Sharp descent for Padma awards – and the Republic
By M J Akbar
Maulana Azad has been much on my mind for a variety of melancholy reasons. The neglect of his memory is reflected in the loneliness of his shrine at Urdu Park, near Delhi’s Jama Masjid. It is utterly appalling that we romanticize a pathetic weasel, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who lost an Indian Empire, and diminish the man who, along with a dozen others, sat at the apex of a party that destroyed the British Empire.
Singular conviction was the hallmark of his politics. While his great compatriots had the support of their communities, Azad stood bereft, but resolute and heroic, against a rising tide of venom. His political courage was complemented by intellectual depth: Sarojini Naidu once said Azad was 50 on the day he was born. Find him in two lines of verse he wrote at the age of 14: Azad bekhudi ke nashebofaraz dekh Puchi zamin ki to kahi aasman ki.(Azad, see how this restless spirit soars /The question is of the earth, the answer of the skies.)
He was our first education minister, a chair he filled till his death in 1958. Nehru wanted to honour this giant with a major Padma award. Azad laughed it off. How could a government give itself an award, he asked. Azad did not measure his worth with a political tape. There are still those who turn down awards because they do not want their independence besmirched by a gift from government.
You have to be naïve to believe that the awards process is free of government interference. The obedient will always be allotted their corner a little askance of the deserving.
You have to be either extremely insecure, or be possessed by a hypocrite’s need for camouflage, to lobby and beg and wheedle for a Padma award.
It is perfectly all right if the award comes your way without your knowledge, which still happens half the time. The other half becomes an opportunity for racketeers who treat a Padma award as a certificate of exoneration after a lifetime of deceit and manipulation. This subverts the very purpose of the award.
The people have recognized the cynicism at the heart of the process, and therefore do not much care one way or the other. In any case, awards are a mutual-backscratching operation between the elite. No one is going to rush off to buy a ticket to a Saif Ali Khan movie because he has suddenly become a Padma Shri.
To be fair, Saif himself was a trifle puzzled at the sudden arrival of honour at his doorstep. He has been known to give the odd brilliant performance, and he dances almost as well as his girlfriend, but one doubts if he, or anyone else, thinks of him as a legend.
The most amusing story about awards was told to me by one of the finest human beings I have had the privilege to know, or know of, H Y Sharada Prasad. He was the most trusted member of Indira Gandhi’s inner circle, a bureaucrat of the old school. Honesty was his outstanding virtue, but his principal asset was wisdom born of a marriage between learning and experience.
Sharada Prasad treated fortune and misfortune as equally deceptive imposters, passing the days of exile from power (after Mrs Gandhi’s defeat in 1977) with as gentle a smile as he possessed when he sat in the holy of holies, the Prime Minister’s Office.
He was a friend of D G Tendulkar, whose nine-volume biography of Gandhi may be untidily written, but is one of the great classics of modern Indian history. It is lost today in some forgotten shelf of Publications Divisions, bought by libraries as part of a respectable list that no one reads. Tendulkar used to live very simply in a tenement in Mumbai, with a beloved stray dog as his best companion.
Early every morning, the dog would wake up the author and the two would go for a walk along Marine Drive. On his return home, Tendulkar would catch up on the last of his sleep. One day, the dog came rushing back after Tendulkar had dozed off, and virtually dragged the author out of his bed and on to the street. Just as they reached open air, an earthquake destroyed the flimsy tenement. But this is not the relevant story, of course.
Tendulkar was given a Padma Bhushan when Dr Rajendra Prasad was Rashtrapati. His first reaction was to send a telegram to Rajendra Prasad saying that could he please be given a watch instead — what he really needed was a watch, not a piece of paper from the Government of India. Let it be on record that Tendulkar got both the watch and the Padma.
From Tendulkar to oily businessmen is a sharp descent for the Republic.
Appeared in Times of India - February 14, 2010