“Come back with the goods and I’ll get you a knighthood for literature,” quipped one of MI6’s top brass upon assigning a task in information-gathering to a boozy, bumbling, and very minor publisher in John le Carré’s .
That flippant remark perfectly summarises the value of state-led honours globally. On paper, these honours are given for meritorious contributions to society and national interest. But in reality, the state confers these honours upon associates both within and beyond the government – quite often irrespective of the significance of their contributions.
It’s also a way for echo chambers to fortify themselves by placing medals around their cronies’ necks. Cynics will call it legalised bribery. An found that a Saudi tycoon allegedly received a knighthood from the British royal family after he made to The Prince’s Foundation.
In India, the story of the Padma awards has been no different. Instituted during the early 1950s, the awards were usually conferred upon loyal courtiers of the once coveted Lutyens’ Durbar. The winners were authors, artists, filmmakers, actors, social workers, activists, journalists, bureaucrats, and even shady NRI businessmen whose rise emanated from dubious and murky financial dealings.
A look at their résumés revealed that they often had deep connections with the influential and the powerful in the government. They were also active promoters of the government’s policies and even members of the grand old party. The awardees were usually urban and affluent “club” members.
This is not to say that they were completely unworthy of recognition; however, there were others of higher merit who often were ignored. The award they received was a combination of merit and connections and, quite often, the connections outweighed merit.
Yet, there they were at the plush halls of Rashtrapati Bhavan, beaming with pride and joy as they were presented with the nation’s highest award.
A perfect illustration of why these awards have fallen out of favor in the minds of many is that Jawaharlal Nehru received the Bharat Ratna in 1955 and Indira Gandhi in 1971, both while they were prime ministers. Yet the likes of Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, and Dr Ambedkar received it posthumously during the 1990s, despite their very significant contributions to the nation.
Perhaps they fell out of favour with the powerful from those governments and hence had nobody to lobby for them? It was undeniably unfair.
So, what do we have now?
Awardees of significance
The Modi government attempted to elevate the standing of these awards by revamping the process of selection. To judge how successful the process has been, let us peruse some of the significant awardees this year, in no particular order of importance.
was awarded the Padma Shri for social work. She is a barefooted environmentalist from Karnataka who has planted more than 30,000 saplings and has been involved in environmental conservation activities for the past six decades. Since the age of 12, she has planted and nurtured thousands of trees.
Orange vendor , 66, from Karnataka's Mangaluru received the Padma Shri for bringing in a revolution in rural education by constructing a school in Harekala-Newpadpu village in Mangaluru. The school currently has 175 underprivileged students from the village. Hajabba, who has been selling oranges at Mangaluru bus depot since 1977, is illiterate and has never been to school. The desire to revolutionise education in his village came to his mind in 1978 when a foreigner asked him the cost of oranges but he couldn't understand the language and hence could not reply.
Air marshal Dr received the Padma Shri too, as the first woman officer in the Indian air force to be promoted to the three-star rank of air marshal. She is the retired director general of medical services at the air force, where she served for nearly four decades.
Transgender folk artist received a Padma Shri for her contribution to the arts. For Manjamma, now in her early 60s, the recognition comes after decades of social and financial struggle. Amid poverty, social exclusion, and even rape, Jogati mastered, among other art forms, Jogati Nritya and Janapada songs, Kannada language sonnets in praise of various female deities. She is the first transgender resident of the Karnataka Janapada Academy, the state government's top institution for folk art forms.
, from Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya was conferred with the Padma Shri this year. This 83-year-old former bicycle mechanic has performed the last rites of more than 25,000 unclaimed dead bodies across religions in his district over the last three decades. In fact, it has become a practice for the police to hand over bodies unclaimed for 72 hours for cremation or burial to Sharif.
Padma Shri awardee from Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh is the first woman from the Bhil community to paint on paper and canvas. When she first arrived in Bhopal, she was engaged as a construction labourer earning Rs 6 per day. It was here that she first met her mentor in celebrated painter Jagdish Swaminathan, who spotted her talent and encouraged her to paint. She has contributed immensely to teaching and preserving the traditional Bhil paintings.
Professor was awarded the Padma Shri for literature and education. The president of the Kashi Vidvat Parishad, he is popularly called “Abhinav Panini” for his contributions to inventing new ways to teach and modernise Sanskrit grammar and Vedanta.
from Rajasthan, who was awarded the Padma Shri, has not just raised a forest by planting 11,000 trees on 25 bigha land near his village of Nagaur, but has also planted more than five lakh trees in five years. In a state where poaching is , and where the illegal smuggling of peacocks, blackbucks, chinkaras and other animals serves as a livelihood for many, Himmataram has been at the forefront to eliminate the issue in his district.
Professor was awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions as a botanist and taxonomist. His work includes the research, translation and annotation of Hendrik van Rheede's 17th century Latin botanical treatise documenting extensive details of Kerala's 700 indigenous plants, and the discovery of 14 species along with his students.
, who was awarded the Padma Shri, is a social worker who travels to remote rural areas bringing social, economic and political transformation through propagating the philosophy of non-violence. She has worked extensively for the upliftment of the landless and the poor. She also participated in the freedom movement and shared the stage with Mahatma Gandhi at a very young age.
, who was awarded the Padma Shri, is a renowned artist in the field of leather puppetry, a shadow puppetry craft in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur.
was conferred with the Padma Shri for his advocacy to ensure justice for Dalits, and his activism against police atrocities against Dalits. He has been instrumental in promoting the works of BR Ambedkar and Ayyankali among the masses. His quest for justice started at a very young age as a schoolboy. Now, at the age of 82, his inspiring life is a story of struggles that he led for equality in society.
Padma Shri awardee is a tribal farmer from Mahadeo Koli, a tribal community from the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Popere is also known as the “seed mother” for her efforts in favour of native or organic seeds, and her crusade against the use of hybrid seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, which she discovered were the cause of illness among children in her locality.
, known as the “elephant man of India” or the “elephant surgeon”, is a veterinarian and professor of surgery and radiology at the College of Veterinary Science in Assam. Awarded the Padma Shri this year, he has treated over 600 elephants and has saved 140 rogue bull elephants.
Some politicians and bureaucrats were conferred with awards too. Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and former union ministers Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Ram Vilas Paswan all the Padma Vibhushan award.
was presented to former Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan (public affairs) and top bureaucrat Nripendra Mishra (civil service). Two-time Olympic medalist received the Padma Bhushan too.
Some raised eyebrows when was conferred with the Padma Shri, but even her worst critics cannot deny that she is an actress of prodigious talents who carved her own niche in the film industry by choosing an unconventional path. Yes, she is an agent provocateur and supporter of the government, but that doesn’t take away her accomplishments as an artist.
Some were displeased that was conferred with the Padma Shri. While Johar’s work may not be to everybody's taste, he is indisputably a successful screenwriter, director, talk show host, game show judge, raconteur, and author. He also runs one of the biggest film production houses in India.
Why the new process works
Back to the process.
Back in August 2017, prime minister Narendra Modi ended the practice of ministers recommending names for the Padma awards. It was opened up for regular citizens to make recommendations for the . The prime minister even about these inviting nominations online a few months back.
, including those working with PSUs, are not eligible for these awards although an exception has been made for doctors and scientists.
The by the Padma Awards Committee and the names are then submitted to the prime minister and the president for approval. This committee is headed by the union cabinet secretary and includes the home secretary, secretary to the president, and four to six eminent persons as members.
The results show the new process has indeed worked well.
Yes, awards were given to pro-government voices in various fields. Yes, awards were given for former and departed ministers who were members or allies of the BJP. But there is no denying that these were achievers in their respective fields.
But what really makes this different and heartwarming is the awards given to regular people who toil relentlessly at the grassroots level. These individuals are not rich or famous or powerful; some even belong to marginalised groups. They usually remain unsung, unrecognised and unheard of all their lives and beyond. If they are lucky, perhaps a few people in their locality know of their accomplishments.
Previously, such individuals were probably not even considered for a local award simply because they did not have a backer in high places to promote or lobby for them. Now, they are recipients of the highest awards of the nation and were greeted warmly by the prime minister and the president of the country.
We live in times of extreme polarisation and divisiveness. Any action that the government takes is always met with predictable reactions. Seldom do we find any occurrence that is undisputedly noble, that can compel even the worst of cynics to get on board.
Hopefully, the inclusion of these new icons should help curb the general scepticism associated with state honours awards and, indeed, everything that governments in general do.
Hopefully, the nation will unite in welcoming its new icons and role models and not look at them through the prism of politics.
The lotus after which these awards are named is a perfect analogy for the human condition. Despite its roots being in muddy waters, the flower that blooms is most beautiful. This perfectly symbolises the lives and contributions of recent awardees whose roots are firmly placed in the soil.
Hopefully, this lotus will continue to bloom forever.
Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Manjamma Jogati is the first transgender person to receive the Padma Shri for the arts. This is incorrect; Narthaki Nataraj was awarded the Padma Shri in 2019. This has been corrected.
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