Policy to revoke honours

Policy to revoke honours

For the undeserving

Awards and honours given to individuals should be open to forfeiture if the individual brings disrepute to the honours system

Should prizes, honorary degrees, memberships and fellowships awarded be open to forfeiture should the beneficiaries, by their subsequent actions, prove themselves unworthy of such honour? This is a vexing question. And examples in both distant and recent history are mixed.

As far back as in 1918, University of Pennsylvania rescinded the honorary degrees granted to the German Kaiser (emperor) and his ambassador to the US for their roles in WW I. More recently, Harvard University, the British Film Institute, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences among others, stripped Harvey Weinstein of awards, memberships and fellowships even before he had been indicted for any wrongdoing.

Earlier, the disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, convicted of paedophilia, was officially stripped of his BAFTA Fellowship, QBE and ARIA Hall of Fame in 2008. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s President, was awarded around a dozen honorary awards, several of which were revoked after his atrocities in Matabeleland came to light. One can recount many such instances.

On the other hand, when questions arose about Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize, consequent to her support of the brutal treatment of Rohingyas in her country by Myanmar’s military, the Nobel Peace Committee took the stand that “it was not their task to oversee or censor what a laureate did after the prize had been won”.

A strange stand, even if it is widely known how political the Nobel Peace Prizes often are. Nor is the Nobel Peace Committee particularly known for reviewing the antecedents of some of their awardees carefully. But what would be the committee’s stand, for example, if one of their awardees loses a case of misappropriation of funds in the court of his country – a case, say, initiated long before the prize was awarded?

But we also have a contrasting example. For instance, following wide-scale protests in the wake of the enactment of Brunei’s new and brutal anti-LGBT laws, when Oxford University wrote to the Sultan of Brunei opening a review of the honorary law degree awarded to him in 1993, the Sultan, whatever his other faults, chose to hand the degree back voluntarily.

Awards and honours, unlike an earned degree, are given to individuals as they are widely considered role models in their chosen fields. If that criterion is no longer perceived to hold good for whatever reason, then the honours granted should be open to forfeiture. While the institution granting the honour has the right to rescind it, it behoves the recipient to voluntarily return an honour if questions on their being worthy of emulation are beginning to gain decibel. The Sultan took the right decision; Suu Kyi didn’t.

Interestingly, closer home, I am not aware of any Padma awardee ever being stripped of the honour. I wish none of them deserved to. We shall discount the media reports in 2014-15 of the government considering revoking the Padma Shri awarded to actor Saif Ali Khan in 2010, on account of his alleged involvement in a brawl in a restaurant, in response to a complaint by an RTI activist following charges being framed against the actor in a Mumbai court. We shall also discount a petition filed in 2014 by someone seeking annulment of Teesta Seetalvad’s Padma Shri. In any case, both these cases had political undertones.

But there are indeed Padma awardees who amply deserve to have their awards revoked, or at least reviewed. At the very least, one would wish letters like the one written by Oxford University to the Sultan of Brunei had gone from the Government of India to R K Pachauri and Chanda Kochhar, for instance. And these two worthies continue to clutch their awards tightly, because they have not yet been proven guilty and justice must take its course – a long tortuous course, especially when it suits the rich and the famous admirably. They can also fast-track their cases equally admirably and magically through Supreme Court when it suits them, which the lesser mortal cannot even dream of.

All this raises the question, should universities, institutions and governments have clearly laid-out policy guidelines on the question of revoking honours granted?

In India, according to a statement released by the government in February, “Bharat Ratna and Padma awards are not titles and cannot be used as prefix or suffix to names and they can be withdrawn in case of misuse”. But the government is silent on revoking the honours for other reasons, such as sexual harassment of a direct-reportee young enough to be a grand-daughter, or charges of benefitting enormously by giving a heave-ho to the minimal institutional code of conduct.

The United Kingdom has a better laid out policy. They have an ad hoc Honours Forfeiture Committee, set out in 1994, convened under the cabinet office. This committee considers cases referred to the prime minister where an individual, subsequent to their being awarded a national honour, has been “found guilty by a court of a criminal offense and sentenced to three months or more of a term of imprisonment, or been censured, struck off, etc. by the relevant professional or other regulatory authority for acts of commission or omission relevant to the granting of the honours,” or “if there is any compelling evidence that an awardee has brought the honours system into disrepute.”

Perhaps the restrictive stipulation – that the award or the honour is revocable should any compelling evidence that the awardee has brought the honours system into disrepute come to light – should form an integral part of any award or honour to minimise the risk of litigation by the worthies receiving such honours. Perhaps, the Government of India should contemplate such a move speedily.

(The author is Director, Schulich School of Business, India Programme)