Throughout history and across cultures, strict rules have governed the precise forms in which ordinary mortals can address those in positions of political or even ecclesiastical authority. Depending on the status and tolerance level of the addressee, getting the exact salutation wrong could even have lethal consequences. While according hyperbolic deference to royalty and religious figures poses no particular problem in a monarchical or feudal set-up, reconciling the nomenclatural requirements of authority and hierarchy with the principles of democratic citizenship is not always easy. Some forms of address are steeped in cultural, political and diplomatic traditions, but excessive protocol can also undermine the egalitarian foundations of republicanism by increasing the distance between the citizenry and those in authority. It is in this context that the initiative President Pranab Mukherjee took a few months into his presidency — to drop ceremonial honorifics such as ‘His Excellency’ being used against his name in domestic dealings and references — is so refreshing. Mr. Mukherjee’s decision sent out a progressive and contemporary message, one that others in the upper echelons of the Indian establishment have slowly begun to embrace: On Monday, Maharashtra Governor K. Sankaranarayanan decreed that he should no longer be addressed as ‘Mahamahim’ or ‘His Excellency.’ Of course in the context of international diplomacy, such terms will still have their place.
Meanwhile in India’s superior courts, lawyers continue to address judges as ‘My Lord’ and ‘Your Lordship,’ although the Bar Council of India passed a resolution in April 2006 to give up such forms of salutation. In similar fashion, the silver mace-bearer still heralds the judge as he or she walks to the courtroom. Herbert Spencer wrote in 1878 of how “words of eulogy may, like other propitiations, be traced back to the behaviour of the conquered to the conqueror.” But the world has come a long way since, and our terminology and associated practices need to reflect the change. The toning down of lofty and exalted titles by Rashtrapati Bhavan is a good step forward but its true significance lies in forcing us to question the relevance of the other appurtenances of power in modern India: the red lights on motor cars, the queue jumping, the excessive security, the free housing and perquisites, the virtual immunity from investigation and prosecution that those in authority enjoy for criminal acts. These are only some of the more unhealthy products of our ‘VIP culture.’ They set ruler apart from ruled and are far more corrosive to the spirit of the Indian Republic.