Of “Honourables” And “His/Her Excellencies”: Why These Default Honorifics Should Be Abolished

Posted on October 24, 2014 in Politics

By Urvashi Prasad:

Titles such as “honourable” and “his/her Excellency” have been used for centuries in many countries including India in the names of dignitaries. In India, members of the parliament, ministers in the government, judges of the higher judiciary, are some of the classes of individuals who are entitled to the use of these prefixes. While there is a colonial legacy to this practice, it is high time that India abolishes it and sets an example for the rest of the world.

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We live in a society where inequality is perhaps our single biggest challenge. While on the one hand, we have successfully sent a mission to Mars, on the other hand, we still top the list of countries with the highest under-5 child deaths in the world. While we now have over 60 billionaires in the country with a combined net worth of US $250 billion, we are also home to one-third of the world’s 1.2 billion poorest people. While there has been impressive growth of our cities in the last few decades, over 20% of homes in rural areas still lack access to water, electricity and sanitation (individually, lack of access to these basic amenities is significantly higher).

In this scenario, do we really need to create symbolic divides among people by using honorifics? The purpose of electing or nominating people to seats of power is for them to serve the country and ensure that all Indians reap the benefits of development. This was highlighted by the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, who started his speech on India’s Independence Day with the statement, “I have come here not as a ‘pradhanmantri’ (prime minister) but a ‘pradhansewak’ (prime servant)”. It is critical that public servants truly imbibe this sentiment and work with the people and for the people of the country. An important starting point for this is doing away with all practices that create a divide between those who are in public offices and common citizens.

Moreover, just because people have a certain degree of power, does it mean that they have acted or will continue to act honourably? India has had a dubious record of electing parliamentarians with serious criminal charges, including murder, kidnapping and crimes against women. While several of them are never convicted because of the delays plaguing our justice system, the fact that so many of them are charged with committing grave offences, is a matter of concern and shame. Why should all of them then be automatically entitled to the use of “honourable”? Ironically, in Britain, two “Lords” who were suspended for inappropriate behaviour, continue to be referred to as Lords.

It is time that we rethink the use of such terms by default. If we really must use these titles, perhaps it can be reserved for people who have proved themselves through their efforts and achievements over a period of time, like our latest Nobel Laureate, Kailash Satyarthi, who has dedicated his life to lending a voice to the voiceless victims of child labour, a truly honourable cause.

In October 2012, The President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee approved a new protocol and discontinued the use of the salutation “His Excellency” while organising functions in India and also during interactions between Indian dignitaries and himself. Other countries too have slowly started realising the irrelevance of these titles. For instance, numerous members of parliament in Australia got rid of the “honourable” tag in 2003. A parliamentarian from Iceland expressed a preference for addressing his colleagues as “Miss/Mrs/Mr.” because he was of the belief that respect was not automatic.

During the launch of the Clean India Campaign on 2nd October, we saw citizens from all walks of life, including senior government officials and famous Bollywood celebrities, sweeping the streets as a symbolic gesture that they would play their part in keeping the environment clean and work together for the betterment of the country. It sent out a clear message that every citizen is equally responsible for keeping the country clean regardless of whether they are powerful government officials or “safai karmacharis” (sanitation champions who work tirelessly to keep our public places clean). I believe that doing away with entitlements like “honourable” can be an equally powerful symbolic step for striving for equality in our country and demonstrating to the world that India actually practices what it preaches.

If you support this cause and want to play your part in ensuring that this practice gets abolished, please sign this petition to the Prime Minister and share it with your family and friends. It is only if we all come together, that we can bring about lasting change.