18 May 2024 10:06 AM


Kuldip Nayar | 1 FEBRUARY, 2016

The Politicisation of the Republic Day Awards

I mean no disrespect to Republic Day awardees. Except a few who have distinguished themselves in their respective fields, the rest have made the grade because they have connections, however remote, with the ruling party, this time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The earlier regime of the Congress Party was also guilty of promoting its own people for the honour.

This is, however, contrary to the thinking of framers of the Constitution. They banned awards. That is the reason that when the Janata Party came in the wake of the popular movement, led by Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, it stopped this practice. The person who initiated the awards was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He wanted the recognition of people, who had excelled themselves in the fields of literary, economic or scientific. No money is given because the award was too valuable to be weighed on the scales of monetary benefit.

Nehru also did not want the award to be linked with politics. He did not envisage that one day the entire exercise of selection would get politicized. The government would pick up its chamchas (sycophants) to reward his or her services to the ruling party.

I recall that initially the Republic Day awards, started some 50 years ago, were under the Ministry of External Affairs which Nehru headed. Subsequently, the job was entrusted with the Home Ministry which gave the responsibility to one deputy secretary. But he had too many things on his plate. He passed on the task to the Information Officer attached to the ministry. That is how I came to handle the job because I was then the Home Ministry’s Information Officer.

The mode of selection was arbitrary. The Prime Minister and other ministers would suggest one or more names which I, as information officer, went on stacking in a file. Almost a month before the Republic Day I had to shortlist the names. I must admit I followed no rules while preparing the list which went to the deputy secretary in charge, then to the Home Secretary and finally to the Home Minister. I found very few changes in the list I sent.

But the toughest job was preparing the citations. I would have the dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus before me. In some cases, I had their bio-data to guide myself. Mostly they contained a mere cryptic description of the person whether he was a scientist, an academician or economist. That helped me somewhat but preparing the citation on that basis was challenging.

The entire process was so haphazard that the Supreme Court had to intervene to ask the government to constitute a selection committee, including the Leader of the Opposition as its member. However, some order came to prevail once the committee was in position. Yet, preparing the citation was my task.

The draft gazette notification of names was issued by the Rashtrapati Bhavan. I recollect that once the name of Ms Lazaraus was suggested by the President. We, in the home ministry, thought that the honour had been conferred on the then famous educationist Ms Lazarous. Accordingly, the gazette notification was made public.

But when President Rajendra Prasad saw the notification, he said the name he had suggested was that of a nurse. She had attended to him while he got a bout of asthma when he was travelling to Hyderabad from Karnool in Andhra Pradesh. We were all embarrassed that the honour had been bestowed on a wrong person. But we could do nothing because the name was already in the public domain. That year two Lazarous were given the awards.

Two years ago when the Congress was in power it conferred the Padma Bhushan award to US hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal despite some criminal cases pending against him. There was a furore in the country but the home ministry justified his selection on the plea that he was a known Indian who had served the cause of the country abroad.

At the same time there are several cases of eminent people refusing to accept the awards on the ground that the panel of selectors was not capable enough to judge their work.

The lesson to be learnt is whether there should be any award. The experience is that the ruling party tends to give “recognition” to the people who are either members of the party or somehow connected with it. The real purpose is lost because the recognition is extended to those who are close to the party.

Take, for instance, the case of Sachin Tendulkar. No doubt, he was the best batsman, probably next only to Don Bradman, in the world. But should he have been conferred with the Bharat Ratna when hockey wizard Dhyan Chand was not even considered for the honour. The legendary Milka Singh made an issue when he was chosen for the Padma award. He refused it saying he would want nothing less than the Bharat Ratna because his son had been bestowed with the Padma award ahead of him.

Among academicians, Romila Thapar while refusing the Padma awards made another point: she wanted to be judged by her peers and not the bureaucrats sitting the Home Ministry. The famous sitar maestro Vilayat Khan called it an insult and refused both the Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan. His argument was that he would not accept an award which was conferred on his juniors and, in his opinion, made less deserving. This only underlines that there has always been a story of wrong time, wrong person and wrong award in the country.

This only emphasizes the argument that the awards are not according to merit. This charge will remain because the selection is done by people who are nominated by the government. You can include the opposition leader in the selection panel but he or she would be in the minority. There should be a debate in the country to on the importance of awards. Maybe, they have outlived their utility which was there when we got the freedom.