Midweek Musings: How Fair are Awards and Honours?

Conferring and decorating chosen few with awards and honours is not just a legacy of the Raj in India. It was a legacy of the Moguls and the Hindu rulers before them in our country.  Arguing that it’s an archaic system, he appreciates the United States for not introducing this practice in their country. Ashoka also discusses three stalwarts Lal Bahadur Shastri, PD Tandon and Dr B C Roy, one of the greatest doctor India has known.  

 Those who have had an opportunity to follow my columns here and elsewhere would not have failed to notice my deep disdain for the system of state honours. Tempting though it is for all of us to believe that is an unhealthy vestige of our colonial legacy, the fact is that this tendency has been an integral part of the Indian psyche for centuries. The  Moguls were known to confer titles to all those who were beholden to them and if we go back further into the medieval history , we would find the Hindu rulers were not averse to this practice. We had after all been part of a feudal society where establishment of hierarchies is a sine qua non.

However it is true that the present system of state honours in this country were systematically institutionalised by the British. And I am not even talking about the knighthoods, peerages, CBE’s, MBE’s, etc  We all know how the titles like Rai Bahadur were dished out to those who were able to get into the good books of the establishment.

The British system of honours is centuries old but it has evolved over time. We only need to look at the recent House of Lords reforms which almost whittled away the archaic system of ‘hereditary peerages.’ Moreover the British have also introduced a mechanism whereby if some unsettling information emerges which raises questions about the suitability of the honoured individual ,the award can be revoked. I was in the UK when they decided to withdraw the state honour conferred on Lester Piggott, unquestionably one of the greatest jockeys ever known when he was discovered to have evaded taxes.

Notwithstanding that, I am convinced that state honours are archaic and need to be done away with. I applaud the United States for not introducing this practice in their country.

India, following the British practice introduced the Padma awards and the Bharat Ratna very soon after independence. Initially everything went according to the plan. The individuals honoured were universally acknowledged as remarkable human beings and the room for controversy was if anything minimal. But over the years the system has been comprehensively desecrated. I shall not even bother to discuss the Padma awards; the decline in quality is so intense that very few take them seriously . That is not to say that worthies do not get awarded. Some of them do but the opaqueness of the process that governs it plus the obvious very political considerations have brought then enormous disrepute.

However it is Bharat Ratna , the highest civilian honour in India that has been affected the most. We have now accepted the validity of awarding people posthumously; the first posthumous award was, in 1966, to Lal Bahadur Shastri. It had been decided that he would be conferred that honour but he died a few days before the Republic Day. To my reckoning that is the only valid posthumous award. Now we are in a situation where people who passed away more than 50 years ago being conferred the honour. Even more ridiculous is people who had died even before the independence when these honours were not even thought of being honoured so. I am not even attempting to delve into the political considerations that come into the equation. Some of the names recently put forward by various political formations are shocking to say the least. In effect Bharat Ratna has been reduced to a total farce and that saddens me.

But it was not always that way. The first three awardees viz. Rajagopalachari, Raman and Radhakrishnan were men of enormous learning and made stellar contributions for which they were universally recognised. I am not sure whether their admirers would feel comfortable placing some of the subsequent awardees on the same pedestal as them.

I myself witnessed one Bharat Ratna ceremony in 1961 as a small boy. The awardees that year were Purushottam Das Tandon and Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy.

Tandon was a remarkable Congressman from Allahabad, who was widely respected in the Congress circles. The interesting fact was that he was widely regarded as a Nehru opponent within the Congress. When he contested for the Congress Presidentship, Neheru decided to oppose him tooth and nail and set up Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani against him. Tandon won handsomely but so annoyed was Nehru that he used all his political muscle to force his resignation. Nehru believed that Tandon was communal in his outlook and always justified his actions when he was widely criticised. The irony was that very soon it was Kripalani who resigned from the Congress and became the first person to place a no-confidence motion against the Nehru government; and it was the Nehru government that recommended Tandon for Bharat Ratna.

But it was the second person viz  B.C.Roy I would like to mention. The foremost Congressman of that era in West Bengal, Roy was a distinguished physician known for his clinical acumen all over the country. He continued with his medical practice even while officiating as a Chief Minister.

Roy graduated from Calcutta and went to the UK where he trained as a surgeon obtaining FRCS. Later on, he gravitated to internal medicine and obtained MRCP before returning to India. His clinical acumen won him millions of admirers.

He went on a state visit to the US where he was as part of protocol granted a few minutes with Jack Kennedy at the White House. Kennedy expected to meet with a routine politician and during the meeting was distinctly uneasy. Roy sought permission to examine him. Reluctant first, he relented when advised that Roy was a distinguished physician. The good doctor made a clinical diagnosis and left. This diagnosis was later confirmed by the president’s physicians. Kennedy was so impressed that he wrote a handwritten note of thanks and summoned John Kenneth Galbraith the US Ambassador in India at the time asking him to hand deliver. To this day, he remains the only physician to have been conferred Bharat Ratna and was the first President of the Medical Council of India.

In those days we could be confident that a Bharat Ratna awardee was a remarkable figure, who was universally respected and admired . It is anyone’s guess whether this remains the case now.

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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