I do not find now the enthusiasm that marked the Republic Day in the early years of our Republic. I recall how we would get up early in the morning to be ready to line up Rajpath, leading to India Gate, where different battalions of Army, Navy and 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 Bhawan, to the 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 show. But this year, Republic Day had guests of honour from all 10 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 Government of India made elaborate arrangements to strengthen our bond with these countries.
Republic Day is also the day when awards are given to civilians who have excelled in various fields, especially to the services personnel who have shown gallant in times of trouble and many who have sacrificed their lives defending India. These are deserving people.
But, over the years, the other awards have come to be given to workers and loyalists of the ruling party, which, at present, is the BJP. This is, however, contrary to the thinking of the framers of the Constitution. They banned government awards. That is the reason why the Janata Party, led by the Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, stopped the practice when it came to power briefly.
The person who initiated the awards was India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He wanted to recognise people who had excelled in the literary, economic and scientific fields. No money is given, because the award is too valuable to be weighed on the scales 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. Later governments would pick up sycophants to reward his or her services to the ruling party.
Initially, the Republic Day awards 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 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 of the recipient to guide me. Mostly they contained a 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 and include the opposition leader as its member. Some order came to prevail once the committee was in place. Still, preparing the citation was my task.
The draft gazette notification of names was issued by Rashtrapati Bhavan. I recollect that once the name of Ms Lazarus was suggested by the President. We, in the Home ministry, thought that the honour had been conferred on the then famous educationist Ms Lazarus.
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 had a bout of asthma when he was travelling to Hyderabad from Kurnool 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. Both the ladies were given the award that year.
In the past, when the Congress was in power, it conferred the Padma Bhushan on the Indian-American 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 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 question is, should these awards be given away at all. Our experience is that the ruling party tends to give "recognition" to people who are either members of the party or are connected with it somehow. This only emphasises the argument that the awards are not according to merit. This charge will remain, because the selection is done by people who are nominated by the government. It 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 these awards. They have outlived their utility.
When the Constitution has banned the government from giving any awards or titles, why should these awards be given? They violate the spirit of the Constitution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should initiate a debate on whether the awards should continue or not.