Inclined to reject: West Bengal’s history with Padma awards
Instituted in 1954, the three Padma awards – Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri – are amongst the highest civilian awards of the country. Representative photo: iStock

Inclined to reject: West Bengal’s history with Padma awards

When the late footballer Gostha Pal was selected for the Padma Shri in 1962, awardees had to follow a strict dress code of wearing suit-and-tie. Pal, choosing to take the road not taken, decided to wear “Dhuti-Panjabi” (Dhoti and kurta) to the event. During the rehearsal, secretary of the then-President of India Dr Rajendra Prasad, objected to Pal’s clothing and asked the first captain of the Indian football team for clarification. Pal responded saying he wished to represent the culture of West Bengal and chose to wear the attire Bengalis wore during prestigious events. Since then, that dress code has been removed.

For the better of the past century, there exists an uncanny trend of people from West Bengal refusing the honour of a Padma award. Famed singer and composer Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, better known as Hemant Kumar, refused the Padma Shri in the 1970s and subsequently the Padma Bhushan in 1987. Singer Tarapada Chakraborty returned his Padma Shri in 1974. Actor Soumitra Chatterjee also returned his Padma Shri in 1970, but accepted the Padma Bhushan in 2004 saying “he didn’t want to hurt the emotions of the fans”. Dramatist and theatre director Badal Sircar has consistently refused the Padma award. In 2022, Bengali singer Sandhya Mukhopadhyay refused the Padma Shri calling it “demeaning”.

Suvashish Moitra, a senior journalist in Kolkata, believes this trend of refusing government-given awards by the people of Bengal dates back to when Rabindranath Tagore had refused the Knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. “That was the first time someone had refused an award from the establishment. No such incident had occurred before it,” said Moitra. While the Knighthood is very different from a Padma award, the act of refusing a State-recognised honour seemed to have an influence on Bengali culture.

However, if one looks into West Bengal’s history, similar instances appear. One such instance is of Buno Ramnath, a scholar of Nabadwip in the 18th century. During a debate organised at the divan of King Nabakrishna in Calcutta, as it was called then, Ramnath defeated an unbeaten stranger logician with his arguments and maintained the integrity of the land. King Nabakrishna was impressed and offered the victorious debater immense wealth as his reward. Babu Ramnath not only refused the reward, but he also denounced it as “crow shit” and left the premises.

Anindo Chatterjee, musician and tabla player, refused his Padma Shri in 2022 because he felt he was receiving this honour much too late in his career. “If I was offered the award 15 years ago, I would have accepted it. Some of my contemporaries and even juniors have already received this award. Even though I support all my musician brothers who have accepted this honour, I personally feel I am much above the Padma Shri,” said Chatterjee. He added that he has no issues with the government and will continue to serve the nation with his music and social work.

Also read: Bhattacharjee wants to be ‘Azad’ not ‘Ghulam’: Jairam Ramesh’s cryptic dig

One of the earliest people to reject the Padma Bhushan was a stage actor and theatre founder Shishir Kumar Bhaduri in 1959. He refused to take the Padma award saying he didn’t want to insinuate that the government had helped promote theatre culture in India.

Prominent theatre personality and social activist Bibhas Chakraborty believes Bhaduri was referring to the indifference of the government towards aiding the frailing state of theatre infrastructure in the country. “By infrastructure, I mean developing the theatre industry to a point where artists can sustain themselves and their families through their theatrical work. Providing training institutes, treating the artists as professionals and not amateurs. The government has done nothing to support them and continues to do zilch,” said Chakraborty.

Chakraborty further pointed out that if this continues, the theatre industry will never truly progress. “What Bhaduri said over 60 years ago, rings true to this day. We had to work another job to fund our career in theatre. We did it purely for the love of the art, and money was never our concern, not like we made much,” added Chakraborty.

There also lies a political motive behind the Padma awards. Even though former Chief Minister of West Bengal, and communist leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, hasn’t given a reason behind his decision to not accept the Padma Bhushan this year, the whole situation looks peculiar when looked at from a distance. Why would the BJP-led Indian government choose to honour a man, whose political party represents an ideology opposite to theirs?

“If you look at West Bengal’s performance in the previous Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha elections, you’ll notice a large chunk of CPI (M) voters had voted for the BJP. This is why the saffron party’s votes rose from five to nearly 40 per cent. However, in the recent Municipal Corporation election, it looks like the votes are coming back to CPI (M),” said Moitra, who believes the BJP, by honouring Bhattacharjee, might have been signalling a gesture of allyship towards the CPI(M) voters, who feel burdened under Trinamool Congress’ governance.

The political motivation can be further seen when one notices that many of this year’s Padma awardees are from the vote-bound states of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and Punjab. A total of 26 of the 128 recipients of this year’s Padma awards have been from these states with UP taking 13 of those 26.

“Even the classical musician Shri Rashid Khan, who was brought up in Kolkata and did most of his creative work in this city, was awarded the Padma Bhushan as a representative of UP,” said Moitra. While it can be argued that Shri Rashid Khan’s UP representation is just since he was born there, Ms Madhur Jaffrey was also awarded the Padma Bhushan this year, representing the United States of America when she happens to be an Indian citizen whose culinary career garnered recognition in the US.

In 1990, late journalist Nikhil Chakravartty was offered the Padma Bhushan, which the “barefoot reporter” rejected, saying a journalist should never appear close to the government or any political party. “When a journalist accepts such an award, their credibility comes at stake. Just because a political leader may have helped you before, doesn’t mean you start showing biases in your work,” added Moitra.

Also read: Padma Bhushan for Azad a political decision, not on merit: Congress leader Veerappa Moily

Apart from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay and Anindo Chatterjee, who refused the Padma award this year, five others from West Bengal have chosen to accept it. They are Bengali actor Victor Banerjee (Padma Bhushan for art), Prahlad Rai Agarwala (Padma Shri for trade and industry), Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay (Padma Shri for science and engineering), Kali Pada Saren (Padma Shri for literature and education) and Kajee Singh (Padma Shri for art).

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