Former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said he was not aware that he had been named for the Padma Bhushan and he would reject it if it were so, in an extremely rare instance of a recipient turning down one of India’s top civilian honours seen as a major embarrassment for the government.
“I don’t know anything about a Padma Bhushan award. No one told me anything about it. If indeed they have given me a Padma Bhushan award, I am rejecting it,” he said in a brief statement in Bengali posted on his party CPM’s Bengal social media pages.
According to the central government, the Union Home Secretary had spoken with Mr Bhattacharjee’s wife about the award this morning. She had accepted the award and said thanks, Home Ministry officials said, explaining the flub.
A staunch critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the 77-year-old has been suffering from age-related ailments along with heart and lung conditions for quite some time and has largely retracted himself from public appearances.
Rejections of the Padma Awards are extremely rare – recipients are required to confirm acceptance before the announcement. Film writer Salim Khan had said he had refused to accept a Padma Shri in 2015. Before him, historian Romila Thapar had refused a Padma Bhushan in 2005, having returned her 1974 award in 1984 over the siege of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army.
Author Khushwant Singh had also returned his 1974 Padma Bhushan in 1984 over the same issue but he accepted the Padma Vibhushan in 2007. Mr Bhattacharjee, a lifelong Marxist, was the second of two prominent opposition figures named for the Padma Awards this year. Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, part of a dissident group in the party that has questioned its leadership, was the other.
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, who has stood by the Gandhi family amid the discord, took a dig at Mr Azad and praised Mr Bhattacharjee, tweeting, “Right thing to do. He wants to be Azad (Independent) not Ghulam (Slave).”
Both Mr Azad and Mr Bhattacharjee were conferred the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award. But while there was no response from the Congress leader, Mr Bhattacharjee — an arch-critic of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi — promptly issued a statement declining the award.