Do we need so many civilian awards? Announced on the eve of the Republic Day and conferred at the Rashtrapati Bhavan later, considerable, time, effort and energy are apparently spent on selecting, vetting and securing the consent of the awardees. Very few remember the recipients and with a large number of political leaders and civil servants given these awards every year, there is always the suspicion that extraneous or political considerations were at play.
The awards have often been mired in controversy. The highest civilian award of the Bharat Ratna conferred on cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and former President Pranab Mukherjee courted controversy. And if this year the Government decides to honour Savarkar posthumously, it will again generate some heat and dust.
It is perhaps time to revisit the awards and put a cap on them, streamline the selection process and possibly ensure that rather than announcing the awards annually, they are conferred after gaps of two, three or four years. Again, it might not be a bad idea to allow states to confer the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri while the Centre retains the right to confer the two highest honours to Indians who are nationally or internationally acclaimed.
As many as 218 people are said to have been honoured with the Padma Vibhushan since 2010. As many as 37 of them received the award between 2015 and 2019.
Some of the recipients during this period were Satyamitranand Giri, Gokultotsavji Maharaj, Shivakumara Swami, Tejomayananda, Ratnasundarsuri, Ramachandran Nagaswamy.
How many bells do the names ring? One assumes they are all deserving of the country’s second highest honour. But one also assumes that their sphere of work is limited to a state or parts of a state and that their names do not have nation-wide recall.
The awards have been dogged by controversies. And a large number of recipients have either declined to accept them or returned them later. Author Gita Mehta declined to accept a Padma award last year because she felt it would be questioned in an election year. Mehta, sister of Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, took the correct decision, many would say.
Family members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose have steadfastly refused to accept a posthumous Bharat Ratna for him, arguing quite sensibly that figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji were beyond such honours. Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad had declined the honour by saying that those who sit on selection committees to decide on honours should not accept such honours themselves.
P.N. Haksar, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi too had declined the honour in 1973 though he had played a key role in finalising the Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan. Writers Phanishwar Nath Renu and Khushwant Singh returned their awards , protesting against the Emergency and Operation Blue Star respectively.
Among those who declined Padma awards are Ustad Vilayat Khan, danseuse Sitara Devi, the first chief minister of Kerala EMS Namboodiripad, historian Romila Thapar, journalist Nikhil Chakravarty, industrialist Keshub Mahindra, theatre activist Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, author Krishna Sobti, singer S Janaki and screenwriter Salim Khan. The refusal or return did nothing to diminish their position though.
The highest civilian honour in the United States is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Awarded to people for their extraordinary achievements (Tiger Woods got it in 2019), there were just seven recipients last year. And what is the second highest civilian award in the United States, we asked an NRI. He had no clue.