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Bid to reach across the aisle: Buddhadeb Bhattacharya rejects Padma Bhushan, Ghulam Nabi Azad welcomes

In a terse statement issued in Kolkata, an ailing Bhattacharya said: "I don't know anything about Padma Bhushan award, nobody told me about it. If I have been awarded the Padma Bhushan, I refused to accept it."

Written by Liz Mathew , Manoj C G , Atri Mitra | Kolkata, New Delhi |
Updated: January 26, 2022 2:33:20 pm
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (Express Archive)

AT a time of bitter political fault-lines, the presence of Congress veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad and CPM’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in the awards list, ironically, also evoked a divided response.

The latter turned it down hours after the announcement while the former welcomed it. Azad, former Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, thanked the government for recognizing his sacrifices, and Bhattacharya said he “refused” to accept it.

Soon after the announcement, the CPM top leadership in New Delhi worked the phones and is said to have conveyed to Bhattacharya’s family that the party’s tradition is not to accept such honours.

In the 1990s, late CPM veteran and the first Chief Minister of Kerala E M S Namboodiripad had turned down the then P V Narasimha Rao’s offer to award him Padma Vibhushan.

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In a terse statement issued in Kolkata, an ailing Bhattacharya said: “I don’t know anything about Padma Bhushan award, nobody told me about it. If I have been awarded the Padma Bhushan, I refused to accept it.”

A senior Home Ministry official said that an attempt was made to contact Bhattacharya in the morning and his wife answered the call as he was unwell. “She was informed about the award,” said the official, “there was a full day between the call and the announcement but we didn’t hear anything.”

Incidentally, it is a regular practice for the Government to inform the awardees in advance. “In accordance with the normal practice, willingness of the person proposed to be conferred Padma Awards is informally ascertained (to the extent possible) before the announcement of the Award,” the Government had told Rajya Sabha in 2015 answering to a question.

In New Delhi, former CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat told The Indian Express: “We don’t know how they could announce an award like this without his consent. And if they did that without his consent, it is a very bad thing. As far as we are concerned, our party does not accept any national award like this. That has been our standard policy. We don’t accept any state awards.”

Sources in the CPM said the party’s West Bengal state secretary Suryakanta Mishra did discuss the award with Bhattacharya’s family. “The government that nominated Buddhababu for the Padma award has been silent on the killing of Gauri Lankesh and on attacks on issues of temples, mosques and churches…there’s no question to take an award from such a government. But Buddhababu’s decision is his personal decision,” said CPM leader Tanmoy Bhattacharya.

For Azad, the award was a vindication of his record in public office. Speaking to The Indian Express, he said: “I can only thank the present government that in spite of being a hardcore Congressman, they have recognized my sacrifices and work for over four and a half decades, particularly my fight against militancy in the mid-1980s when I resigned from the Union Ministry as Minister of State for Home and preferred to work to bring back normalcy in Punjab.”

“I took over as AICC general secretary in charge of Punjab when militancy was at its peak. I undertook a four-year-long mass contact programme, during which many of my colleagues, at least 50 of them including MLAs, ex-MLAs and office bearers, accompanying me were killed in attacks. I escaped from the jaws of death on a dozen occasions,” he said.

While the Congress’s ties with the ruling BJP remain bitter and frosty, Azad shared a warm personal equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In February 2021, when Azad retired from Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Modi had turned emotional. He broke down several times during his 13-minute speech as he recalled his close association with Azad. “At a personal level, I would request him to not consider that he is not in the House. My door is always open…I will always expect, and value, your views,” Modi said. “I will not let you retire,” he had told the Congress veteran.

His Congress party silent, his colleague Jairam Ramesh took a swipe at him by praising Bhattacharya’s rejection. “Right thing to do. He wants to be Azad not Ghulam,” he posted on Twitter.

However, another colleague Shashi Tharoor welcomed it. “Warm congratulations to (Ghulam Nabi Azad) on his Padma Bhushan. It is good to be recognized for one’s public service even by a government of the other side,” he tweeted.

The BJP government had conferred Padma Vibhushan on NCP chief Sharad Pawar in 2017 and awarded Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour to former President Pranab Mukherjee, a lifelong Congressman, in 2019.

In the past, a number of personalities, including P N Haksar (in 1973) and Swami Ranganathananda (in 2000), have refused to accept the award.

Haksar, awarded for his crucial role in brokering Shimla Agreement and India- Soviet Union Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, rejected it saying he was not comfortable accepting for the work he had done. Ranganathananda , then president of Ramakrishna Math and Mission, did not want to accept it as an individual. In 2014, the family of late Chief Justice of India Justice J S Verma refused to accept the award conferred to him posthumously saying accepting it would be against his principles.

BJP’s erstwhile traditional ally Parkash Singh Badal, who received the Padma Vibhushan in 2015, had returned the award in December 2020 in protest against the contentious farm laws, which were later withdrawn.

Awarding the Padma Vibhushan to former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, under whose watch the Babri Masjid was demolished, comes in the run-up to the UP elections and while the stage is being set for the construction of the Ram temple after the apex court cleared it in November 2019.

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