This year's R-Day awards, as usual, have become controversial. If the non-award of Bharat Ratna was preceded by open lobbying by almost all sections of political spectrum, not all the names of the awardees in other categories suggest a rational selection process.
Justice Rajinder Sachar claimed he turned down the honour on the principle that the government should not be giving away such awards. "Governments in general should govern and not be involved in giving awards", he has said. He felt that the awards had value if they were conferred either by peer organisations or by the public but not by the government as it unnecessarily became controversial. He also added that the awards are against the principles of equality and democracy. He also equated refusing the award with keeping public life free from corruption. (As Justice Sachar's name does not figure in the list of this year's awardees, I presume the Government must have dropped his name, after his refusal).
In the light of Justice Sachar's refusal, I decided to revisit the Balaji Raghavan verdict of the Supreme Court's Constitution Bench, to understand how the Court addressed concerns similar to those raised by Justice Sachar.
Let me take Justice Sachar's arguments against the awards, as reported by Asian Age (27th Jan.) and examine how Balaji Raghavan addressed them.
1.Giving awards is alien to the principal function of the Government, that is, to govern.
Balaji Raghavan did not address this issue at all, as the petitioner apparently did not raise it.
2. Awards by Government leads to controversies:
In Balaji Raghavan, the Court held as follows: "It has been contended before us that over the years, the purpose for which these awards were instituted has been diluted and they are granted liberally to persons who are undeserving of them. The perversion of the system was the motivating factor behind the Bill introduced in Parliament by Acharya Kripalani to abolish these decorations. It is to be remembered that Acharya Kripalani was the Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights where the present Article 18(1) was originally formulated. He was, therefore, fully aware of the exact import of Article 18(1). It is significant that in the debates in Parliament, the thrust of his attack was on the misuse of these decorations. However, it is axiomatic that the misuse of a concept does not change its inherent nature."
The Court then went on to suggest a mechanism (a high-level committee appointed by the PM in consultation with the President to suggest names, which should have the approval of the PM and the President (as per Justice Kuldip Singh's concurrent opinion) to prevent misuse of these awards. Thus essentially, the Government will have a dominant say in the selection of awardees. The Court-proposed mechanism does not seem to be a fool-proof method to avoid controversies of the kind we are witnessing. Do all awardees invite respect rather than suspicion? It is difficult to say yes.
3. Awards are against the principle of equality and democracy:
In Balaji Raghavan, the Court held: "The National Awards are not violative of the principles of equality as guaranteed by the provisions of the Constitution. The theory of equality does not mandate that merit should not be recognized. Article 51A of the Constitution speaks of the fundamental duties of every citizen of India. In this context, we may refer to the various clauses of Article 51A and specifically clause (j) which exhorts every citizen "to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity, so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement." It is, therefore, necessary that there should be a system of awards and decorations to recognise excellence in the performance of these duties. (My view: This part is hardly convincing. It is not clear why the Court felt that the Government, by virtue of Article 51A must recognise excellence and achievement)
The Court added: "Hereditary titles of nobility conflict with the principle of equality insofar as they create a separate, identifiable class of people who are distinct from the rest of society and have access to special privileges. Titles that are not hereditary but carry suffixes or prefixes have the same effect, though the degree may be lesser. While other Constitutions also prohibit the conferment of titles of nobility, ours may perhaps be unique in requiring that awards conferred by the State are not to be used as suffixes or prefixes. This difference is borne out of the peculiar problems that these titles had created in pre-independent India and the earnest desire of the framers to prevent the repetition of these circumstances in Free, Independent India."
(My view: It is agreed that awards are not used as titles, and as suffixes or prefixes. But how does this restriction matter if the awardees do make use of them in their professional or personal lives for personal advancement or in claiming special privileges as most of them very often do)
4. Awards are inconsistent with freeing public life from corruption.
As the Government influences the selection process, it cannot be denied that there is a quid pro quo between some of the awardees, and the Government. But the Court did not address this issue at all in the judgment.
Worse, many of the suggestions of the Court in that judgment have not been followed at all by the Government. The Court wanted the number of awards to be restricted to 50 (J.Kuldip Singh). This year's awards number 119. The Government had amended the norms after the Judgment, as in its view, there are far too many people to be recognised for their excellence.
More important, the Court had suggested that an important anomaly be removed. "The criteria for awarding these decorations are not very clear. The Bharat Ratna is to be awarded for exceptional service towards the advancement of art, literature and science, whereas the Padma Vibhushan is to be awarded for exceptional and distinguished service. Bharat Ratna is for exceptional service and Padma Vibhushan is for exceptional and distinguished service. Exceptional and distinguished service must be given the number one decoration and not number two. So, there is a patent fallacy in this type of criteria which has been laid down." One does not know to date whether this anomaly has been removed.
It is not clear why the Government has not made the criteria for selection of awardees transparent, even if there are strong reasons not to divulge the names of persons in the high-level committee to suggest the proposed awardees. Following Balaji Raghavan judgment, a committee was appointed to recommend suitable criteria and procedure. It is only following this committee's report, the present system has been put in place. It is important that this committee's report is in the public domain, as it is not in the Home Ministry's website. Simply providing the list of awardees makes no sense: the Government ought to mention on its website, why each awardee deserved selection.