The Prestigious Civilian Awards in India – A Joke or an Honor

The civilian honors bestowed by government in India have become a joke. There have been instances of senior politicians getting the highest award- like Indira Gandhi got Bharat Ratna, while she he Prime Minister. It is absolutely unethical that a civilian award be bestowed on active politician, especially when he or she is in a position to influence the decision makers , who recommend these awards.
Secondly there is a public clamor and sustained campaigns for am award to be given to a person who can manage such a campaign. I recollect here was a campaign demanding Sachin Tendulkar be awarded Bharat Ratnas. How disgusting. Awards are not given by votes and such campaign should automatically disqualify such a claimant.I am not sure all Indians know that, for the first three years of the Republic, we had no state awards. Then, the old disease crept back in 1954. It would be unrealistic to think that we can turn the clock back – but can we at least try and improve this system before it becomes a laughing stock and brings embarrassment upon all of us?
As a starting point, may I suggest three simple rules in the form of questions?
Question 1 – Who should be eligible for these awards? These awards are for public service, e.g. for arts and culture, for education, for service to society, etc. Should sports fall in this category? Sports give us pleasure, entertainment, joy and even pride. But I would not say that it is public service. Moreover, sports persons already have their separate awards – the Arjuna Awards, the Khel Ratna Awards, the Dronacharya Awards. In addition, they get their medals, their prizes, their endorsements and public acclaim. Moreover, their associations (the IOC, the BAI, etc.) can honor them.
Let us see how other some other countries honor their sports persons. Take the case of US swimmer Michael Phelps. He has won 18 gold medals (not to forget four silvers) at the Olympics – that is twice as many as all of India has won in the 100-odd years it has been competing (9 in all – 8 in hockey and 1 by Abhinav Bindra).
And has Phelps been honored by the US? No. His home state of Maryland has twice awarded him the “Order of DUI”! DUI meaning caught driving under the influence of alcohol and punished. Of course, as is right, this multiple gold medalist has been honored by the US Olympic Committee and other sporting bodies – but no state honors.
And here we have silver medalists asking for state awards as a matter of right.
What great ‘state’ honors have been bestowed on Roger Federer, who has won 17 Grand Slams, no less!
Donald Bradman, a better-than-average cricketer by any reckoning, and Garfield Sobers, a pretty good all-rounder, were each given just a Knighthood – among the lowest grade in the British system of honors. Alex Ferguson, during whose tenure Manchester United won 37 trophies, also got just a Knighthood. Among our cricketers, we have people spanning the entire spectrum of honors!
So, let sporting bodies reward and award great sports persons. I concede that it is impractical in India to not give Padma honors to sports persons. But can we at least severely restrict their numbers to 1-2 annually, in favor of those who render great public service – often without recognition or financial benefits?
Question 2. Should awards be given posthumously? In his speech at the burial of Caesar, Mark Antony said: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”. Following that simple principle – if one isn’t good enough to get a state award when one is alive, then one should not get it when one has departed. As Ranjit Savarkar, referring to the possibility of a posthumous Bharat Ratna for Veer Savarkar, said: “I feel they should keep great leaders out of award politics …. There is no end to the list of names” (Indian Express, January 25, 2015).
However, in the past, honors have been bestowed upon the departed. In the 2015 list also, out of 106 honors, five are posthumous. In fact, out of the 45 Bharat Ratnas awarded since 1954, around a dozen have been posthumous awards (the posthumous one to Lal Bahadur Shastri is in a class by itself – for he died while serving the nation).
This year, we hit a new low when we began awarding people who died before India became a republic (i.e. those who lived in a British Bharat) like Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. This may open the gates to all kinds of other names.
If Malaviya, the Didi will ask: what about Tagore, a Nobel Prize winner, who returned his Knighthood after Jalianwala Bagh? And Uddhavji will ask: how dare we forget Shivaji? And what about Emperor Akbar? And why not the great poet Thiruvalluvar and the great writer Munshi Premchand? And surely Jhansi ki Rani? And Tansen? And Jamsetji Tata? And Emperor Ashok? And how can we leave out Raja Raja Chola I and Chandragupta Maurya? And how about Chanakya and Aryabhatta? And Shahid Bhagat Singh? And the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh? And the mathematical genius sans pareil Srinivas Ramanujan? And Tipu Sultan? And the physicist J C Bose? And, in this year of ‘nari shakti’, what about Lord Bentinck and Raja Rammohan Roy who worked to suppress ‘sati’? As Ranjit Savarkar suggests, the list is endless.
So, if we do not put a stop to this, over the years to come, our political masters could lead us to the ultimate debasement and award 50 Bharat Ratnas every year to people who died before Independence! We have a large enough stock of great persons stretching over several thousand years to give 50 Bharat Ratnas annually for at least the next 100 years!
And the ultimate shame will be when we make Mahatma Gandhi a Bharat Ratna. Looking down dolefully at us from the Elysian Fields, he may well say: “He Ram, is this the India I lived for, fought for …. and died for?
Question 3 – How should these awards be given? And how many? There needs to be a truly independent and unbiased committee that selects the awardees. We now have enough such committees to select all kinds of legal and constitutional functionaries, so let us have one more. There also needs to be a numerical limit on the number of awards to be given. Instead of more than a hundred baubles being distributed every year (106 in 2015), we should restrict the number to, say, 10-15 truly deserving persons every year. This will certainly increase the value of these awards in the eyes of the public.
We need to take fresh look if the awards have to have some meaning. For several decades, we have known that the civilian “honors” system is broken. A noted sportsperson recently claimed an honor almost as a matter of right and ‘seniority’ (that old Indian disease) because another sportsperson had received it. And then a Bollywood grandee turned down an honor offered to him on a similar ground.
It’s raining awards these days—almost everybody of any repute (er… even “dubious” will do) is being anointed and crowned and obviously there is much excitement. I feel (most humbly, of course) that before we get into a talkfest on the respectability of the awards and the worthiness of the awardees (because that is definitely a sticky pitch!), we should ponder awhile on the significance of awards in general. Maybe then we’ll better understand what the controversy is all about.
Awards mean different things to different people, for the simple reason that people work for diverse motives or are driven by varied compulsions. Money, of course, is a common driving force but then it is not always the only reason why a person slaves his butt off—a person may work for a passion or even for self-discovery, in which case the work itself is the reward and it matters little whether any official recognition (a.k.a. an “Award”) comes his/her way. True-blue dedicated teachers (an endangered species, no doubt !) belong to this ilk. Then there are those lucky guys who strike gold in whatever is their calling and are in invincible positions acknowledged by the world and do not need to lust after awards—the trophies are welcome but not the ticket to recognition. The Tatas, Ambanis, Shah Rukhs , Bachchans, Tendulkars, Mittals (both Sunil and Laxmi) of the world fall in this category. And finally, there are the mere mortals like you and me who get their place in the sun by virtue of awards; their struggle, effort, achievement and, above all, excellence in their fields are acknowledged and appreciated by these awards. Were it not for the awards, the world wouldn’t know of their existence, leave alone their achievements! Would you have heard of Kailash Satyarthi were it not for the Nobel Peace Prize ?
Interestingly, actress Kiron Kher had once intelligently remarked that being nominated for an award is enough because it means that one’s work has been found worthy of being awarded and, moreover, when one of the nominees receives the coveted prize, it does not mean that the others were any less talented because comparisons can only be made if all the contenders were to play the same role. Well spoken, Kiron. So you see, for every Tendulkar who becomes a legend, there are scores of other equally talented players languishing in oblivion because life has this habit of being unfair to the best of us.
Look, we are human and we have dreams, dreams of doing something worthwhile, something that will make a difference in the world while being close to our hearts. We want to prove ourselves, so to say. And this is how ambition is born. It is burning ambition that propels a person to step off the cliff into the unknown, uncharted territory, to stray from the path of the pedestrian and carve a niche for himself . And this is where awards become meaningful, because they give that much-needed support and recognition.
That brings us to the tacky issue of the authenticity of the various prizes. Rumours have always been rife about various awards being rigged or even bought at humongous prices—they may or may not be true, no one knows for sure. On one hand, these canards may be the products of jealous minds; on the other, we know that almost everything in this world comes with a price-tag. When President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, many eyebrows were raised, including the awardee’s own! People, again including the POTUS himself, had wondered what he had done to deserve the honor. It is a mystery which remains unraveled. But the common man would like to believe in the awards as being the gold standard in the given fields; he needs to know that the unseen, nameless and faceless selectors of at least the prestigious awards are aware of their huge responsibility of choosing the right recipients. True, you can’t please all the people all the time and that holds for the selectors too—they cannot expect everybody to agree with their choices. But it is also equally true that some of their choices are very suspect indeed.
Padma awards, given on Republic Day in honor of contributions in wide-ranging pursuits, have often been subject of controversy due to the arbitrary nature of the selection process and inevitable charges of favoritism by the government and the ruling party. I won’t take names but if you go through the list of National Awardees for the past decade, you will find names of several people who you can’t recall having done anything worthwhile or respectable enough to deserve such great honor . Now isn’t that tragic ? And the latest pathetic trend is that people are actually “asking” for the awards. Badminton player Saina Nehwal, kicked up such a storm about not being nominated that she was subsequently included in the list of contenders. Though, in the ultimate analysis, she did not receive the award but I wonder whether Saina would have felt real, unadulterated pride if she had received it……wouldn’t her conscience have twinged just a little? Well, we all have our value systems, I guess.
Doesn’t the handing out of honorary doctorates also reek of being bartered for a sizable donation to the concerned institution ? It is shameful, but it is happening all the same. Just as some people are famous for the wrong reasons—they are famous because they have made the right connections or hired the right image consultants. And they have the lolly to “fix” things, even awards! Or, let us say, especially awards!
That is why the National Awards need to be above board. That is also why they need to be chosen wisely and well. It’d be a matter of immense shame for us if this institution too becomes buy-able. Imagine what it’d do to the self-respect and hon our of all those remarkable men and women who have received them for their genuine achievements. Will the authorities concerned ensure that the National Awards will remain above reproach? Only time will tell. Till then I hope the common man will look up-to awards of all genre and dream of holding up one in his hand some day and be able to look skywards and say, “This one’s for you, Mom/Dad!”. After all, we all have our dreams, don ‘t we?
The system has become thoroughly corrupted and debased and we have now come to a sorry pass. Does a republic really need such an elaborate system of honors? After all, in a republic, we are all supposed to be equal.
I would like to make two points:
What does it say for a system of honors that, in 2015, finds 106 deserving cases but has no place (as far as I am aware) for Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner – and the only resident Indian who has that honor.
Finally, at every Republic Day, we normally have the sad spectacle of 2-3 women collecting the Ashoka Chakra for the valor that has cost their husbands their lives. As I watch these women, it brings tears to my eyes, a big lump in my throat and great pride in my heart. I must say that I do not feel even remotely the same at the investiture for Padma Awards winners at Rashtrapati Bhavan. What about you?

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