Monday, January 28, 2008

Republic Day Awards: A sharp reaction from a reader

Graded awards like our National Awards -- Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan -- necessarily involve some judgement about the relative worth of awardees' contributions in their respective domains. This evaluation of relative worth can lead to strong disagreements.

Sidebar: Over at Law and Other Things, V. Venkatesan has a great discussion of the Supreme Court's 1995 decision (in the Balaji Raghavan case) that reaffirmed the legality of the National Awards.

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The post on this year's National Day Awards drew a sharp comment from Renu, who decided to follow it up with an e-mail. My own take on awards is one of utter indifference; who gets what is not a matter that's worth spending too much time over, particularly when politicians are involved in the selection process. Renu's letter, reproduced below with permission, has some strong arguments (that you may strongly disagree with!). But, as I said, I maintain my indifference.

Here, then, is Renu's letter (after some minor editiing):

I am still puzzled over this year's honours list. Little in it makes sense. After my rant on your blog here is one more email to tell you how upset I am with our warped sense of appreciation.

Sachin Tendulkar has done what exactly to merit the Padma Vibhushan? I am certain, deluded as we are, and Ajit Wadekar is, we will never find the nerve to award him the Bharat Ratna. Even then has he done more than Mihir Sen (who for many years was the only man to have swum five high seas straits in one year) or Rajyavardhan Rathore who narrowly missed a shoting gold at Athens, or Bula Chowdhury and Bhaichung Bhutia? Is cricket such a profound field of endeavour?

But there seems to be some sense of proportion among our netas and babus. I was outraged that Dr. Varadhan, this year, merited only a Padma Bhushan compared to Sachin's Padma Vibhushan, till I looked up Dr. CNR Rao's bio and found that the great chemist too has only gone the distance to the Padma Bhushan [Note: this is incorrect; A Padma Vibhushan went to Prof. Rao in 1985].

It was bad enough of Vajpayee to award his surgeon a Padma Shri for a routine knee replacement, and Lata Mangeshkar, a mediocre gramaphone on a string, the Bharat Ratna. But the MMS/Sonia dispensation has decided to steal a march over the previous government by honouring Asha Bhonsle with the Padma Vibhushan and Ustad Fahimuddin Rahimuddin Dagar the Padma Bhushan. The good Ustad should deliver a thappad in the face of the government, and like the late great Hemant Kumar, decline this measly token of recognition. The Ustad is one of the guardians of a dying art, Dhrupad, that dates back millennia. Legend has it that the Ustad's ancestors learnt it by meditating on the primeval Aum of Paramasivan himself. Dhrupad predates today's the popular variants of today's Hindustani sangeet - its khayals and thumris. Dhrupad's practitioners will tell you that their art was already a hoary one by the time of Amir Khusro and Tansen.

So if we lack the head to appreciate the sciences, we lack a heart to appreciate our arts as well.

And surely we have no soul either. Neither does Vidyakar or Udavm Karangal, nor Dr. Bundeshwari Pathak of Sulabh Sauchalaya, nor Baba Amte, that peerless pioneer of rehabilitation services find any mention in this year's honours list. It is said that Gandhi lost nothing for having been looked over for the Nobel Peace Prize. Similarly in ignoring Baba Amte for the Bharat Ratna and the Nobel, it is these systems of recognition that are poorer and mired in mediocrity.


  1. Rahul said...

    I think the award system is one of the more unfortunate inheritances we have from the British. Many of Renu's questions -- why was X honoured and not Y? could be asked of the British too: why have Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger been knighted but not Julian Bream? Why was Paul Nurse knighted but not Frederick Sanger? And so on.

    I'm no fan of Lata and only marginally prefer Asha, but surely both of them have had a greater impact on contemporary Indian culture than the Dagars.

    Our own award system seems to demand international recognition first: Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen were honoured after they received the Nobel, R K Pachauri after his organisation received the Nobel, Satyajit Ray after he received his lifetime Oscar, and so on.

    One solution is to scrap the whole system. But short of that, I think one thing we MUST do is cease posthumous honours. That will end sillinesses like honouring Sardar Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose, and demanding a Bharat Ratna for Bhagat Singh.

  2. Anonymous said...

    1. Renu seems to be taking these awards far too seriously. Any awards system (in any field) has a lot of political aspects; every dispensation likes to reward their fellow travellers (e.g., in the present case, Kaushik Basu, Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sukhdeo Thorat, ... of course some of these may seem quite "deserving" to you or me).

    2. Being a mathematician I am (somewhat) aware of Varadhan's achievements. But one must keep in mind that he has worked in the USA since 1963 and is a US citizen, and one cannot claim that he has had a great influence on Indian science (unlike, e.g. CNR Rao). Given that the Padma Bhushan seems okay.

    3. Yes, Sachin Tendulkar's sporting achievements are greater than those of Mihir Sen, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Bhaichung Bhutia et. al. - he has for a significant period been the best *in the world* at what he does, something the others certainly can't claim. (Perhaps V. Anand is comparable.) So if you are willing to give a very high award for outstanding sporting achievement he deserves it. I do hope the Bharat Ratna is not given for sports, though.

    4. Whether the Dagars' lineage dates back to Tansen, Amir Khusrau, or Shiva himself doesn't seem to me of much relevance. Yes, they are practitioners of a classical art at a high level, and have been awarded as such. There is a popularity aspect to the awards - Asha Bhosle's work has affected the lives of more people than FR Dagar's - which you may lament, but in the absence (in an democratic setup) of any clear way to order everybody this is inevitable.

    5. Bindeshwari Pathak has, I believe, been awarded a Padma Bhushan. Yes, he probably deserves a Bharat Ratna more than most, but no, he won't get one.

    6. You are shocked at Sachin Tendulkar getting a Padma Vibhushan. I am shocked at Pranab Mukherjee, LN Mittal getting one;
    I am shocked at RK Pachauri getting anything at all. But then, I happen to believe Pachauri's contributions are as bogus as those of Al Gore. I am quite sure I am correct, and that time will prove me right, but until then I just have to lump it. Anyway, I don't want to get into a "global warming" debate here.


  3. Tanmay said...

    Hi Abi,

    I have been working in industry for 10 yrs in the US and have been offered an associate professorship at IIT-M. I am looking forward to my new position and am also planning to blog about my experiences. I find that you blog with atleast 2 different blog posts everyday. I am amazed at your prodigious output on the blogosphere. When do u get time for research rather how do you divide time between research and the blogosphere? I hope to find time to squeeze in atleast one blog post a week.