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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2614

The business of civilian awards

By G S Bhargava - Syndicate Features

India is a unique democratic republic to have civilian awards. During the Constituent Assembly discussion on the propriety of a republic having civilian awards, non-Congress members like Prof. K.T.Shah and H.V.Kamath opposed the idea as an unhealthy practice. But Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, among others, defended it, apparently because Nehru wanted a source of vicarious political patronage. So came the Padma awards in 1954 from Bharat Ratna (or jewel of India) to Padma Shri at the bottom rung, as a kind of consolation prize.

Initially, it was said the award could not be conferred posthumously -- like the Nobel Peace prize – and so Mahatma Gandhi was ruled out but the rule was changed when Rajiv Gandhi had to be made a Bharat Ratna!

At the mundane level, I remember a present day Union Minister, as minister of state for home affairs in the Rajiv Government, hawking Padma Shri’s to persons hungry for civilian awards. He had enrolled a lawyer past his prime at Masulipatam as Congress party activist in return for a promise of Padma Shri! That was in the early 1985-86. Buta Singh was the Union Home Minister.

The aggrieved hanker -after - the award landed in Delhi with a note from my friend, his younger brother. He had learnt in Hyderabad that ‘no recommendation’ for an award for him had been sent to the Centre. In other words, contrary to ‘Minister’s promise,’ the Union Home Ministry had not acted in the matter.

I managed to get an audience for him with the Home Minister along with permission for me to accompany him as an informal interpreter. Buta Singh was not naturally abreast of English as spoken in Andhra Pradesh and the lawyer did not know Hindi or Punjabi. As it happened, the few minutes with the minister saw a piquant situation with the lawyer advancing towards the dignitary to make his point and the security personnel holding him back!

Reverting to Bharat Ratna, the first three Presidents, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Dr. Zakir Husain --- posthumously – got the award – - C.Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), V.V.Giri but not Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Gobind Ballabh Pant, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and future Home Minister, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the then chief minister of West Bengal, --he was incidentally the uncle of Renuka Chakravarthy – Communist MP and wife of Nikhil Chakravarthy, (Dr. Roy had left his vast fortune for Renuka ) - M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) -- the famous Tamil film personality, who after a long stint in DMK went on to found A-I ADMK presently headed by Jayalalithaa ---but not C.N. Annadurai, the suave and scholarly originator of DMK and a member of the Rajya Sabha; and K.Kamaraj, ex-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, putative Congress party president and author of the so-called Kamaraj Plan.

Among more recent Presidents, Dr. A.P.J Abul Kalam got the award for his scientific work in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), now sought to be disbanded.

The first and second crops of prime ministers Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi but not her husband Feroze Ghandi, Rajiv Gandhi but not P.V.Narasimha Rao got the award almost automatically. In other words, the nepotistic -- from the Italian word nepote -- bias in the conferring of the award was ill concealed, even if there had not been much talk of it. On the other hand, when candidates for the awards these days, naturally political leaders, good and not so good, are discussed, it is said the matter has been politicised!

Sardar Vallabhai Patel—Nehru’s partner in consolidating India’s freedom and political companion for twenty-eight years, had been left out until Chandra Shekhar in his brief tenure as ‘defector’ prime minister made good the omission in 1990.

The practice of conferring the awards was suspended during the 18-month Janata Government due to Morarji Desai’s ideological aversion. Ironically, the Pakistan Government of Gen. Zia-ul- Haque conferred its highest civilian award Nishan-e- Pakistan (star of Pakistan) on Morarji in appreciation of his Government’s scrupulous non-involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs. It was awarded posthumously.

The first non-political recipients of Bharat Ratna were Maharshi Dhondo Karve, pioneer founder of a women’s university in Maharashtra, Dr. Bhagwan Das, a companion of Annie Besant, and father of Sri Prakasa, our first High Commissioner in Pakistan, and Mokshagundam Viswesswarayya, the celebrated civil engineer who had built old Hyderabad and Bangalore. (It is said of Dr. Bhagwan Das that in order to keep pace with Annie Besant who was religiously punctual to the minute, he would keep his watch an hour ahead but would be still be late for appointments because he would be conscious of it!)

The immortal Shenai maestro, Bismillah Khan, golden voiced M.S.Subbulakshmi, world renowned Pandit Ravi Shankar and evergreen Lata Mangeshkar are among the musicians honoured. Also Mother Teresa, Badshah Khan, Nelson Mandela, C.V.Raman, Amartya Sen. Dr.Ambedkar and Lenin Peace prize recipient Aruna Asaf Ali but not Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

Meanwhile, inveterate opponents of State participation in matters unconnected with non-government matters –or champions of 20th century laissez- faire -- oppose altogether the prevalent practice of the Government conferring civilian awards on chosen citizens. They want the corporate sector to take over the chore. They claim it to be the hallmark of liberalism!

On the other hand, ‘progressives’ have faulted the BJP leader, L.K. Advani, for making an open appeal to the Prime Minister to confer Bharat Ratna on the veteran leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee. They want it to be a private matter between Advani and Manmohan Singh so that the Prime Minister does not have to show his hand!

- Syndicate Features -

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