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Maulana Azad to Romila Thapar—Bharat Ratna and Padma awardees who refused to accept it

Indira Gandhi's principal secretary, PN Haksar was the first person to refuse the Padma Vibhushan award. He said he was simply doing his job and accepting the award would be discomforting.

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This column is not about those who have received or are likely to receive the Bharat Ratna and Padma Awards, but about individuals who have refused to accept the honour – either on account of their ‘in-principle’ objection or due to their ideological dispensation.

In the first year of the introduction of the awards in 1954, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad refused to accept the Bharat Ratna: his point was that serving members of the Union cabinet were in a position of ‘control and authority’, and should stay away from these ‘temptations.’ Another person to refuse the Bharat Ratna was H N Kunzru, a member of the States Reorganization Commission(SRC) who had opposed the idea of the State giving awards, honours or titles in the Constituent Assembly debates. He thought it would not be proper for him to accept the award. Kunzru was the founder of the Indian School of International Studies – which later morphed into the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – and the India International Centre.

Incidentally, the chairman of the SRC, Justice Fazal Ali was only offered the Padma Vibhushan, which he accepted. Justice Fazal Ali had earlier received the titles of Khan Sahib , Khan Bahadur and  the  Order of the British Empire (OBE). He was invested with a knighthood on 1 May 1942 by the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow. This was a rare example of a person being honoured by both the Raj and the Swaraj. (Indian government under British rule and government of independent India)

The third member of the SRC, KM Panikkar was not given either of these honours, but he was among the 12 members nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the President for a six-year term. It was because of ‘their contributions towards arts, literature, sciences, and social services’ per Articles 4(1) and 80(2) of the Constitution of India in 1959.


Also read: Award from ‘anti-art’ state? No, thanks. Poet Ashu Lal refuses Pakistan’s top literary prize


Posthumous recognition

When the Bharat Ratna and Padma Awards were introduced, they were meant only for living persons. The decision to confer posthumous awards was taken before the Republic Day of 1966 to bestow the honour of Bharat Ratna on late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. He had passed away just a fortnight ago in Tashkent, Uzbekistan after signing the India-Pakistan Peace agreement. Later in 1992, the family of Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad accepted the posthumous award but the conferment of the same on Subhas Chandra Bose triggered much criticism and a PIL was filed in the Calcutta High Court. The petition argued that the government had not officially accepted Bose’s death on 18 August 1945. It also drew the court’s attention to the dissenting note of Subhas Bose’s brother in the Shah Nawaz Committee report of 1956.  The PIL averred that even the findings of the GD Khosla report of 1974 could not be taken as ‘final’Moreover, Bose’s family felt that the recognition had come much too late for them to accept it.

Incidentally, it must be placed on record that in January 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed a PIL asking to grant the Bharat Ratna to MK Gandhi. The apex court said: “he is much higher than the Bharat Ratna. He is held in much greater esteem by the people…what is the Bharat Ratna for Mahatma Gandhi?” In fact, Gandhi’s birthday is now celebrated by the United Nations (UN) as the International Day of Non-Violence.  

The Padma Awards

The first person to refuse the Padma Vibhushan Award in 1973 was PN Haksar, the principal secretary to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He felt that he was simply doing his duty and ‘accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort’. Haksar had been recognised for the successful conduct of the Simla (Shimla) Agreement in 1972, and the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation. This tradition was followed by civil servants SR Sankaran and K Subramanyam, who took the view that civil servants should not accept awards for doing what they were supposed to do.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) members, comrades EMS Namboodiripad, and later Jyoti Basu had to refuse the Padma Vibhushan because their party didn’t give them permission to accept the same. CPI’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was offered the Padma Bhushan in 2013, but his party put its foot down againInterestingly, communist leaders holding government positions in both China and the erstwhile Soviet Union are known to have accepted State Awards.

Swami Ranganathananda recused himself from receiving the Award because he felt that the recognition should be given to the Ramakrishna Mission as an institution, and not to him as an individual. However, unlike the Noble Prize, there is no provision to give the Padma Vibhushan to an institution.

In 2011, the family of Lakshmi Chand Jain, a doyen of the co-operative and handicrafts movement and India’s High Commissioner to South Africa refused to accept the posthumous honour of Padma Vibhushan ‘as Jain was against accepting State honours.’ Journalists Nikhil Chakravarty and Virendra Kapoor, and academicians GS Ghurye (sociology) and Romila Thapar (history) also declined the awards. They felt that accepting State patronage may affect their independence. Although there are many more instances of journalists, writers, social workers and activists returning their national awards to mark their protest against the political philosophy or the actions of the government in power, this would merit another column.

Before closing, it would be important to mention that in 1969, Congress leader Acharya JB Kriplani had moved a private member’s Bill titled The Conferment of Decorations on Persons (Abolition) Bill, 1969. Cutting across party lines, members spoke about the need to bring in some degree of ‘rationality’ in the selection process. While the motion could not be carried through, the majority of members concurred with the view that these honours were not ‘titles’ and could not be used as a prefix or a suffix to an individual’s name, else it would be a violation of Article 18 of the Constitution, which abolished both personal and hereditary titles.

These days the government makes it a point to ask the nominees well in advance if they will accept the Award to avoid any embarrassment. With regard to the return of an award, there are many other ways to express a difference of opinion with the government of the day. The Award is a recognition given on behalf of the nation by an elected government at a particular point in time, its return, at a later date, is in poor taste.

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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