The current stampede of writers seeking to return their Sahitya Akademi awards is quite remarkable. While the numbers of returned awards is quite unprecedented, the act of returning or refusing awards is not at all new in India. In fact, it has quite a rich history that spans around a century or so.

The most famous of India’s “award returners" is undoubtedly Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was knighted in 1915, two years after he won the Nobel Prize.

On 31 May 1919, a little over a month after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Tagore wrote a letter to Lord Chelmsford, the viceroy: “…I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings. These are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood…"

A much less popular refusal of an award happened in 1921. Narayan Malhar Joshi is perhaps best remembered today as the person who gave his name to N.M. Joshi Marg in Worli in Mumbai, which stretches from Byculla Railway Station to the Elphinstone Flyover. But in his lifetime, Joshi, or Nanasaheb, was a much-loved reformer and trade unionist. An obituary published in 1955 wrote that his “public life was marked by his tremendous zest for work, sincerity, respect for the opponents and deep knowledge of the subjects he had to deal with".

The 1935 edition of Who’s Who published in London has a splendid entry for Joshi that includes a curious line. In 1921 Joshi was offered a British honour—a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire, or a CIE. This was quite a serious bauble and one given to other luminaries such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale. But the entry says that Nanasaheb Joshi “refused on the ground of his being very poor".

In addition to Tagore, two more Indians returned their knighthoods at the dawn of India’s independence. C.P. Ramaswami Iyer, the great and controversial administrator, returned not one but two knighthoods after Independence. And so did Vijay Ananda Gajapathi Raju, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram.

Uniquely, Raju, an ace cricketer, is perhaps the only one to be knighted during his playing career. He explained, in a letter to Lord Mountbatten, that he was returning his honour because it would not be in “keeping with the ideals of Republican India".

Since Independence, this trend has continued. But not always for reasons that are, shall we say, so noble.

So, on the one hand, we have Kannada writer Shivarama Karanth and Hindi writer Phanishwarnath Renu, who returned the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri, respectively, in the wake of the Emergency declared in 1975.

Karanth wrote, in returning his title: “Today, at the age of 74, I hang my head in shame at the turn of events. I don’t believe that a single soul has a right to bypass human freedoms under any cloak. Though for decades I have refrained from active politics, I feel impelled to protest against such indignities done to the people of India. As such, to calm my own conscience at least, I feel impelled to return, to surrender the title to your government. May truth prevail over untruth."

Earlier this month, the president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha resented the return of Akademi awards, saying that the Sahitya Akademi was being needlessly politicized.

Ironically, 10 years ago, the then president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha, Kanaksen Deka, rejected his Padma Shri, saying that it “has come too late in the day".

In an interview to The Hindu, Deka said, “The people of Assam have conferred on me awards like Sangbad Surya, Sangbad Jyoti and Sangbad Mukut… So, I don’t need a Padma Shri to prove my credentials. The people here have already recognised me. Accepting it would be humiliating the Assamese people. Delhi has woken up too late."

Deka is just one of many, many Indian luminaries who have rejected awards for reasons of inadequacy or lateness. Two years ago, singer S. Janaki rejected her Padma Bhushan saying she deserved the Bharat Ratna. Dancer Sitara Devi cited the exact same reason for rejecting her Padma Bhushan in 2002.

Romila Thapar has turned down the Padma Bhushan twice, once in 1992 and once again in 2005. “I decided some years ago that I would only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not accept state awards," she said, clarifying her reasons.

At the risk of crashing the Mint website’s servers, I am not without sympathy for Thapar’s point of view. State awards are troublesome things, even when “autonomous" institutions give them away. Because human minds are rarely autonomous, are they?

I think British Marxist historian A.J.P. Taylor encapsulates my feelings about state awards best: “The Establishment draws its recruits from outside as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable than to make peace with the Establishment—and nothing more corrupting."

What are your thoughts about state awards and the politics of giving and returning them? Send us your gentle comments.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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