It is one thing to be given an honorific title by common consent but quite another to expect and demand that it be used as a salutation

The arrival of two granddaughters has very recently transformed my best introduction. I am not grandson now as much as grandfather. The little ones have done me a favour beyond description. A minister in the capital I was posted in as Ambassador had been briefed about her caller’s grandfather. Mixing up the honorific used for Ambassadors, “Excellency” and the adjective she intended for my grandfather, “distinguished,” she held out her hand with “I am delighted to meet someone from such an extinguished family.” I could not say “thank you,” and I could not correct her. I just simpered at that unintended reminder of a hard fact.

Another letter that arrived in Raj Bhavan, Kolkata, also turned out to be an unintended, but crisp, lesson in ground realities. It came around the time I had decided that the Governor’s residence should be part of and not an exception to the city’s power outages and not much after I had advised my office to cease the practice of describing the Governor as “His Excellency.” Just plain “The Governor,” is enough, I said. Wholly appreciative of the steps, it nonetheless chose a form of address that reminded me vividly and unforgettably of a Governor’s constitutional limitations. It began (inevitably, again) with: “May It Please His Excellency… I am honoured to be addressing the Figurehead of the State.” Walter Bagehot could not have done better.

Honorifics are used in deathless habit for the “honoured” ones. I speak only of India, of course, and not of cultures and systems with offices, institutions and traditions of government different from ours. I cannot fault our fellow citizens, simple folk, organisations and official hierarchies using phrases such as “His Excellency” and “His Highness,” and “His Lordship,” out of just plain “tradition” and “past practice.” But if their Excellencies, Highnesses and Lordships themselves permit or encourage this, they do so at the risk of inviting humour, not honour, to the proceedings. Until not all that long ago, judges in some High Courts in the Republic of India wore powdered wigs with thick and unkempt bunches of very blond mock hair, while hearing cases on the bench. All honour to Their Lordships that they recognised the humorous incongruity in this and sent the headgear to stores.

Part of high office

President Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to end the practice of using the honorific of “His Excellency” for the First Citizen of India comes, therefore, as welcome news. Others may take some time to fall in line, but the process within Rashtrapati Bhavan has begun and it is good that it has. To be sure, it started several decades ago. Shortly after the Republic was proclaimed, Prime Minister Nehru advised all Governors in a written communication, to discontinue the practice of using “His Excellency” in Raj Bhavans. I remember the late C. Subramaniam, when he was Governor of Maharashtra, issuing orders to his staff to desist from the practice. But it has continued, like a hardy perennial, in letters and documents and proceedings issuing from Governors’ secretariats. This is part of the mystique that has grown around that high office which persuades its incumbents, all otherwise very commonsensical people, that there is something excellently excellent, excellently ordained and excellently unalterable to their being the most excellent Excellencies. They do not, in the high meridian of their office realise that being an Excellency is, by definition, only the first step to becoming an ex-Excellency and that, ironically, this double ex-ness is only marginally funnier than single ex-ness.

If Nehru’s advice to Governors was not heeded, his advice to President Prasad to give up the idea of wearing a silken sash at his inauguration was accepted, thank God. History and the good Rajen-babu were both spared the embarrassment and smirks that would have met the sudden appearance of that Gandhian freedom fighter, khadi-spinner and khadi-wearer in the livery of monarchs. Nehru was motivated in this not just by his sense of good taste but by his sense of history as well. He knew, as indeed most know, that certain practices in the citadels of high office are determined by the contexts in which they arose and took shape. There is such a thing as obsolescence. Nehru quotes, in one of his letters to his daughter that later became Glimpses of World History, H.G. Wells’ famous lines on the Emperor Asoka: “Amidst the tens of thousands of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousness-es, and serenities and royal highnesses, and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, like a star.”

Start within

Titular honorifics, like blond wigs, log-fires, chimney irons, hand-pulled punkahs, palanquins, thunder-boxes and horse-driven buggies deserve a place of respect in historiography, not in a use beyond their long-crossed expiry dates. Hanging on to them is to tempt a trapeze slip with risks of spinal damage to the users’ contemporaneity.

So, am I suggesting “Off With All Honorifics!”?

That would be too pat, too theatrical. Phraseological bolshevism is as absurd as nomenclatural monarchism.

I am not recommending anything impractical. But I do urge that Raj Bhavans and High Courts follow Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reported example and, for a start, cease using “Their Excellencies” and “Their Lordships” within their own four walls, their own printed stationery, their own systems. The world outside will get the message and comply, in good time. And I also suggest these offices give, for practical purposes, substitute formulations. Here, our Defence Forces offer a very good example. A Field Marshal is a Field Marshal, he is not His Glory the Field Marshal. A General is a General, not His Inspiration the General. A Wing Commander is a Wing Commander, not His Fireworks Wing Commander So and So. And thank God, again, for small mercies, an Admiral is an Admiral, not His Tsunamic Admiral So and So or a Vice Admiral, His Tidal Vice Admiral Such and Such.

Ideally, Governors and Judges should be called, simply, in English, the Hon’ble Governor Shri or Smt So and So, and the Hon’ble Shri or Smt Justice Such and Such. In good time, honour retained as a noun, and a virtue, “Hon’ble” can be retired to the roll of adjectives and Governors and Judges be called Shri/Smt … and Shri/Smt Justice..., with “Sir” and “Madam” being used, quite aptly, in English conversational forms of address, together their wonderful equivalents, in India’s different languages.

Not everything “colonial” is to be loathed. The architecture of that period, for instance, the wide roads laid by the Raj, even the aesthetics of colonial statuary when compared to their garish plaster successors, are things I admire. And I like too, the systems of respectful deference to seniors and superiors within hierarchical entities like government offices, Board Rooms, military establishments, specialised agencies like the police, fire services and the railways. These do conduce to discipline and method. But high-sounding titles in English are not among the vestiges of the Raj that do our common sense any credit. Their Hindi, Gujarati, Bangla and Tamil equivalents, such as Mananiya and Medaghu or the Urdu Izzatdar and Janab are far easier on the tongue, ear and imagination than their English “originals.” I would suggest a di-glott use of Indian language equivalents over the English archetypes as a via media.

Members of Parliament, bless them, are all “Hon’ble.” I shall not invoke or cite Shakespeare’s Mark Antony on the theme. I will say only this: It is one thing to be called “Hon’ble” by common consent, with full heart, and with joy in the calling party’s heart as it uses that adjective. It is quite another to expect, to want, to demand, that the expression be used unvaryingly by people as a salutation.

Respect, ultimately, is earned. It is not a decoration that one attaches to oneself on the temporary lapels of borrowed authority. Asoka was not the wearer of a medallion called Star of Kalinga. He was, quite simply, a star. With as small an “s” as you can get, but with the sky itself as his dwelling.

(The writer is a former Governor of West Bengal.)

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