When KY Venkatesh, who represented Bharat in the first Paralympics, received his Padma award, the President of Bharat asked him to move down the stairs to be on the same level as a mark of respect. When the 102-year-old school teacher from Odisha, Nanda Prusty, known for his free of charge teaching to both children and senior citizens in his village Kantira of Jajpur, raised his hands in a gesture, even the Head of the State accepted it as a blessing. When Tulsi Gowda, known as the encyclopedia of forests, received her award with her simple and humble and still confident posturing, she became a symbol of indigenous environmentalism. Manjamma Jogati, the first transgender president of Karnataka Janapada Academy, offered traditional best wishes to the President amidst a round of applause. Why did ordinary people, including social media, celebrate these moments?
Of course, there were celebrity names with outstanding contributions in the list of Padma Awardees. Still, the extraordinary achievements of the ordinary-looking citizens getting recognised by the State caught everyone’s attention. When the new online nomination process was introduced in 2016, many criticised it as an elitist method. The first list of awardees proved the critics wrong. Some fascinating stories of ordinary citizens and their life-long grassroots contributions came to the fore with common people allowed to make nominations transparently, besides the recommendations from various Government authorities. Again, for the naysayers, it was either a one-time wonder or dilution of awards. After witnessing the 2020 and 2021 Padma awards, this democratisation process has been institutionalised with a powerful inspirational message to all Bharatiyas. The State recognises the grassroots change-makers who are away from the power circles and publicity. Honestly, the State honours have been democratised.
When the policy of instituting National Awards and Honours was discussed earlier in the Constituent Assembly and then was notified in 1954, the basic idea was to abolish the titles and introduce civilian and military honours based on merit. In the civilian category, besides Bharat Ratna, as a recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order in any field of human endeavour, Padma awards have been conferred for exceptional and distinguished service in the three different categories. Earlier Governments also recognised some meritorious and distinguished people, but their criterion of merit was more academic, in a way, elitist. Apex Court observed that in one of the judgments, “Persons with little or no contribution in any field can be seen masquerading as Padma awardees. This perception of lobbyists being conferred upon the Padma Awards due to their access to the power corridors dishonoured the awards themselves. While the original Constitutional spirit was to avoid any artificial or man-made distinction between citizens, these honours became an instrument of political favouritism. The new method of nomination and selection has corrected most of the observations made by the Supreme Court. The spirit behind these awards is restored by honouring the ordinary citizens who consistently worked for some national cause without abundant resources and with indigenous knowledge and skills. Instead of artificial considerations like castes or communities, real inclusion is ensured based on the consistent contribution at the grassroots level. The stories of these extraordinary transformative activists will inspire many more to contribute to the national reconstruction process. Hence, their presence and gestures at the Rashtrapati Bhavan invoked a celebratory mood for everyone. Tulsi Gowda, a wise forest conservationist without any formal education, dedicated her entire life to conserving forest and planted more than 30 thousand saplings without any expectation. That is why awardees like her emerged as a symbol of democratic recognition.