Sant Singh Chatwal is one name that will remain fresh in the memory of many long after the announcement of this year’s Padma awards. The ‘NRI hotelier’, as Chatwal is generally referred to in the media, is in the 2010 list of the recipients of Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award. He is, of course, not the only one to receive the ‘coveted’ award this year, but one can bet not many will be able to recall the names of others similarly honoured in the list issued in the name of President Pratibha Patil.
The controversy that has followed the selection of Chatwal for a Padma award has once again opened the debate whether these awards have been devalued. Many would like to see them scrapped altogether. A tacit acceptance that the Padma awards lead to controversy—and heart burning—comes from the fact that the nation’s highest award, the Bharat Ratna, is now bestowed with great reluctance. In the past, political circles had raised opposition to the selection of V. V. Giri, M.G. Ramachandran and Rajiv Gandhi for the Bharat Ratna.
Yet, it may not wrong to assume that the demand for abolishing the Padma awards does not enjoy sufficient political backing. The voice against the Padma awards will have an impact only when the political class unites—an unlikely task considering the politicians fondness for disbursing patronage in all forms.
The next best thing to not abolishing these awards will be to make the selection system more transparent and independent. The awards would be considered fairer if fewer fingers are raised at the recipients.
There is no denying that the flamboyant Chatwal, one time officer in the Indian Navy, is one of the most recognisable NRI names in the US. He is politically influential in the corridors of power in Washington. His proximity to some of the high and mighty in the US is his important asset. It makes him a key player when India needs a strong voice to represents it in the US. The question often asked is: can an impressive C.V. wash one’s ‘taint’?
Rightly or wrongly, back home Chatwal’s name is also associated with a case of bank fraud. Although he was not convicted of any charges and can claim that he was falsely implicated in criminal cases, many in the country continue to question the propriety of awarding him with a high civilian honour if only to show that it was not some sort of a quid pro quo.
The matter has obviously embarrassed the ruling party as it has been left with saying that it opposes the Padma awards being given to any ‘tainted’ person, though the party raised no specific opposition to the award given to Chatwal. The government, which actually decides the names of the Padma award recipients, has defended its decision. But that was only to be expected.
It is not the first time that a controversy has erupted over the Padma awards. Only last year, there were angry reactions when two bronze winners at the previous year’s Olympics, boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar, were left out, though gold medallist Abhinav Bindra was honoured with Padma Bhushan.
The Indian Olympic Association general secretary was quite vocal in his criticism and the union sports minister M. S. Gill was obliged to say that he had no say in the selection of the Padma awards or its denial to the two athletes. Abhinav Bindra, the first Indian gold medal winner after 108 years of Olympic Games, too had expressed his disappointment. It cannot be said that Bindra was honoured for a specific feat while the other two Olympic medal winners will be awarded for their ‘lifetime’ achievement at some future date.
On separate occasions, two eminent artists of the country had criticised the Padma awards and given vent to their feelings in different ways. The renowned Kathak exponent Sitara Devi had refused the Padma Bhushan, saying that awards, including Padma Vibhushan, a notch higher than Padma Bhushan, had been given to less deserving people.
Sitar maestro Vilayat Khan known for his unique ‘Gayaki’ (singing) style of playing the instrument had turned down the Padma Shree in 1964 and Padma Vibhushan in 1968. In 1964 it was an insult to award him a ‘mere’ Padma Shree because even by then he had established himself as a superlative Sitar virtuoso. In 1968 he was of the opinion that the committee that judged him for the award of the Padma Vibhushan was not competent to evaluate his work.
Did Vilayat Khan take things too far in 1968? After all an element of subjectivity can be suspected in the evaluation of the work of any performing artist. But a different element of controversy was injected when the Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj alleged late in the 1990s that the great Sitar player Ravi Shankar had tried to lobby with Members of Parliament for a high Padma award. Whether the allegation was right or wrong cannot be said, but it suggests that preparing the list for high national awards cannot be an easy task.
In the history of the Padma awards there have been instances when the recipients had refused to accept the honour for what might be called altruistic reasons. Historian Romilla Thapar, chosen for Padma Bhushan in 1962 and again in 2005, had said she would accept honour only from academic institutions. K. Subramanyam, strategic thinker and analyst, had said no to Padma Bhushan as he maintained that his services to the nation were made in selfless spirit when he was a loyal civil servant.
Yes, these have been exceptional cases. Scan the list any year and one would find, especially among the Padma Shree awards, the names of a lot of ‘loyal’ civil servants and sundry other figures whose name do not ring a bell.
The Padma awards are not meant to be shown off. Yet, just a day after the announcement of Padma list one would find big newspaper advertisements, congratulating some of the recipients. Many people make it a point to add the name of the Padma award given to them in their visiting cards. The Padma awards are certainly not to be used for self-advertisement; to do so does amount to devaluing them.