Since their inception in 1954, the Padma awards have been scarred by dissensions and disputes of “Refusinics” and “Returnees”.
The list of ‘refusiniks’ is long, each using different reasons for refusing the award. To refuse an invite or honour from the head of a state is considered utterly rude in diplomatic parlance. However, the president of India is not a sultan or a king. He is first among the equals. That is why his actions are questioned and contested.
The process of selecting the awardees is not without flaws. Partisan considerations are freely attributed. Obviously, the ‘pick and choose’ idiom is used as a right and more than judicious discretion by the parties in power.
Why Many Refused the Padma Shri
In 1954, independent activist and educationist Asha Devi Aryanaykam was the first person to decline a Padma award.
In 1960-61, Mother Teresa had twice declined the Padma Shri as she did not find it proper to receive an award for doing the service of God. Ultimately, the Arch Bishop of Calcutta persuaded her to accept the honour, which heralded a trail of awards, from the Bharat Ratna to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Historian Romila Thaper justified her refusal for Padma Awards saying she did not prefer any recognition from other academic and professional bodies.
Noted journalist Nikhil Chakravarty, the editor of once the most popular leftist weekly, the Mainstream magazine, also refused the award. He thought it improper for a journalist to receive a recognition from the government as it might compromise their spirit to act as a watchdog for the public cause.
Likewise, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered a Padma award to senior civil servant PN Haksar, the architect of Indira Gandhi's socialistic trail of reforms such as bank nationalisation and the abolition of princely privy purses, he sweetly declined it, for he thought he did not do anything extra, and that for doing his job,he was already paid a salary by the government. The historic Shimla accord is also attributed to PN Haksar.
In some instances, the category of award has also been a reason for its refusal. Sitara Devi, the doyen of Kathak, did not accept a Padma Vibhushan. She considered it a lesser recognition for her and thought herself worthy of a Bharat Ratna.
When People Returned Padma Awards
The list of Padma returnees is not short either. In protest to Operation Blue Star (1984), journalist Khushwant Singh had returned his Padma award accorded to him earlier. Post-2014, the rising intolerance in the country was the reason behind many awardees returning their awards.
Ideological clashes with the government have been a recurrent reason for refusing the Padma awards. Divergent political leanings and affiliations have also been a reason, right from the posthumous award to former Kerala Chief Minister EMS Naboodripad to former Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya this year.
What to Make of a Padma Award to Ghulam Nabi Azad?
Padma awards to senior politicians is actually a mark of closure of their active political career, a kind of post-retiral recognition, something beyond rehabilitation as a Governor in a Raj Bhawan. Rajiv Gandhi gave the ageing Uma Shankar Dixit, father-in-law of Shiela Dixit and himself a former Union Minister, a Padma Vibhushan.
With this backdrop in mind, it is surprising to see the name of a Congress leader in the list of Padma Vibhushan awardees. Though retired from Raj Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad has not yet hung his boots.
He is fighting fit and is a leading member of the G23, a pressure group within the Congress party. It is no secret that due to their rebellious move, the Congress leadership is not kindly disposed towards this group.
This backdrop is fertile enough to cause an impression of some scheming by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the selection of a perceived Congress rebel.
The BJP Needs to Fill a Gap
The sight of Prime Minister Modi sobbing while delivering a farewell address in the Rajya Sabha upon the retirement of Ghulam Nabi Azad is fresh in public memory. In his address, he profoundly recalled Azad’s sympathy for a group of stranded Gujarati pilgrims in Kashmir. One has no reason to doubt the genuineness of those tears. However, the Prime Ministers’ stony demeanour on the passing away of his life-long associates doesn't quite match the soft side of him seen during Ghulam Nabi Azad's farewell.
The association of Muslims with the BJP has been at a minimum. The party openly practises its stated position. No Muslim candidates are fielded by the party in state Assembly or parliamentary elections. They do have a few Muslim leaders among their ranks, such as Shahnawaz Hussain, Mukhtar Abbass Naqvi, Najma Hebtulllah and Arif Mohammad Khan, whom the party sees as fitting its version of an ‘Indian Muslim’.
The BJP is found poorly placed when it comes to icons of freedom struggle. In order to overcome this lack, the party seeks to appropriate leaders like Sardar Patel and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The appropriation is pronounced more by highlighting their differences with Nehru.
The same trick is adopted by the party for appropriating present Congress leaders. Former President Pranab Mukherjee was awarded the Bharat Ratna. Modi himself broke this news to Mukherjee. Who wouldn’t know that Mukherjee nursed a lifetime grudge against Sonia Gandhi for preferring Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister for two UPA terms.
And now, it’s Ghulam Nabi Azad, a G23 leader.
The Kashmir Question
Ghulam Nabi Azad helps the BJP in other ways, too. The simmering problem of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-dominated state which is now a Union Territory, needs a Muslim face different from the Abdullahs and the Muftis, one that can inspire a link between Kashmir and the rest of India.
Though the nationalistic credentials of Farooq Abdullah are beyond doubt, the public perception of him has been severely dented. Not long ago, Farooq Abdullah's name was suggested for the highest public office.
A Kashmiri assuming the Presidential office could have sent a strong signal about Kashmir’s complete integration with India. But APJ Abdul Kalam overtook Abdullah. Man proposes, God disposes.
Even after the abrogation of Article 370 and the demotion of Jammu & Kashmir to a Union Territory status, the situation in the Valley is far from normal. Democratic processes will have to be initiated at some point.
In politics and statecraft, the cause and effect of every action are carefully calculated. To be simply charitable is like being avowedly idealist. This is why the professed love of the BJP for Ghulam Nabi Azad may not be out of higher ‘human values’. Perhaps Ghulam Nabi Azad is being positioned by the BJP for some bigger responsibility at the Centre or in Kashmir. With the wide administrative experience to his credit, he may help with the restoration of confidence in the minds of ordinary Kashmiris.
The ethnic differences between the Jammu and the Kashmir regions get far easily blurred in the case of Doda-born (a town in Jammu) Ghulam Nabi Azad, even by his very name. If one throws a stone over a Kashmiri crowd, it would surely hit some Ghulam Nabi or Ghulam Rasul.
Which Way Will Ghulam Nabi Azad Go?
If the BJP wants to indulge in tokenism and improve its image, Kerala governor Arif Mohommad Khan may suit the purpose better. He has a pan-India appeal as a progressive, liberal and reformist face. Who knows, he could be the BJP's next Vice-President or Presidential candidate.
Nonetheless, Ghulam Nabi Azad could play a more important role than assuming a decorative office. The BJP's extended bonhomie with him is suggestive of some workable script. He could be New Delhi's preferred choice in Srinagar once statehood is restored.
Like the paradox in his name Ghulam(slave) and Azad(a free man), Ghulam Nabi Azad is a man of all seasons. He was a youth Congress leader under Indira Gandhi and a trusted Minister of Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.
However, not too adventurist, he usually positioned himself on the right of the helmsman. When ND Tiwari and Arjun Singh staged a revolt against Rao, Azad was a front defender of Rao. This time, too, he might do the same, but in a different setting and purpose.
(The author is a Mumbai-based lawyer and a short story writer. He runs a weekly show on Youtube, titled "Culture Bazaar". This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)