulsions. At issue was whether or not he could be buried wearing the Commander of the Legion of Honour pin given to him by Charles de Gaulle. Public honours have a life that does not stop with death.
Similarly, in India, there is a lot of controversy in conferment of various state honours such as Padma Shree, Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna. How else do you explain the ongoing clamour for the country’s top civilian honour? Atal Behari Vajpayee, Charan Singh, Mohammed Rafi, Karpoori Thakur, Kanshi Ram, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sachin Tandukar…the list goes on as political upmanship continues.
Suddenly, if you are not a Bharat Ratna, you are not good enough. Rafi’s ‘O duniya ke rakhwale’ and thousands of immortal songs apparently need state certification now and Karpoori Thakur’s claim to being the country’s first social-engineer politician would diminish without a Bharat Ratna attached to his name.
But that’s been the story of the state awards in this country. What started in 1950 as a serious attempt to honour achievers in various fields has now increasingly become the preserve of — as eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar who handled Padma awards during his 10 years in the home ministry puts it —"sycophants and flatterers". Fraudulent, fatuous or famous, they’re all fascinated and work the system to get "honoured". How else would you explain former PM Morarji Desai accepting the Bharat Ratna when the Janata Party government under him had discontinued the awards on the ground that they were worthless and politicised?
If Desai could do a turnaround, Rajiv Gandhi realised the political potential of the honour by conferring it on M G Ramachandran posthumously. V P Singh followed by giving it to late B R Ambedkar. No one would deny they deserved it, but the manner in which the Bharat Ratna was used — by Gandhi with an eye on the Tamil Nadu assembly election and by Singh to firmly establish himself as a dalit messiah — set in motion a rot that by 2010 looks like a theatre of the absurd. In the process, these awards have lost some of their shine.
The fact that we live in a coalition era, where each partner wants a say in the awards list, doesn’t help matters. Even Presidents have their nominees. If V V Giri bypassed all norms to recommend Indira Gandhi for the Bharat Ratna after the Bangladesh war, K R Narayanan openly lobbied for senior Congressman C Subramaniam.
Historian Romila Thapar, who refused the Padma Bhushan in 1992 and 2005 as she only wanted professional awards, not those doled by the state says, "It’s amazing the way the Bharat Ratna is being politicised. The rush to put in applications for the highest award suggests the idea of giving it to outstanding people is a lost case now."
However, the bottom-line has not changed: anyone who opposes the government of the day does not get an award. Nayar says artistes are an exception.
ost hide their political leanings and rarely raise their voice against the state. Two years ago, a retired bureaucrat-husband of a not-so-deserving ageing dancer, considered close to BJP, was seen chasing senior Left leaders to help his wife get an award. She was duly given a Padma award next year. In fact, artistes are known to lobby hard for these awards. Every year, artistes, film stars and sports people form a big component of the Padma Shri award list. In fact, the Padma Shri category is the most accessible. So you have cases like a former headmaster getting it when an ex-student is PM, or the wife of a favoured bureaucrat being awarded for social service.
When it comes to loyalists, even the unwritten rule of keeping a gap of 10-years between two Padma awards is not followed. Narayan Singh Mankalao got the Padma Shri in 1986 for drug rehabilitation followed by Padma Bhushan in 1991 for his continuing endeavours. Doctors of PMs and Presidents are another set who are always on the list. Be it Zail Singh’s eye surgeon Dhanwant Singh or Vajpayee’s Chittaranjan Ranawat. Over the years, journalists have also become integral to these awards. Arun Shourie and N Ram, both involved in the Bofors expose, were duly awarded the Padma Bhushan during V P Singh’s time.
A former home secretary points out other trends in the Padma Shri category that have remained unchanged. For instance, writers from the Northeast always find a place in the list every year. Another common category is those involved in rare occupations like enamel painting or lacquer work. Once it even went to one Rajinder Singh for typewriting. "This is meant to demonstrate the Indian state’s diversity and the ability of the system to recognize even unknown talent. However, the fact is that the jury committee does not have the wherewithal to judge any of them," he says. Sometimes this results in major goof-ups.
The official points out how Ujjwala Patil Dhar, the first Asian woman to circumnavigate the globe as part of the Jaykus III crew, was ignored in 1990 even as the Padma Shri went to Gulshan Rai, the man heading it. Dhar only got it next year. Then there is the case of R K Khanna who ran India’s tennis administration for many decades getting the Padma Bhushan while players like Vijay Amritraj and Ramanathan Krishnan had to content themselves with a Padma Shri.
Which is why not everyone is enamoured of the awards. Eminent journalist Nikhil Chakravartty refused the Padma Bhushan, arguing he was allergic to receiving recognition from any establishment other than those concerned directly with journalism. Their legitimacy has hit rock bottom, so much so that some of those who get it are embarrassed while others flaunt it shamelessly. Let society honour its heroes. INAV