National conventions, institutions and honours represent national identity and pride. They signify sovereignty of the state and act as catalysts in the development of national cohesion, especially in the case of newly-independent countries that are afflicted with the malaise of sectarian parochialism. It is commonly said that patriotism and nationalism get manifested when a country acknowledges the contribution of those who serve the cause of nation building against all odds. Therefore, it is essential that such national recognition be objective and merit-based. Honours and awards lose their sheen if trivialized for the purposes of political expediency. Three issues have been causing concern to the well-meaning citizens of the country – according of state funeral arbitrarily, nomination of members of indifferent quality to the Rajya Sabha and giving of national awards with imperceptive application of mind. All governments are guilty of subjecting these issues to their selfish political agenda and thus, inflicting immense damage to their value and standing. These concerns have been discussed hereunder.
First, the issue of state funeral was in the news when veteran actor Sridevi was accorded one. The social media went abuzz with multitude of reactions, varying from ecstatic support to outright disapproval. She was undoubtedly a highly popular actor of the Indian cinema during the 1980s and 1990s. However, accordance of state funeral to Sridevi raised a number of significant questions. Many wondered if a new practice of according state funeral to Padma awardees (Sridevi was awarded Padma Shri in 2013) was being started, or whether the government had decided to make state funeral a means of pampering to the sentiments of the people to earn popularity. Earlier, state funerals were reserved for high constitutional authorities and dignitaries. The first ever state funeral in independent India was held for Mahatma Gandhi. The rules have since been changed. Now, a state government has the discretion to sanction state funeral, depending on the stature of the deceased and his contribution.
In a state funeral, the government makes all the arrangements including provision of escort, organisation of procession and presenting of the gun salute. Arrangements are also made for the body to lie in state to enable paying of last homage. The coffin is draped by the national flag (draping of the national flag in a private funeral is an offense). As the state police is tasked to organise a state funeral, it has to divert considerable resources from its normal policing duties. Commuters get inconvenienced as roads are blocked and traffic diverted. Because there are no set rules and guidelines, demand for state funerals is on the increase. Every segment of the society puts pressure on the government to accord state funeral to its leading lights. Political pragmatism makes the party in power succumb to such demands, even for lesser mortals. Where does a line get drawn? Having accorded state funeral to Sridevi, how can the government deny the same to other, and perhaps more popular film personalities who have won higher Padma awards? More worrisomely, demand will not remain restricted to the film industry, even others will desire a similar honour. In our cricket-crazy country, every cricketer worth some achievement will be a claimant for the honour, thereby opening Pandora's Box.
In addition to lowering the significance of such an honour, the state will be forced to squander scarce resources and incur considerable expenditure. Worse, as is India’s wont, claims will now be made in the name of religious, caste and regional affiliations as well. If a personality from minority community or other castes is not accorded state funeral, the government will be accused of communal bias. Hence, penchant for state funerals needs to be nipped in the bud, lest it becomes another source of dissentions in the country.
Second issue pertains to the Rajya Sabha. Unfortunately, it has always been deprived of the benefits that should accrue to it through the nomination of competent personnel. Article 80 deals with the composition of the Rajya Sabha. As per the Fourth Schedule (Articles 4(1) and 80(2)) of the Constitution, 12 members are nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the President for their contributions to literature, science, art and social service. Their term is for six years.
Provision for nomination to the Rajya Sabha is exceptional in value. The objective, as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, was to draw benefit from the wisdom and statesmanship of eminent personalities, who otherwise are disinclined to stand for election to the august body. Drawing on their insightful knowledge and expertise, the house is expected to have debates that are far more scholarly, well-researched and well-articulated. Unfortunately, instead of nominating personalities who can genuinely help the law-makers in understanding the complex issue at the ground level, the provision has been converted into a largesse for the favourite, thereby nullifying the very purpose. One wonders as to how Nargis (1980-86), Vyjayantimala Bali (1993-99), Lata Mangeshkar (1999-2005), Dara Singh (2003-09), Rekha (2012-18) and Sachin Tendulkar (2012-18) added to the quality of debates in the Rajya Sabha. What has been their contribution? Social media is abuzz with the details of Rekha and Tendulkar absenting themselves from the sessions. And, they will get pension for life and family pension thereafter.
The third issue, and perhaps the most important one, concerns the national awards. Bharat Ratna is the highest civilian award of the country and the recipient ranks seventh in the Indian order of precedence. It was instituted in 1954 for recognition of ‘exceptional service/performance of the highest order’. Earlier, it was limited to achievements in arts, literature, science and public service. In December 2011, the criteria was expanded to include ‘any field of human endeavour’. Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar became the first sports-person to receive the honour in November 2013.
Bharat Ratna has been bestowed upon 45 individuals (including 12 posthumously). Whereas it should be reserved for the rarest of rare achievements – achievements that are selfless and in the interest of the society/country; most recipients have used their talent for personal fame and enrichment. The nation has gained little. There are certainly a few exceptions. There are a handful of recipients whose contribution has made a difference to the public and the nation. Over a period of time, the award is being used more for political purposes to garner votes than for genuine recognition. A number of politicians of doubtful hues have been given the honour to placate vote banks. In addition, some awardees had died even before the award was instituted. It is a bizarre practice.
Agreed that Tendulkar is an extra-ordinary cricketer, how has he helped the nation’s cause? In any case, the game has already rewarded him adequately with enormous riches. Incidentally, it is quite a sight to watch a Bharat Ratna selling/promoting water filters on TV. The nation honoured Lata Mangeshkar with Bharat Ratna in 2001. However, she has stalled the construction of a much needed fly-over in South Mumbai, threatening to quit Mumbai if the project went ahead. Consequently, thousands of commuters are facing traffic snarls every day. She remains unmoved, totally immune to the hardships faced by the fellow countrymen.
On the other hand, the names of Verghese Kurien (father of the White Revolution); Baba Amte (messiah for the poor suffering from leprosy); M S Swaminathan (father of the Green Revolution); T K Patel (founder of Amul); environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna of the Chipko Movement; and ornithologist and naturalist Salim Ali (affectionately called the ‘birdman of India’) do not appear in the list of Bharat Ratna awardees. The nation has been grossly unfair to them. The above list is purely indicative in nature and scope. The aim is to highlight the fact that hundreds of far more deserving personalities have remained unnoticed, unsung and unrecognized, despite having rendered yeomen service to the society and the nation. Take the case of the Metro Man Sreedharan. Does anyone deserve the award of Bharat Ratna more than him? His life has been a saga of service to the nation, transforming the mass-transit system in the country through the Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro.
Equally deserving are the scientists who have made India a force to reckon with in space and atomic technologies. It is sad that the coveted honour has been bestowed on much lesser mortals. Similarly, giving Padma awards to film personalities is incongruous. They entertain people and have made millions from the industry. In what way have they contributed to the society or the country or improved the lives of the people? We have a Padma Vibhushan awardee advertising the cooling effects of a hair oil. Give him a few lakhs and he will sell any product. Honouring him with Padma Vibhushan (the second highest civilian award of the country) makes a mockery of the selection criteria. Yes, he is undoubtedly a talented thespian and deserves recognition. But, we have a plethora of awards for the film stars. Why Bharat Vibhushan?
All governments function by well-evolved protocols and conventions. The sanctity of national institutions must be maintained assiduously and conscientiously. It should never be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. The central government should lay down detailed guidelines for according state funerals. The state governments should be encouraged to adopt them. The governments must have powers to make exceptions; but the exceptions should be really exceptional, rare and duly justified.
All political parties must put their heads together to evolve criteria for selecting personalities for nomination to the Rajya Sabha. They cannot let a constitutional provision get degraded and trashed. They owe it to the nation. Every nominated member must be worthy of the honour. He must provide the benefit of his expertise and experience to the legislature. Undoubtedly, all achievers deserve recognition. However, those who excel in different fields should be honoured with awards instituted for their respective fields. Film personalities must vie for the Dadasaheb Phalke Award and the Annual National Film Awards. For sportspersons, India has instituted a number of awards like Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Arjuna Award, Dronacharya Award and Dhyan Chand Award. Similarly, for classical singers, musicians and artists, India has instituted multiple awards, e.g. fellowships and awards of Sahitya Academy, Sangeet Natak Academy and Lalit Kala Academy. People excelling in these fields must be recognised with these field-specific awards.
It is strongly felt that the practice of giving Bharat Ratna and other Padma awards to classical singers, musicians, artists and sportsmen must be discontinued. Only those should be considered for Padma awards who have either furthered national/public cause or contributed to the betterment of the society or progress of the country. Padma awards epitomise a grateful nation’s appreciation of those who have made a difference to the society and the nation.
Finally, to end on an optimistic note, a welcome change has been discernible in the selection of awardees for Padma awards during the last three-four years. There has been a reasonable sprinkling of the common citizens whose service to the nation and the society deserves to be applauded. The list of awardees of Padma series in 2018, inter alia, included octogenarian Damodar Ganesh Bapat who has dedicated his life to the service of leprosy patients; 99-years old Sudhanshu Biswas who has been serving the poor, running schools and orphanages; Langpoklakpam Subadani Devi, a Manipur weaver who has revived traditional Manipuri handloom-handicrafts and provided vocation to numerous Manipuri women; and the indomitable Sitavva Dundappa Jodatti (‘dedicated’ as a Devadasi at the age of 7 years) who has helped eradicate the Devadasi system in Belgaum and changed the lives of over 4,000 women. These are the people the country ought to be indebted to.