The Madras High Court has recently dismissed a public interest litigation seeking direction to Centre to announce Bharat Ratna for late AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa, who passed away in December 2016. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu cabinet at its first meeting had passed a resolution to recommend Jayalalithaa for “Bharat Ratna”. Her party AIADMK at a meeting said she should be awarded and India’s top civilian honour. Chief Minister O Panneerselvam had also taken the party’s demand for a Bharat Ratna for Jayalalithaa to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom he met in Delhi. To the contrary, PMK youth wing leader Anbumani Ramadoss strongly opposing the Tamil Nadu Government’s demand to posthumously confer the nation’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, to former Chief Minister and AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa, argued that the award must be given only to those who had an impeccable integrity and had made outstanding contribution towards the development of the country. He contended that Jayalalithaa would not fit into this category as she faced 15 cases of corruption and the judgement in the appeal against her acquittal in the case relating to amassment of wealth disproportionate to her known sources of income is pending in the Supreme Court and she spent time in jail also.
There was a demand from various states also in the past to honour their Chief Ministers — NT Rama Rao, Andhra Pradesh; Devaraj Urs, Karnataka; YS Rajasekhara Reddy, Andhra Pradesh; Annadurai, Tamil Nadu; Nitish Kumar, Bihar. Then, there were states — like Rajasthan, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, North East, barring Assam — which do not as yet have a Bharat Ratna awardee associated with them. They are also expected to raise their voice along with others as pressure builds up on the Modi government, both from within and outside, to use it to woo states like West Bengal or Tamil Nadu where it is weak.
The awards are a political business; a majority of the highest awards have gone mostly to the politicians. Of the 45 Bharat Ratna awards as many as 23 of them have been given to politicians. The number of Bharat Ratnas in the field of art and culture is pitifully small — just six. That’s why it is said : Bharat Ratna: It’s not for ‘useful citizens’,it’s for politicians. It is difficult to say what prompted Nehru to think that such an institution was needed in the country and that it would work successfully in independent India when his party had condemned this institution before 1947 and the constitution had prohibited the government to think in terof such a system.
The most charitable interpretation that could be placed on the motives which prompted the government in general and Nehru in particular to introduce this system was that after having governed the country for over seven years he realised that almost in all professions there were means by which the merits of those who put in extra work or who otherwise were conspicuous in the performance of their duties could be recognised. In the army there were ample awards and titles with which every act of distinction on the part of any one could be adequately responded. There were scientific, academic and cultural distinctions with which the urge for recognition on the part of scientists and academicians could be met. Likewise, in the spheres of trade, industries and labour there were also varied types of awards for further advancement with which social recognition was an accompaniment. But they were the awards which lay within the sphere of sanction of some specific bodies.
The Government had no direct hand in their dispensation. Further, it was also realised that in the sphere of civil service, there were chances for one’s promotion which meant not only increment in emoluments but rise in status also. In addition to these prospects there was no media by which the government could express its appreciation in a clear cut fashion. Besides, there were a few professions such as that of politicians in which the state recognition of one’s worth or achievement could not find concrete expression. In order to make up such lacuna Nehru thought of this system which would serve more than one purpose. It would enable the government to honour those whom it would consider suitable for being marked as outstanding in their profession or sphere of activity. It would provide a healthy allurement for those whose services remained unrecognised. And finally, it would create a national system which would be above all other existing institutions of bestowing honours and as such would receive national prestige.
Even when these awards were introduced, the people did not feel exhilarated or took it as something epoch-making.
The people also realised that it was the fancy of one individual, Jawahar, Lal Nehru, with which they could put up easily in view of his vast contribution in the advancement of the country particularly in modernising the national economy. Though the institution of these awards suggests political immaturity, history is full of examples when people indulgently put up with the idiosyncrasies of their popular leaders. This is what has happened in India also.
The critics of the system pointed out that the award of honours and decorations can never be above suspicion as they are given by a government composed of politicians who are subject to all sorts of pressures and as such they are likely to act in ways which ultimately adversely affect the efficiency and integrity of the administration. As for the Indian conditions they are said to suffer from two handicaps. Not only the politicians are there to make a mess of everything, the government is also manned by bureaucracy which, in the opinion of some politicians, is ‘extremely corrupt and full of intrigues.’
In other words, it is not always merit or objective considerations but partisanship and personal factors that dominate the decisions of a party government in such matters. This is why a strong section of the Indian public rightly apprehended that the decorations would be awarded not on merit alone but mostly for political considerations. It was said that just as no person who had opposed the British rule in India could have been selected for the award of a title in pre-independence days, so would no person who opposed the ruling party expect to have a distinction conferred on him while that party remained in power.
The government, on its part, reiterated a number of times that the political views and affiliations of the individuals did not constitute the basis of an award. And it should be admitted in all fairness that in the beginning the decorations were given only to a few distinguished individuals for magnificient services in the various spheres of national life. ‘The ideal, however, started getting broken’, said Sri Prakasa, ‘when governors and ministers came to receive the awards, for they surely could not have done so for any other reasons except for having proved to be in the eyes of the central authorities good administrators.’ He further said: ‘If I am not mistaken, it was proclaimed in the beginning that the awards were not to be given to administrators, but to persons who had done something very remarkable in varied spheres of civil life.’
It is difficult to say what prompted Nehru to back Bharat Ratna when his party had condemned the award before 1947
The chief problem of state honours arises from their use for furthering the prospects of the political parties. This is indeed, no new practice or problem. The award of honours has been throughout the countries a recognised method by which those in power seek to strengthen their authority.
The government of the day when these awards were instituted were not unaware of the advantages which they could derive by exploiting this system for their own good. Gradually the political implications of this system assumed different forand proportions in India though the Indian politicians had to face almost the same problewhich their British counterparts had to face in their country. But in India greater importance was given to political defection as a means by which one’s party could be strengthened. This was tried on those who being financially well off were eager of some social recognition which, they thought, they would get only by state awards. It is why for many in power in India a defector could ‘be the most honourable man to be honoured.’
If such cases were very few,it is because in most of the cases it is not the prospects of being honoured with a state award that induced some people to defect from one party to the other but it is the absence of any material advantages and some moral inhibition that kept them in check. Instead of making the state awards a bait for some prospective defectors, they have been used in this country as a patronage for those whose goodwill has to be exploited for furthering one’s party prospects.
Since the introduction of this system, somehow the politicians seemed to have felt assured of state honours for their political and public services probably on the presumption that the awards were essentially meant for them. An year-wise analysis of state decorations since 1954 would clearly reveal two facts: first, it is mainly the first two highest honours Bharat Ratna and Padma Vibhushan — that have gone mostly to those who held political offices in Union and State governments; secondly, a large number of recipients in the category of Public Service (political) were in office when they received the award.
Awards to political workers
It was alleged that those who helped toppling state governments run by the parties other than the one ruling at the centre, were honoured with state honours. E.K. Nayanar, a CPM MP, cited an instance to show how for questionable motives these decorations were conferred by the government on politicians who adopted very mean tactics to help their party to come in power. In 1959, a liberation movement was started under the leadership of a Nair community leader Mannath Padmanabhan to overthrow the Communist government that was functioning in Kerala in 1959. Soon the movement gathered momentum and conditions became chaotic. Meanwhile, the Union government dismissed the state government in July 1959 for some financial irregularities and the state was brought under the President’s rule. It was alleged that M. Padmanabhan, the leader of the anti-government movement, was awarded Padma Bhushan as part of a bargain which the Congress party had with the leader of the liberation struggle. This shows the government conferred decorations on those who helped in toppling non-Congress regimes. Therefore, the system of honouring people who sided with the government, it was pointed out, was only a continuance of the practice followed by the British when they were in power.
It was a well-merited criticism voiced by some disinterested people that the decision to award honours was guided by several motives, the chief of them being political. As an illustration the case of an obscure chief minister of Madhya Pradesh may be cited here. Having been relieved of the office under Kamraj Plan in 1963, B.R. Mandloi was instrumental in mobilising much political support for S.C. Shukla who contested against Kunji Lal Dubey, a nominee of D.P. Mishra, a strong partyman in Madhya Paradesh Congress politics. Shukla having won the election felt obliged to pay his debt of gratitude to Mandloi which, he thought, he could best do by recommending his name for some national award. He did it accordingly in the full knowledge that his patron Mrs. Gandhi would support his recommendation. This is what actually happened and Mandloi got Padma Bhushan in 1970 but nobody heard anything about this celebrity later.
Few practice art for the sake of honour and no musician sings in the expectation of a medal or scroll from Rashtrapati Bhavan
Awards and electioneering difficulties
It is quite probable that the ruling party may actually offer or promise to offer some of the senior awards to recalcitrant elements in order to overcome its electoral handicaps. This actually happened once in parliamentary elections in 1971. The award of Padma Bhushan that year to M.J.Patel, an industrialist from Madhya Pradesh, is a case in point. His firm was blacklisted by the finance ministry and a charge of tax-evasion to the tune of 75 lacs was pending against him. Subsequently, the finance ministry’s objection in this connection was overruled by the Cabinet on the plea that whatever lapses he had committed were not deliberate but based on certain misunderstanding of the rules of income tax applicable to his firm. All this was allegedly done, because Patel had agreed to withdraw from Damoh parliamentary constituency to enable Shankar Giri, son of V.V. Giri, the then President of India, to contest election from that constituency in March 1971 mid-term elections. Damoh was given to Shankar Giri because it was considered a safe seat for Congress. Patel later contested from Vidisha constituency and lost but he was already a Padma Bhushan.
The practice created a new class
One of the persistent criticism made against the practice has been that by resorting to it the government has created a band of yesmen who would always be ready to endorse the government policies and do all its biddings so far as it lay in their powers. The practice, demoralised even the people of high calibre in liberal professions such as artists and writers who could speak on behalf of the people and resist the establishment when it goes amuck in its doings. The role of intellectuals in India during the 1975 emergency comes to mind -a reputed artist as M.F. Husain (Padma Shri — 1966, Padma Bhushan — 1973) reducing himself to the status of a courtier by ‘depicting Mrs. Gandhi as Durga; born out of the divinity of Emergency,’ or Ali Sardar Jafri (Padma Shri — 1967), the great Urdu poet, hailed as the ‘poet of revolution’, reciting a poem extolling the so- called “virtues of the Emergency.”
The story was repeated in 2015 when actor Anupam Kher, who led the ‘March for India’ rally in the capital against artistes who had returned their government awards citing rising intolerance in the country, was in 2016 awarded the Padma Bhushan. Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar, who also participated in the march, has been awarded the Padma Shri. Both walked in favour of the government, when writers were returning their awards. Ironically enough, Anupam Kher, back in 2010, tweeted his distaste for awards in India, including the prestigious Padma Awards, saying such awards had made a ‘mockery’ out of the system and lacked ‘authenticity’. That he accepted the Padma Bhushan in 2016 conferred on him with all his eagerness is another story.
With his foresightedness, Sardar Patel had observed: ‘There may be party governments, there may be other governments. They should have no authority to give any inducements or to corrupt people in order to built up their party or to obtain or drive strength by unfair means.’ (CAD, 30 April 1947, Vol. III) He favored the institution of gallantry awards and honours for distinguished services of the military personnel. He was also agreeable to have a medal to recognise police gallantry and another to recognise acts of bravery in rescue operations from fire and floods etc. But Patel was entirely opposed to any other honours for civilians.
Expression of popular emotions
The urge to recognise meritorious services and to give picturesque or verbal expression to such recognition has ever been a human habit; whether governments officially recognises them or not the people at large have always been keen to express their esteem and devotion. In India also the people were keen to express their love and respect by using reverential epithets for their leaders. Gandhi was popularly known as ‘Mahatma’ (Great Soul) though he always disapproved of the use of any adjective denoting his personal qualities. However, the epithet came to be universally accepted and became an inseparable part of the name of Gandhi. It was not conferred by the state. It was the result of an emotional urge on the part of the people who wanted to recognise in an appropriate manner the services of a great man. There was nothing undemocratic in it. Gandhi was recognised not by the British rulers; he was not given official recognition. But he was recognised by the people. There have been many other illustrious leaders in this country who were recognised by the people. Subhas Chandra Bose was called ‘Netaji’, C.R. Das was hailed as ‘Deshbandhu’, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was popularly called ‘Lokmanya’, Vallabh Bhai Patel was better known as ‘Sardar’ and Rajendra Prasad was called ‘Desh Ratna’. Even today Vinoba is reverentially addressed as ‘Sant Vinoba and Jayaprakash Narayan as ‘Lok Nayak’. The respect for these leaders has been spontaneous and came from the hearts of the masses who got inspiration from them during freedom movement. This was the way the simple and unsophisticated people of India expressed their love and gratitude to their leaders.
When state awards honours
But the governments are in a different position and it will not do for them to grant such awards and invoke this habit as a justification for their action. When the state enters the field, the results are not so happy. It is in a way desirable that people should have a sense of respect for a person honoured by the State, but popular respect does not go merely by government titles. In fact, the society honours those who really serve it and holds in contempt the persons upon whom the recognition is imposed by the government for extraneous reasons. Only when the government recognition of some one’s merit would reflect correctly the people’s esteem, the state awards may be said to have popular sanction.
Even from the point of view of the meritorious and the deserving ones it can safely be said that to the artist or, for that matter, to any one of distinction, public recognition is more valuable than the official recognition. Few practice art for the sake of honour and ‘no musician sings in the expectation of a medal or scroll from Rashtrapati Bhavan.’ What should happen is that the official recognition should follow the popular recognition and the government should merely honour those whom the public has already honoured. When this does not happen it amounts to asking the people to honour those whom the government has given recognition. And this is what now happens. The result is that those who are honoured by the government receive no incentive from the people and the awards, when given to unpopular persons lose respect in public mind. So unless we have respect for a person honoured by the government we are lowering the respect for these awards. The recognition of men of outstanding services should be left to the spontaneous appreciation of the people themselves and not on the whiof the party in power.
The run-up to the announcements of awards every year has been marked by hectic behind-the-scenes jostling for the awards. A “canonize-my-candidate campaign” gripped India’s political class. In a shocking incident, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials have registered a case against a Padma Bhushan awardee (Padma Shri in 2002 and Padma Bhushan in 2012) in the ongoing crackdown against black money. A Padma Bhushan awardee and former World Billiards Champion and three others were arrested in a case of Rs 400crore alleged fraud involving the multilevelmarketing company. Earlier,JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav said it was embarrassing that Padma Awardees were named In Panama Papers.Sangh Parivar ideologue S Gurumurty rightly said: “In Padma awards some names add value to the awards and some names bringing disrepute to the awards. Yet the craze for this award is shocking,” he said. No surprise if the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has received over 5,000 nominations for this year’s Padma awards. Just how well the guidelines of High Level Review Committee(1996), set up under the guidance of Supreme Court of India, to set stringent qualifications for the awards, were observed? Recent RTI queries have revealed that successive governments ignored the guidelines. Recognition of merit in various fields could be accepted in a way. But it is one thing to do so at the right moment and in respect of a particular case but quite another to make a sort of selection and publish a whole list of such awards regularly at appointed dates. The fault lies in institutionalising the practice resulting in lobbying and begging for awards. Better do away with it.
The writer is director at Foreign Policy Research Centre, New Delhi