I no longer find the enthusiasm which marked the first Republic Day. I recall how we would get up early in the morning to be ready to line up the Rajpath leading to India Gate where different battalions of Army, Navy and the Air Force personnel and armed police displayed their martial prowess. Unlike in the past when the salute was taken by the prime minister, now the president takes the salute. The whole thing is ceremonial.
The president comes down in a buggy, drawn by horses from Rashtrapati Bhavan to the saluting dais. The prime minister receives him. He takes the salute. There is transparency in what is being done. Normally, India invites one Guest of Honour from a foreign nation and he or she is hosted with all pomp and ceremony.
But this year, Republic Day had several guests of honour, mostly from the Asean countries. To accommodate all the guests the dais, which used to be about 35 feet, was stretched to 90 feet. A huge departure, one should say. The invitations to all Asean heads were to celebrate our long-standing friendship and the government of India made elaborate arrangements to strengthen the bonding with these countries.
Republic Day is also the day when awards are given to the people who have excelled themselves in various fields, especially to the services personnel who have shown gallantry in times of troubles on the border and those who had sacrificed their lives defending India. These are deserving people
But over the years, the other awards have come to be given to the workers of the ruling party, at present, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is, however, contrary to the thinking of the framers of the constitution. They banned awards. That is the reason why when the Janata Party came to power in the wake of the popular movement, led by Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, they had stopped that practice. The person who initiated the awards was India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He wanted to give recognition to people who had excelled themselves in the fields of literature, economics or science. No money is given because the award was too valuable to be weighed on the scale of monetary benefit.
Nehru also did not want the award to be linked with politics. He did not envisage that one day the entire exercise of selection would get politicised. The government would pick up its chamchas (sycophants) to reward his or her services to the ruling party.
I recall that initially the Republic Day awards, started some 50 years ago, were under the Ministry of External Affairs which Nehru headed. Subsequently, the job was entrusted to the Home Ministry which gave the responsibility to one deputy secretary. He had too many things on his plate. He passed on the task to the information officer attached to the ministry. That is how I came to handle the job because I was then the Home Ministry's Information Officer.
The mode of selection was arbitrary. The prime minister and other ministers would suggest one or more names which I, as information officer, went on stacking in a file. Almost a month before the Republic Day I had to shortlist the names. I must admit I followed no rules while preparing the list which went to the deputy secretary in charge, then to the home secretary and finally to the home minister. I found very few changes in the list I sent.
But the toughest job was preparing the citations. I would have the dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus before me. In some cases, I had the bio-data to guide myself. Mostly they contained a mere cryptic description of the person whether he was a scientist, an academician or economist. That helped me somewhat but preparing the citation on that basis was challenging.
The entire process was so haphazard that the Supreme Court had to intervene to ask the government to constitute a selection committee, including the opposition leader as its member. However, some order came to prevail once the committee was in position. Yet, preparing the citation was my task.
The draft gazette notification of names was issued by the Rashtrapati Bhavan. I recollect that once the name of Ms Lazarus was suggested by the president. Accordingly, the gazette notification was made public.
But when President Rajendra Prasad saw the notification, he said the name he had suggested was that of a nurse. She had attended to him while he got a bout of asthma when he was travelling to Hyderabad from Karnool in Andhra Pradesh. We were all embarrassed that the honour had been bestowed on the wrong person. But we could do nothing because the name was already in the public domain. That year two Lazarus' were given the awards.
In the past, when the Congress was in power it conferred the Padma Bushan award to the US hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal despite some criminal cases pending against him. There was a furore in the country but the home ministry justified his selection on the plea that he was a known Indian who had served the cause of the country abroad. But there are several cases of eminent people refusing to accept the award on the ground that the panel of selectors was not capable enough to judge their work.
The lesson to be learnt is whether there should be any award at all. The experience is that the ruling party tends to give “recognition” to the people who are either members of the party or are connected with it. The real purpose is lost because the recognition is extended to those who are close to the party.
This only emphasises the argument that the awards are not given according to merit. This charge will remain because the selection is done by people who are nominated by the government. Government should have included the opposition leader in the selection panel but he or she would be in the minority. There should be a debate in the country on the importance of awards. They have outlived their utility which was not there even when they were introduced.
When the constitution has banned awards why should they be there. They violate the spirit of the constitution and the general understanding. Even their introduction was wrong. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should initiate the debate in the country to know whether the awards should continue or not.
Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.