Monday, 30th October 2017

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 30.01.05

Acknowledging excellence, and that alone, is a tough act to follow, year after year. When the state institutes awards for excellence, this becomes doubly difficult, for a government, even in its neutral role, cannot be entirely dissociated from its dominant political ideology. But if the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awards appear to have lost much of their lustre, these are not the only reasons. A certain arbitrariness in selection, or perhaps a hidden logic, has slowly undermined their prestige. The gradation in the awards is often cause for offence to the awardee. In 1982, Michael Ferreira, the billiards champion, had refused to accept the Padma Shri, saying that in his game his achievements were no less than Sunil Gavaskar?s in cricket, and Gavaskar had been given the Padma Bhushan.

Ferreira?s grouse raises basic questions about the awarding policy. Who decides? Bureaucrats or the politicians in charge? Artists too have made famous refusals, Sitara Devi for example, or Vilayat Khan. Either the awards come too late, after junior artists have been rewarded, sometimes with higher honours, or more prestigious awards from other sources have already been received by the awardee. This time, the writer, Mr Kanak Sen Deka, has refused the Padma Shri on the last ground. Accepting the ?lowest? of the three state awards would lower the pres- tige of the much higher awards he has received so far.

The historian, Ms Romila Thapar, has a different reason for refusing the Padma Bhushan. She had made clear in a letter earlier that she would not accept awards except those given by academic institutions or those associated with her professional work. The total lack of coordination that caused this letter to be overlooked is now being glossed over with bureaucratic rhetoric. What is amazing is the amnesia that goes with such lack of coordination. Ms Thapar had refused the same award on similar grounds in 1992.

Such hamhandedness hardly does much for the prestige of the state awards. There is always a question about the list itself, irrespective of the government in power. Why should this doctor be awarded, or that top official of the Union Carbide Corporation after the Bhopal gas tragedy, why this functionary of a particular political and cultural organization and that businessman who runs trucks on the highway? How is excellence judged from the perspective of the state?

The Constitution specifically bars the bestowal of any title that is not of military or academic distinction by the state. The state might claim that the Padma awards are not titles, but it cannot be unaware that the proud receivers often do use them as such. The state alone is to blame for having used its awards as favours too often. That is the best way to destroy the credibility and prestige of the awards.