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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2620

‘Padma is O.K., You Keep Shri’

By Tukoji R. Pandit - Syndicate Features

Late David Abraham, a Jew by faith, a loveable Bollywood character and a sport referee (probably weight-lifting) who died in Canada in 1981 after migrating from India when it was not considered ‘intolerant’, had reportedly said something to the effect when informed by a government official that he had been selected for a ‘Padma’ award: “Padma is O.K., you keep ‘Shri’”.

Perhaps taken by surprise, the old man was obviously talking in jest. He did not live long enough to see that in later years instead of humour, the ‘Padma’ awards evoked a lot of anger even though, undoubtedly, the recipients are always thrilled to the bone.

Among those who have exulted on being awarded a ‘Padma’ award this Republic Day is actor Anupam Kher who had displayed his ‘tolerance’ by leading a state-sponsored march against the ‘intolerant brigade’. Befittingly, some other film personalities who had accompanied him in the march which had culminated in a meeting with the prime minister have also been suitably rewarded with ‘Padma’ awards.

Kher’s expression of gratitude sounds strange when only about five years ago he had unambiguously criticized these awards, demanding that they be abolished and had thus added to the voices that have been opposing the continuity of the system of doling out civilian ‘awards’. For all practical purposes, the civilian awards are used in the country as replacement for the ‘titles’ that the British rulers used to confer on ‘toadies’. There is a court ruling against using the ‘Padma’ award as a pre-fix but a lot of people do so without any fear of being hauled up for an infringement of a court directive.

There is no doubt that Kher is a fine actor, but a lot of people will suspect that his award came because of his political views. He makes no bones about his admiration for the prime minister and as husband of a BJP Member of Parliament (actress Kiron Kher) he can be expected to be part of the BJP ‘family’, even if he has not joined it formally.

There are several other names which can be easily identified as being close to the ruling dispensation. For a party that sets much store by ‘Hindutva’ and Hindu religious leaders it sounds odd that Swami Dayanand was awarded Padma Bhushan, the third highest award that follows Bharat Ratna and Padma Vibhushan. The Swami’s ‘status’, it would appear, has been adjudged to be lower than that of Shri Shri Ravi Shankar, who gets Padma Vibhushan. Is it because the latter dispenses his message of ‘happiness’ with a dose of saffron philosophy?

People are bound to read meanings into the ‘grade’ of given award. They cannot be blamed for assuming that someone who gets the Bharat Ratna has greater achievement or accomplishment to his or her credit than the Padma Vibhushan winner who, in turn, is assumed to be a notch above the Padma Bhushan awardee.

This criterion was applied by critics when cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was conferred Bharat Ratna. The criticism was not directed as such at honouring Tendulkar, arguably one of the greatest batsmen in the history of cricket, but the fact that he had been bestowed the nation’s highest civilian award when there were people deserving of a similar honour for their contribution in different fields. It was said that scientist C.N. R. Rao was hastily chosen as the other Bharat Ratna recipient along with Tendulkar in 2014 to silence critics.

It is no secret that political parties in India are in awe of big industrialists. In honouring late Dhirubhai Ambani this year, the government has actually pleased his warring sons whose (financial) support to politicians and political parties is considered vital. And be sure that Gautam Adani, believed to be the closest industrial friend of Narendra Modi, will make it to the list next year.

Last year the ‘Yoga guru’ Ramdev had ‘embarrassed’ the government by rejecting the offer of a ‘Padma’ award. This year too there have been some known ‘embarrassments’ of people nominated for the awards announcing rejection. A great moral act or a sacrifice? Hardly when you consider the fact that some of these personalities are considered close to the ruling party camp, if not active supporters; they only wanted to show a face that, they wrongly assume, gives them a moral halo.

To argue that the trend of converting the ‘Padma’ awards into a kind of ‘royal’ patronage has continued too long to be revised now cannot be accepted easily because if it is widely viewed as flawed or bad there has to be a time when it is scrapped or modified drastically. To begin with, its selection process can be made transparent.

But that seems highly unlikely to happen anytime soon when the ‘Padma’ awards, so believe a lot of people, help in the distribution of political patronage and are supposed to boost electoral prospects. It is surprising that this view is steadfastly held even when it looks questionable. For instance, the Congress and the Janata Dal leadership in the past had conferred Bharat Ratna on M. G. Ramachandran and B.R. Ambedkar but neither party actually achieved the (unstated) objective of winning over Tamil Nadu and Dalit votes respectively.

The 2016 list of ‘Padma’ winners is said to be among the longest so far, well over 100. Some years ago, the Supreme Court, while upholding the validity of ‘Padma’ awards as being the sign of encouragement and gratitude, had suggested that the list be confined to 50 or less. Chances are that next year it will be a list of 150 awardees!

Civilian awards were seen by many as an anachronism in a democracy almost from the start of the ‘Padma’ awards in 1954 because of the alleged bias, favourtism and political motives in the nominations. Many eye brows were raised when Indira Gandhi, prime minister of the country, had awarded herself the highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, in 1971. That was the year India under Indira Gandhi had broken the back of the ‘arch enemy’ Pakistan, liberating its eastern wing in concert with the Bengali-speaking population of what was then called East Pakistan.

The Jana Sangh (precursor of the BJP) leader of the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had reportedly compared Indira Gandhi to the Hindu goddess of power, a praise that one would normally not expect to hear from an opposition leader. Vajpayee was echoing the views of the majority of Indians who welcomed the break-up of Pakistan as it lessened a security threat from the eastern borders.

Still there was criticism of the Bharat Ratna award for Indira Gandhi. It was seen as an act of self-glorification rather than an acknowledgement for a heroic act under her leadership. It was an immodest and a brazen act. Not that the criticism in 1971 really changed anything. The ‘Padma’ awards continued to attract controversies, year after year. So, how could it be different now when the ruling party has to prepare itself for tough political battles ahead!

- Asian Tribune -

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