India’s civilian awards, a visual history

Since 1954, the Indian government has been conferring its highest honours — from the venerable Padma Shri to the exclusive Bharat Ratna — on bureaucrats, artists, scientists, engineers, sporting heroes, and political icons.

Taken together, the 4,329 awards paint a picture of India’s recent history and tell a story about the country’s values and priorities.

Delhiites have received the most awards, followed by Maharashtrians.

With 797 awards, the national capital has bagged more honours than any other state. Only Maharashtra, at 756, comes close to Delhi’s tally. Next in line is Tamil Nadu, but it’s farther behind with 391 awards.

Delhi and Maharashtra have also dominated the honours rather consistently (hover over each color to find out how many states won awards in a given year).

There were no awards given out in six years: 1978, 1979 and from 1993-1996. It’s likely the aftermath of the Emergency interrupted the awards in the late 70s. In the mid-90s, it could have been a preoccupied minority government that was busy pushing for economic reforms to stave off bankruptcy.

India awards foreigners, too.

Americans have gotten more awards than any foreign nationality, followed by Britons. The number of non-Indian awardees began to climb after 1995, possibly because opening up India’s economy signalled a new era of diplomacy.

Foreign winners include Nelson Mandela and Pashtun political activist Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Richard Attenborough and Ben Kingsley both won Padma awards after the release of the film Gandhi. Many of these awards were also given to people of Indian origin.

Most of the awards have gone to men.

Of the 4,329 honours, men have won 3,689 awards while women got 631 awards, which is just less than 15 percent.

This isn’t surprising, given India’s wide gaps in gender equality. There are far fewer women than men in public life, from politics to academia. India ranks 130th of 155 countries on the UN Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index.

The arts are a favourite.

Actors, musicians and artists got the most awards (930), followed closely by writers and educators (852). Awarding great artists is not just good sense, it’s good politics, too: for a sitting politician, it never hurts to be associated with popular cultural icons.

The arts list includes Western classical conductor Zubin Mehta, sarod virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan, filmmakers Mehboob Khan and Satyajit Ray, Indian classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, Carnatic musicians D.K. Pattamal, and actors Smita Patil, Aamir Khan and K. Chiranjeevi. Kannada novelist and playwright Dr. Kuppali Puttappa, poet Jayanta Mahapatra, and Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai are among the writers who won.

Maharashtra dominates the arts awards.

Home to Bollywood, a robust theatre scene, and a rich classical music tradition, Maharashtra fares the best in this category. Tamil Nadu, known for its successful film industry and Carnatic music legends, isn’t far behind. The wildly popular, actor-turned politician M. G. Ramachandran is amongst the winners.

Women do better in the arts than in other fields.

In the arts, the gender distribution is more equal, a reflection of the greater role women play in the arts than in other areas of public life. From the 1950s, when Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbalakshmi and actor Nargis were given Padma awards, until 2016 when Girija Devi was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, women have won 235 of the 930 arts awards.

Only five women — Subbalakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Aruna Asaf Ali, Indira Gandhi, and Mother Teresa — have been awarded a Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor.

Maharashtra also wins the most science awards.

With some of the country’s leading colleges for science, such as St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and Fergusson College in Pune, Maharashtra has long produced some of India’s best scientists and engineers.

In recent years, scientists from Karnataka have begun to receive more awards. This year, for instance, V.K. Aatre, former head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, won his second Padma award.

Women fare the worst in science.

Hardly any women have won awards for scientific achievement in the last 60 years; by contrast, as many as 22 men have won awards for science or engineering in a single year. Whether because of expectations from their families or concerns about their safety, girls continue to miss out on educational opportunities.

Some notable female winners in the science and engineering category are gynecologist Indira Hinduja, Biocon Limited chairman Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, and parasitologist Veena Tandon, who received the Padma Shri this year.

Civil Service
Civil service awards used to be far more common.

In 1972, the Indian government distributed 52 awards for civil service. That’s more than all of the civil service awards given out since the year 2000. Civil servants just don’t get the recognition they used to.

It’s hard to say why this has happened, but it’s possible that a burgeoning private sector has reduced the role of the bureaucracy in India.

Source: Ministry of Home Affairs

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the nationality of Amartya Sen. He is an Indian citizen.