Should the Indian State continue to confer national awards that have been devalued by lobbying and favouritism?
The following is the text of the draft I wrote for the EPW edit on this topic. The final edit can be read here.
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The Republic Day has been the occasion for the State to honour those of its citizens whom it considers to have made a significant contribution to national life. Instituted in January 1954, the Padma awards, as they are collectively known, have become the pre-eminent marker of national recognition in India. When they were first instituted, there were only 18 Padma Shree awardees, 23 Padma Bhushan awardees and six Padma Vibhushan awardees. But over the years these numbers have swelled along with the scope and spread of those the Government of the day wants to honour. This year 93 Padma Shree, 30 Padma Bhushan and 10 Padma Vibhushan awards have been announced. Over these 55 years, a total of 2,152 Padma Shree awards, 1,033 Padma Bhushan awards and 245 Padma Vibhushan awards have been given out. 41 Bharat Ratna awards have been conferred too.
In the colonial period, such State awards, whether given by the British or by the Native States, were seen as crumbs to those who supported colonial and feudal rule. Many of those awards gave their possessors privileges in civic life and were sometimes inheritable. The independent Republic, aware of the colonial and feudal smear on such titles and honours, banished them from its domain. Yet, by 1954, State honours were reinstituted in the form of these Padma awards – meant to bestow recognition to stellar contributions to nation building. Mindful of the colonial past, it was made clear that these State honours were not titles, could not be inherited and would entitle the awardee to no civic privilege.
Despite these clarifications and checks, these awards, right from their inception, became the site for intense scrutiny, disputation and rivalry, so much so that they often have been embroiled in controversy. Some awardees have rejected or returned their awards because they disagreed with the Government in power, or were critical of the Indian State or even questioned the very idea of the Nation. Whether it was M.G. Ramachandran refusing the Padma Shree because the citation was in the Devanagari script, or Khushwant Singh returning his Padma Bhushan after the anti-Sikh riots or Manipuri theatre doyen, Ratan Thiyam returning his Padma Shree over differences on the Naga peace process in 2001, there have been many political contestations over the “national” symbolism of these awards. Any State award would be open to such contestation and this does not take away from its significance.
But there has been a more fundamental issue with these awards. What do they actually honour – is it excellence in a specific area of human endeavour, or is it for a contribution to nation building? If it is for the former, then the Government of the day is not the authority competent to judge this. How does a disparate committee of bureaucrats, technocrats, artists and politicians judge the relative musical brilliance of one artiste over the other. How does it judge who gets the Padma Shree and who gets the Padma Bhushan or Padma Vibhushan?
Vilayat Khan had famously questioned the judgement of the award committee on matters musical. Most people may have dismissed his objections for being tainted by professional rivalry with Ravi Shankar but the larger point remains. As historian Romila Thapar argued when she rejected the Padma Bhushan in 2005, she would accept recognition from her peers but would be wary of State recognition. How is the State competent to know whether she is a good historian and further, accepting an award from the State would compromise her independence as a scholar. If these awards are honouring the person’s achievements in their area of work, then peer associations and not the State should be the competent authority to confer them. But if these awards are national recognitions, these would then, inescapably, be political in as much as the nation is a political entity, and would thus enmesh the awardees in the politics of the nation. For a range of professions and public activities, it is crucial to retain independence and autonomy from the State. India’s first education minister, Abul Kalam Azad refused the Bharat Ratna citing conflict of interest between being a minister of the Government which confers this very award and accepting it. Nikhil Chakravartty and K. Subramanyam pointed out that accepting an award from the State would compromise their work as journalist and bureaucrat respectively.
What is of equal, if not greater, concern, is that these awards are now seriously compromised, in the public perception, with favouritism, politicisation and incompetence. There is hardly any transparency about the criteria employed to select one name over the other. In short, there is a growing feeling that these awards are increasingly becoming one among a range of political sops and inducements for the party in power to dole out.
One of the values of liberal citizenship is to maintain a healthy distance from the State and remain critical of authority which exceeds its mandate. The State is not the competent authority to judge and award excellence in a person’s work and professional practice. A better course would be for the institutions which cater to and nurture the different arts, knowledges and skills to be made vibrant and autonomous and for them to honour excellence in their fields.
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