Awards for merit or manipulation?

Of the 44 Bharat Ratna awardees, there are five Presidents, six PMs, five CMs and three Union ministers.

Come January, it is awards time in this country. A time for recognising distinguished services in various fields. Not an easy task when the population is one billion plus, and talents flourish in every walk of life.

Indians have an uncanny ability to excel in whatever they do. It could be a scientific discovery or a literary achievement. A medical feat or an industrial innovation. Even an uneducated, illiterate Indian can impress with his skills in multiple areas. It is a country with a flair for achievement. Such being the case, how does one select persons for awards and label them as the best?

Since recognising talent and merit also call for talented and exceptional minds, awards have always been a one-sided affair in India, with money, influence and power playing a lead role in their selection. In a milieu where merit has been notoriously sidelined and mediocrity shamelessly promoted, one can hardly expect governments – at the Centre or in states – to identify and reward the truly deserving.

It may be in arts, science, sports, literature or even gallantry in war – the awards have never been free of bias or favouritism. One should hardly be surprised or feel indignant that the wrong person was recognised while a more deserving one waited in the wings.

The recent Padma awards have generated hard feelings that could have been avoided if the judges had selected candidates on the basis of eligibility rather than connections. The right connections in the right places can achieve almost anything – from a gas cylinder to a Bharat Ratna. It speaks very poorly of us as a nation.

But, we are not the only country guilty of bias and prejudice. Sometimes, international awards too have the same dubious reputation when it comes to recognising merit.
We have well known awards like the Oscar for films, the Grammy for music, Emmy
for television, Pulitzer for journalism, Magsaysay for social work and finally, the Nobel
for outstanding contribution in any field.

Every year, when the awards are announced, there is great jubilation for some, intense heartbreak for others. There will always be someone who feels that his work deserved recognition. Or, that some-body else was inappropriately chosen for it.The most glaring example is the omission of Gandhi among the Nobel Peace Prize awa-rdees. Who deserved it better than the man who toppled an empire, not with guns, but with a handful of salt? Although he was nominated three times for this prestigious honour, he was denied the same in the final selection.

The Nobel Committee itself regretted this omission with these telling words: “The greatest omission in our 106-year-old history is undoubtedly Mahatma Gandhi who never received the Nobel Prize for Peace. Gandhi could do without it. But, whether the Nobel Committee can do without Gandhi is the question!”

Undeserved honour

In India, the Bharat Ratna is the most prestigious award “which seeks to recognise and is given for distinguished and exceptional achievements in all disciplines…” Yet, of the 44 awards given from 1954 to 2015, there are five Presidents of India, six prime ministers, five chief ministers and three cabinet ministers!

Do persons elected into ministerial positions deserve this honour? It is no secret that money – accounted and unaccounted – plays a big role in any election. Some of these awardees even quit office under dubious circumstances. Three of them belong to India’s dynastic family who recommended themselves for the award.

Others like C N R Rao and Sachin Tendulkar even invited several public interest litigation (PIL) cases for being chosen for this highest civilian award when many other scientists and sportspersons who richly deserved it were denied the honour. The PILs pointed out that CNR Rao had been proved of plagiarism, while Tendulkar is  an influential member of Parliament. They were ignored.

Perhaps, it is best to scrap these awards or bestow them on institutions rather than individuals. There may have been many other scientists, research scholars and even students in the IISc who contributed behind the scenes for the director to be thus honoured. It would be graceful on the part of heads of institutions to share the awards with those who worked for them.

Similarly, efforts of sportsmen and women who struggled to reach the top in different sports despite several odds need to be recognised rather than reward well connected players who played popular games like cricket.  Gender bias and social prejudice have also been evident in these selections which have reduced our national awards into a farce.

Nobel Laureate Chandra-shekar said it all when he quipped: “Have you heard that story of the general who was asked to comment on all those medals that decorated his coat, and who replied, “This first one here was a mistake. The rest simply followed.”

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