In a Republic Day post on Facebook I offered felicitations to friends who received Padma awards this year. It elicited some critical and derisive comments.
Bestowal of honours by the ruler (read state) for services rendered to him is a practice that goes back to the feudal era. The knighthood in Britain is said to have originated in Saxon times (449-1066). In the 19th century non-whites who served the colonial administrations began to be considered for the honour, and Mutu Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka became the first Asian to be knighted. The British instituted a system of graded civilian awards exclusively for Indians – Diwan Bahadur, Rai Bahadur and Rai Sahib in (Rai became Rao in the South and Roy in Bengal and Khan in the case of Muslims and Parsis regardless of geographical location).
Many Maharajas instituted awards of their own -- like Rajyasevaniratha.in Travancore. .
Article 18 of the Constitution of India says: “No title, not being a military or academic distinction, shall be conferred by the State.”
The Article reflected nationalist sentiments against the colonial-feudal reward system. Mahatma Gandhi was the only high-ranking leader of the freedom movement to have received a British honour. In 1915, he was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal in recognition of his services in organizing an Indian ambulance corps during the Zulu revolt in South Africa. He had just returned to India at the time and was helping to recruit soldiers to fight for Britain in the World War I. He returned the medal a few years later in protest against the Jalianwala Bagh massacre.
Following the adoption of Article 18, many Indians gave up titles conferred on them by the British.
Four years after the Constitution came into force, the government instituted the Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awards, reviving the imperial knighthood, Diwan Bahadur, Rai Bahadur and Rai Sahib under a republican garb. Many questioned the propriety of instituting such awards when the Constituent Assembly had rejected the concept of titles, holding that it militated against the concept of equality. The government clarified that the awards were meant to honour people for services rendered to the nation and that since they are not titles that can be used with the name they did not attract the constitutional bar.
In total disregard of the government’s clarification, many award winners use the Padma awards as titles. Even when they have the good sense not to do so, their admirers often insist on using them. This tendency is very pronounced in Kerala.
In the beginning, following the colonial practice, awards were given only to the living. When K. Kamaraj died in 1975, Indira Gandhi conferred the Bharat Ratna on him posthumously in the hope that the gesture will win her the support of his Congress (O) followers. This prompted Morarji Desai, who succeeded her, to suspend the award system. On her return to power Indira Gandhi revived it. Following her example, Rajiv Gandhi conferred Bharat Ratna posthumously on M. G. Ramachandran. In 1990, V. P. Singh set the tone for the birth centenary celebration of B.R. Ambedkar by conferring Bharat Ratna on him 33 long years after his death.
The award system was suspended again in 1992 as the Supreme Court was examining a petition challenging its constitutional validity. The court rejected the petition in 1995 and the government revived the awards in 1997.
Morarji Desai was honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 1991. He also received a Pakistani honour: Nishaan-e-Pakistan.
Normally the President confers the awards on the advice of the Council of Ministers. But when Jawaharlal Nehru returned from a successful visit to the Soviet Union in 1955 President Rajendra Prasad conferred the Bharat Ratna on him without any ministerial advice.
The manner in which selections are made for the awards was seriously questioned for the first time when an engineer who was given the Padma Shri in recognition of his role in the execution of a major project was later arrested on a charge of corruption.
There are a few known cases of eminent persons refusing awards as they believed they deserved something better than what was offered. K Subrahmanyam, who had served as civil servant, strategic analyst and journalist, had refused a Padma award for personal reasons. In a television interview, he said, "In my view I should not accept an award from the Government in any of the capacities as that would compromise my independence vis-a-vis the state.” That is a refreshingly welcome statement from one who was a part of the Establishment all his life.
I hold the view that the system of awards is not in conformity with the spirit of the Constitution. But, then, the Indian state is essentially a continuation of the colonial state and, what’s more, the system of awards appears to have wide acceptance not only among those looking for recognition but also among the general public. It is for an individual chosen for an award to decide whether or not to accept the honour. When someone is chosen for an award, I believe, felicitations are in order -- unless there are reasons to believe he does not deserve the honour.
The words Rabindranath Tagore wrote to the Viceroy in 1919 relinquishing his knighthood in the wake of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre are worth remembering: “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.”
Humiliation of our countrymen for their so-called insignificance is a continuing story but how many are ready to stand by their side, shorn of all special distinctions?