Historian Romila Thapar rejected a Padma award in 2005 on the grounds that she could not accept such a thing from the government.
Government? So what if it was coming from the government? Would that have meant compromising on her academic impartiality? So many academics of equal or greater standing have accepted the award in its various grades (Sociologist Andre Beteille accepted it, and in the same year at that.)
Were they all wrong in doing so? Besides, if Thapar could teach in a central government university for so many years, why couldn’t she accept this award? Now seeing the Chatwal episode, Thapar must be laughing up her sleeve. US hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal’s getting the Padma Bhushan seems to have become controversial. The apparent indignation of some is because of the fact that the man was being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, he was allegedly involved in a bank fraud, and so on.
Here again it may be asked, so what? Does the Padma award have anything by way of a rider that says a person being investigated is not eligible for it?
Didn’t a chief minister in the country say: “Why should I resign on honesty grounds? Had I been elected on those terms?” And — this is more important — if we accept the dictum (I do, at least) that the head of an organisation is not only the last word but also highest wisdom as far as the affairs of the institution go, saying Chatwal is guilty now would be going against the basic tenets of public/business administration. The man has been doubly vindicated — he has been found blameless not by one but by two directors of the CBI. After this, who am I to complain?
Next comes the question of propriety — whether it was proper to give this award to someone who faces corruption charges, though he has not been convicted. On this count, many people and institutions, including academics, bureaucrats, politicians and newspapers, have a lot to answer for. And propriety is an issue that concerns not just corruption. We have the instance of a Union secretary getting the country’s highest literary award. Deserving he may have been, but propriety is another matter.
Chatwal’s name, we are told, was not on the earlier list of awardees. Thapar also said she was just informed that she had been selected for the award. Evidently she expected to be asked beforehand whether she’d be willing to accept it.
The impression one gathers is that the government is losing interest in the Padma awards. It doesn’t care whom it gives them to. Maybe that’s why Chatwal got the award. Maybe that’s why Thapar rejected it.