All their Excellencies

When Bismarck was Prussian ambassador at the court of Alexander II in 1860s, one day he looked out of a window at the Peterhof palace and was amazed to see a sentry on duty in the middle of a lawn. He inquired from the Czar why the man was there. The Czar asked his aide-de-camp who did not know.

The aide-de-camp sent for the officer in command who did not know either. The general commanding troops at Peterhof was summoned. The general informed that it way in accordance with the ancient custom. “What was the origin of the custom?” put in Bismarck.

 “I do not recollect at present,” answered the general. “Investigate and report the result,” ordered Alexander. The investigation that took three days revealed that the soldier was posted there by an order put on the books 80 years before! For one morning in spring, Catherine the great had looked on that lawn and seen the first flower thrusting above the frozen soil. She ordered a sentry to be posted to prevent anyone plucking the flower. And in 1860s there was still a sentry on the lawn - a memorial to a flower, and to Catherine, who had earned the cognomen of ‘Great.’

Such is the fear of antagonising the high and mighty that several hangovers of the past continue to persist without any rhyme and reason and the supine favour-seekers uphold them without any compunctions lest they lose what they have been getting. One such ludicrous practice is the mode of addressing the erstwhile kings of former princely states of India as ‘Maharaja’ and ‘Shrimant.’

In a democratic spirit, the Congress party has decided to dispense with these titles and its leaders who are former kings will no more be addressed as ‘Maharaja’ or ‘Shrimant.’ However, the Madhya Pradesh government, led by the BJP which condemns the dynastic rule of the Congress party, created a history of sorts when it restored royal title for its minister Yashodhara Raje, a scion of the Scindia family.

 On Oct 19, 2006, the state government slipped out an official gazette notification that ‘Srimati’ Yashodhara Raje Scindia would henceforth be addressed as ‘Shrimant’ Yashodhara Raje Scindia.

Another such undemocratic and nonsensical practice is the mode of addressing VIPs and prefixing honorifics with their names. Traditionally ‘Majesty,’ ‘Excellency’ and ‘Highness’ were used for different categories of people. Excellency is used for ambassadors, governors and Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops. Majesty is used only for the king or queen while Highness is used for the members of the royal family.

When India attained independence every citizen was considered equal and to bolster the spirit of democracy a circular was issued abolishing the use of ‘Excellency’ for anyone. But damn the circular. Instead of discarding the practice it is almost mandatory to prefix ‘His Excellency’ (H.E.) with President, Vice-President and Governor if being addressed in the third person.

Even the letters issued by their own offices refer to them as H.E. only. C Subramanian has been the only Governor so far who parted with this practice. Within a month of his assuming the office of the Governor of Maharashtra in February 1990, he made it clear that he was genuinely embarrassed by being addressed as ‘Your Excellency’.

‘My Lord!’

Another ludicrous practice still in vogue is the mode of addressing the judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts as ‘My lord’ reminding one of the colonial period. In fact, in England, since justice was delivered by the King or the Queen through the King’s Benches, it is the King who is addressed as ‘My Lord.’ Therefore, judges presiding over the King’s or Queen’s Benches are addressed as ‘My Lord.’ When India ushered in freedom it was expected that the scars of colonialism would be obliterated sooner rather than later.

In this very spirit the Supreme Court issued a circular in the early fifties of the last century that judges of superior courts would be addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Judge,’ and not as ‘My Lord.’ It also said that ‘Honorable’ would be used for the court, not for the judge. But it was not to be, as neither judges were ready to adapt themselves to the new democratic mores nor were lawyers prepared to risk their practice. It has also become almost mandatory to use ‘Honourable’ for the judge.

The nameplates carry this honorific and in some cases the judges themselves use it with their names even in private correspondence. In the Socialist Republic of India, since justice is imparted by common men, not king, judges should not be addressed even as ‘Your Honour’, much less ‘My Lord’. The Bar Council of India has passed a resolution that judges will not be addressed as ‘My Lord’, but lawyers cannot do away with this practice as they know that blandishment pays off.

In England, royal titles have been conferred even by acts of parliament. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 was an Act of the parliament of the United Knigdom which officially recognised Queen Victoria as the “Empress of India.” She assumed this title in 1876 under the encouragement of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

There is a recent trend of using Hon’ble for ministers, MPs and MLAs also, but God only knows how many of  them really deserve it.

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