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National awards: Count on transparency

Though the 2017-edition of the Padma awards appears less controversial, the inclusion of controversy-ridden politicians raises many eyebrows. On the contrary, cricketer Rahul Dravid “rejects” honorary doctorate given by Bangalore University, saying he would “do a research in sports and earn a doctorate”.

What began in 1954 as something to honour achievers in different fields, the Padma awards in recent years have drawn flak for featuring contentious processes. Earlier, the nation’s roll of honour comprised the giving out of the Padma awards, which was a limited merit list with a value attached to the feats.

How does a disparate committee of bureaucrats, technocrats, artists and politicians judge the relative brilliance of one artist over the other? How does it adjudicate who gets the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan or Padma Vibhushan?  Why only five out of the 45 Bharat Ratnas have gone to women?

A committee meets to vet nominations. Nobody knows who made the decisions.  Earlier 2016, Tamil writer Jeyamohan refused to accept the Padma Shri award.  “My stand is not against the government since I always believe that toeing a political line is against the nature of a writer”, he said.

Many awardees are well past their prime and a few recipients are awarded posthumously. Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, the exponent of Hindustani Classical music, was awarded the Bharat Ratna when he was 86 and sick.  A few of them refuse to accept these titles claiming that the awards have not been distributed fairly.  Noted playback singer S. Janaki declined to accept the Padma Bhushan award, citing “apparent delay and neglect of South Indians”. Other notable names include Historian Romila Thapar, legendary Kathak dancer Sitara Devi, Journalist Khushwant Singh, to name a few.  Sitar Maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan turned down, saying the “awards committee isn’t competent enough to judge his music”.  The deserving ones are obviously embarrassed in the equation.

In 1955, when Maulana Abul Kalam Azad refused to accept the Bharat Ratna, he advised Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to follow suit.  But by accepting the award, Nehru set a precedent, and politicisation and partisanship of the award became inevitable.

Though Article 18(1) of the Constitution advocates abolishing all titles, successive governments manoeuvred around this proscription by naming them as “national awards”. Awardees must be people of impeccable credentials, as those distinguished become role models and leaders in their chosen fields.

Define transparent criteria

What is terrible is the lack of a transparent jury and the process. Will it throw a potential problem with revealing the names of jurors early on?  A qualified jury can add to the prestige and authenticity of the award. While public poll as a percentage of selection process is worth pondering, a transparent system with checks and balances should be in place.

Establish criteria for each award and define the desired attributes. Does the definition of eligibility for the award need updating?  The process should be bared through website of Union Home Ministry soon after the awards are announced.    Increasing awareness of the award has the added benefit of enhanced interest and making the selection process more inclusive. Ensure the prioritised list of attributes matches with the public criteria for the award.

In contrast, a Param Vir Chakra or Maha Vir Chakra is not usually given to a General, neither to a soldier for a mere bravery, as courage is embedded in their job description. Only when the Army man goes beyond the call of duty is he entitled to the highest military decoration.

Don’t forget that Mahatma Gandhi was denied the Nobel Prize, despite being nominated five times between 1937 and 1948. Yet, the Father of the Nation remains the world’s beloved Mahatma, over six decades after his death.  In a democracy, the recognition by the masses is the best tribute.

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)

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