Amitabha Bhattacharya | Rethinking the Padma and Bharat Ratna Awards

Columnist  | Amitabha Bhattacharya

Opinion, Columnists

No wonder that in recent years, some dedicated grassroots workers, far removed from the limelight, are getting noticed and honoured

Iconic agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, known as the “father” of our Green Revolution wasn’t awarded the Bharat Ratna, though perhaps no other living Indian merited it more. (File Image: PTI)

The recent demise of iconic agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, known as the “father” of our Green Revolution, was widely mourned. But he wasn’t just a scientist who did an exemplary job; his life-long crusade against hunger, his deep concern for environmental sustainability and similar public causes made him one of the tallest Indians of our times.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t awarded the Bharat Ratna, though perhaps no other living Indian merited it more. This should set one thinking on how these awards are decided.

The nation’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, and the Padma awards (Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri) continue to interest its citizens since these were instituted in 1954. More than numerous other national awards, the announcement of these awards on the eve of Republic Day is keenly awaited.

Like the Nobel or equivalent prizes, this scheme of recognising exceptional achievements in different fields of activity where “an element of public service is involved”, like in art, literature and education, sport, medicine, social work, science and engineering, civil service, public affairs, trade and industry, has also been criticised from time to time.

Though no undeserving person may have got these awards, arguably many deserving ones did not. Since awardees are chosen from different disciplines, it has always been difficult to arrive at an equivalence. How does one compare, for example, Bharat Ratna Sachin Tendulkar or Lata Mangeshkar with, say, M. Visvesvaraya or Mother Teresa, except that we can agree all attained the highest level of excellence in their fields?

If one analyses the process that has evolved over the past seven decades, certain broad aspects become evident. First, the procedure of selection of the Padma awards has been democratised (for the Bharat Ratna, the recommendations are made directly by the Prime Minister to the President). Second, vocal or stringent critics of the government of the day have rarely been considered for such awards. In other words, the system does not appear to be wholly devoid of politics. Third, certain regions of India seem to remain under-represented.

About the democratisation of the selection process, one notices that in 2001, the committee to recommend the names for the Padma awards had 10 members -- three officials (Cabinet Secretary, secretary to the President and the home secretary) and seven individuals by name (Dr R. Chidambaram, Mrs R.M. Bathew, Anupam Kher, Dr Manmohan Singh, Dr C. Narayana Reddy, Rafiq Zakaria and Rajat Sharma). The principal secretary to the PM was added in 2005.

The 2023 awards committee comprised 19 members, and received 3,869 nominations, besides 21 names recommended by the search committee (comprising largely of joint secretary-level officers of various ministries, set up from 2018). This combination of civil servants, and other members chosen on merit and/or political considerations, ensures that controversies are minimised, that awards are bestowed upon proven performance, and that the “popularity” of performers in the commercial fields are also taken note of. Selecting individuals on the basis of their promise is a different matter altogether, requiring the presence of acute mind(s) willing to take a risk.

Few people know that anyone can nominate a person, including himself or herself, online, with supporting documents, within a particular date through a transparent process, after logging onto the designated government website. The final choice is made from the long list of nominated and recommended names. No wonder that in recent years, some dedicated grassroots workers, far removed from the limelight, are getting increasingly noticed and honoured.

This has been a welcome trend that should be expanded and reinforced.
As regards political neutrality in selection, let us look at certain cases. The first three Bharat Ratna awardees were C. Rajagopalachari, S. Radhakrishnan, and C.V. Raman, all men of great standing. However, while C.V. Raman was wholly apolitical, never aspiring for public office or caring to be close to those in power. Next year, Jawaharlal Nehru, M. Visvesvaraya and Bhagwan Das were the awardees. Even admitting that in 1955, there was no Indian jewel comparable with Nehru, this decision could have perhaps been avoided. It did not create a healthy precedent.

At the same time, a scientist like Meghnad Saha or a historian like R.C. Majumdar remained unrecognised. The tradition of ignoring eminent individuals critical of the government or its leaders has been a long one.

Third, the value one attaches to these awards varies with individuals, and sometimes perhaps with people coming from certain regions. One can name umpteen celebrities from West Bengal, for instance, who politely refused to accept these awards. A few did so on principle, some for political reasons, others on the ground that the award came too late and was too little.

A literary giant like Sunil Gangopadhyay, who became the president of the Sahitya Akademi, was ignored. Similarly, two influential and popular litterateurs of today’s Bengal, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, 87, and Sankar, 89, are yet to receive recognition, despite them being apolitical in their work. Two of the latter’s novels were the basis of Satyajit Ray’s notable films. Such may be the case for some other regions as well. These omissions may not be intentional but seem to have arisen from a systemic flaw that should be rectified, to ensure greater credibility of these awards.

How to insulate the scheme from politics, how to identify certain young individuals with high promise (like the scientist Rituparna Kanungo, for instance), and how to ensure that democratisation does not lead to populism and devaluation of these awards, are among the issues that should be seriously examined.

But even judged by established performance, who is more worthy of a Padma than, say, neuroscientist Mriganka Sur of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Wouldn’t recognising the stellar contributions of M.S. Swaminathan with the Bharat Ratna, even posthumously, be widely appreciated?

(The writer is a retired IAS officer from the Andhra Pradesh cadre, who has also worked with UNDP and the private sector)