The Padma Awards 2022 kept up with its decade-old tradition — of getting mired in unwarranted controversy soon after the Ministry of Home Affairs came out with the list of awardees.
And just like before, this year too the controversy had a distinct political colour. The Narendra Modi government, on the eve of the 73rd Republic Day, announced the Padma awardees for 2022. Among those selected for Padma Bhushan were former CPI(M) politburo member and West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and senior Congress leader and leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad.
The names raised eyebrows, and the reaction was instant. While the MHA said that Bhattacharya’s wife was informed about the award since he was unwell and has been in and out of hospital in the past few years, the CPI(M) was first caught off guard. But it gathered its wits soon and managed to get a statement from Bhattacharya declining the award.
Azad, on the other hand, thanked the government for recognising the sacrifices of a Congressman, immediately fuelling rumour that he could be the next one to jump ship and join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many of his senior party colleagues were unsparing in attacking him. After Bhattacharya declined the award, Congress leader and Azad’s colleague in Rajya Sabha, Jairam Ramesh tweeted, “Right thing to do. He wants to be Azad not Ghulam.”
Ramesh also tweeted a paragraph from his book Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi on how one of the most powerful bureaucrats in Gandhi’s PMO was offered Padma Vibhushan but declined on the ground that “accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me.”
Among his other colleagues, M. Veerappa Moily also criticised Azad for accepting the award and accused the Modi government of bestowing the honour for political reasons.
But as the history of Padma awards goes, Bhattacharya and Azad will not be the last to get mired in such controversies. For long, critics have questioned the highly politicised award and its relevance in today’s day and time.
That is why Padma awards is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
The Padma awards, announced annually on the eve of Republic Day, are one of the highest civilian awards instituted in 1954. The awards are given in three categories – Padma Vibhushan (for exceptional and distinguished service), Padma Bhushan (distinguished service of higher order) and Padma Shri (distinguished service). The awards are conferred on the recommendations made by the Padma Awards Committee, which is constituted by the prime minister every year. The nomination process is open to the public. Even self-nomination can be made.
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NDA sailing the same boat as UPA
It would be naive to assume that Padma awards became politicised only after the Modi government came to power. The awards courted equal controversy during the UPA regime too.
One of the most controversial inclusion in recent years was in 2010 when US-based hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal, whose name had cropped up in an alleged bank fraud case in India, was chosen for Padma Bhushan for his apparent lobbying with US senators to support the India-US nuclear deal.
Chatwal’s inclusion drew a lot of public outcry with then-leader of opposition in Lok Sabha Gopinath Munde shooting off a letter to the prime minister demanding that the award be withdrawn.
Again in 2011, when the Manmohan Singh government chose Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his national security advisor, for Padma Vibhushan, it drew flak from critics. Mishra was apparently rewarded for supporting the UPA government on the nuclear deal.
It’s not just prominent hoteliers and policy wonks considered close to the ruling dispensation whom the governments have rewarded. Bollywood celebrities are the other prominent recipients of Padma awards, more specifically the Padma Shri.
And their inclusion invariably triggered a controversy, irrespective of the political dispensation that conferred the awards on them. From Akshay Kumar (2009) and Saif Ali Khan (2010) to Karan Johar, Ekta Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, and Adnan Sami (2020), many of them have been rewarded, most recently by the Modi government.
Equally long is the list of those who have refused the awards.
In 1992, when the Congress-led Narasimha Rao government chose veteran CPI(M) leader and Kerala’s first chief minister, EMS Namboodiripad, for the Padma Vibhushan, the latter declined to accept.
Several others have declined the Padma honour. Former Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal refused the award in 2020 in protest against the farm laws. Historian Romila Thapar in 2005 declined saying she doesn’t accept “state awards”, and noted author Khushwant Singh returned his Padma Bhushan in 1984 to protest the Army’s Operation Blue Star. Singh was, however, conferred Padma Vibhushan again, posthumously in 2007.
Sometimes, an individual refused simply because they felt the award did not do justice to their work or stature. Noted scriptwriter Salim Khan of Sholay refused Padma Shri in 2015 and 90-year-old singer Sandhya Mukherjee did it this year.
Also read: ‘People’s Padma’ Awards shows the best of India, and not just the elite
Has the Padma award lost its sheen?
Critics have long questioned the relevance of Padma awards.
In a column in The Week, Sanjaya Baru, the former media advisor to PM Manmohan Singh, wrote that he became increasingly cynical about Padma awards after observing the kind of lobbying that used to go on.
“I cannot believe it has ceased completely. In the end one must ask what national purpose such national awards serve. Apart from merely recognising good work, or gratifying friends and influencing people, the selectors must choose such individuals for these awards who may be regarded as national icons,” he wrote in a January 2021 column ‘Burnishing the Padmas’.
Bestowing an award like the Padma should ideally be an occasion to celebrate our icons, performers and artists, those who have achieved extraordinary success and brought cheer to millions of people through their achievement. Instead, invariably, we cut a sorry figure every year on the eve of Republic Day. The awards end up triggering some controversy or the other, embarrassing us.
It will continue to be so till the time the Padma awards are stopped being used as a political tool. It is time to rethink the award and restore its honour – free of political patronage, nepotism, and lobbying.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)