The lengthening lists—crammed with names that ring no bell at all—tell their own sorry tale of nepotism, political patronage and downright chicanery. In 1964, India's four national civilian awards went to only 33 eminent personages. Ten years later, with Indira Gandhi bent on riding roughshod over national institutions, as many as 84 names made it to the coveted roll of honour. In 1988, the figure did come down to 44. And stayed there in 1989, too.
But all hopes of a recovery of the sanctity of the awards were quickly dashed as politics took over. Who you knew became far more important than what you did. So from 1990 to 1992, more than 100 persons won the awards each year, with a large number of virtual nonentities rubbing shoulders with true-blue titans. As an inevitable result, the Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awards, once recognised as the ultimate accolade, lost their sheen.
But, mercifully, vigorous efforts are now on to recapture the lost glory of the awards. On the coming Republic Day, the awards will be announced again after a three-year break necessitated by a protracted court case. In two separate but concurring judgements in response to several writ petitions questioning the constitutional validity of the awards, the Supreme Court has ruled that they are not titles and are, therefore, not at variance with Article 18(1) of the Constitution. But there is much that is wrong with the manner in which the awards are doled out, says the 30-page judgement delivered on December 15 by a Constitution bench comprising Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi, Justice Kuldip Singh, Justice B.P. Jeevan, Justice N.P. Singh and Justice Saghir S. Ahmed. For one, the Home Ministry hasn't prescribed any limit on the number of awards to be granted in a year or the maximum number permissible under each category.
In a separate six-page judgement, Justice Kuldip Singh too has come down heavily on the absence of clear guidelines. "The procedure for selection of recipients is wholly vague and open to the whims and fancies of persons in authority," he says. "In the beginning, the awards were conferred on a selective basis. But of late, peo -ple with little contribution in public services are being honoured. Industrialists and businessmen who have amassed wealth but have no record of public service are also being awarded."
The court has left little room for ambiguity. It has spelt out in no uncertain terms that the number of awardees should be restricted to less than 50 each year. The court has also directed the Government to withdraw the awards from persons who use them as a prefix or suffix to their names. The Chief Justice has suggested that the Prime Minister should constitute a committee to lay down clear guidelines and select recipients in consultation with the President.
But precisely how keen is the Government to respond positively to the court directives? There are indications that it is willing to fall in line. Attorney-General Milon K. Banerjee told the court immediately after the judgement was announced that the Centre was ready with files on candidates for the past three years and would take the apex court judgement into account before conferring the awards on January 26, 1996. Says a Home Ministry official: "The Supreme Court verdict is a welcome development. Not only has it upheld the validity of the civilian awards, it may ultimately put an end to the unseemly lobbying that goes on for the R-Day honours."
But the inherent scope for lobbying certainly wasn't the only bane of the selection process. The personal whims of people in authority too contributed to its degeneration. In 1971, Indira Gandhi, riding the crest of a wave—having won two wars, one electoral, the other military—gave herself the Bharat Ratna. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi conferred a posthumous Bharat Ratna on M.G. Ramachandran in a naked bid to woo the electorate before the Tamil Nadu assembly elections. The ploy didn't work. Similarly, for unabashedly political reasons, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, in 1990, gave the nation's highest civilian award to B.R. Ambedkar, a man who was far above such Bofors crusaders—former comptroller and auditor-general T.N. Chaturvedi and veteran journalists Arun Shourie, N. Ram and Nikhil Chakravartty—were "rewarded" with Padma Bhushans. Chakravartty, of course, declined the award because he was "allergic to receiving anything by way of recognition from any establishment other than those concerned directly with my profession".
Infinitely worse tales of embarrassment abound. J.A.K. Martyn, not exactly a household name, was awarded the Padma Shri in 1985 during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as prime minister. His claim to fame: he was the principal of Doon School. In 1981, Mekhala Jha, who happened to be the wife of L.K. Jha, was the proud recipient of the Padma Shri. In the same year, an eye surgeon, Dhanwant Singh was one the 28 Padma Shri winners. He had performed a cataract operation on the then home minister Giani Zail Singh.
The Bharat Ratna wasn't spared either. While Purushottam Das Tandon, V.V. Giri, Rajiv Gandhi and MGR figure among those who have won the nation's highest civilian award, exceptional men like Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and Jayaprakash Narayan do not. The family of Satyajit Ray, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1992, hasn't yet received the citation, while Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's Bharat Ratna was sent to his family by post. In sharp contrast, Rajiv Gandhi's widow was invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan and given the former prime minister's Bharat Ratna at a special investiture ceremony.
Hitherto, the Prime Minister was the final arbiter in selecting recipients of the civilian awards. He would appoint an adviser to draw up a short-list of awardees. The Prime Minister would then scrutinise the list and forward it to the President. But now, with the Supreme Court suggesting the formation of a committee headed by the Prime Minister and comprising the Lok Sabha Speaker and the Chief Justice or his nominee, the entire process is expected to change. Hopefully, for the better.
But doubts are being raised about the advisability of involving the President and the Chief Justice in the selection process. Rajinder Sachar, former People's Union of Civil Liberties president, points out that this could lead to serious complications. "The direction to consult the President is a bit anomalous as Article 74 clearly mandates that the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Council of Ministers. Of course, the Prime Minister may go by the advice of the President, but to lay that down as a matter of law would send confusing signals," he says.
Be that as it may, the Padma awards are back. And if the spirit of the Supreme Court's directives is respected, there is reason to believe that these prized national honours will henceforth be reserved only for the truly deserving—the Akkineni Nageswara Raos, Ali Akbar Khans and Maqbool Fida Husains rather than the Sita Ram Pals, Megh Raj Jains and Rajinder Singhs.