Withdraw Saina’s Padma Shri
“Friends, I am not demanding for the award… My question was why my name was not sent to the home ministry (sic),” shuttler Saina Nehwal, an Olympic bronze medalist, tweeted the other day. She was upset that she was not being considered for a Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, whereas the Union Ministry of Sports has recommended wrestler Sushil Kumar’s name for the award. In fact, this clarification from Saina came following the earlier reports which suggested that she had virtually demanded the Padma Bhushan for herself.
To me this so-called clarification of Saina, already a Padma Shri awardee five years ago, is nothing but reiteration of her demand. And this is a dangerous development, though it is not the first time that sportspersons in India have thrown such tantrums. We have a case of boxer Manoj Kumar winning his Arjuna Award, the big award in the field of sports, through a Court order. This, incidentally, forced the Sports Ministry deciding to go by “fixed criteria” for selecting the Arjuna awardees. But for the Padma awards, it is the Union Home Ministry which is the nodal ministry to decide, in consultation with the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Sports ministry has virtually surrendered to Saina’s anger. Though the last date for forwarding recommendations or Padma awards for the year 2015 from all over the country was September 15, 2014, Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal says that despite receiving the recommendation for Saina from the Badminton Association of India on January 3, he has forwarded it with his consent to the Home Ministry on January 4, requesting that her case should be considered “as a special case although the last date for making the recommendation is long over”.
Thus, we have here a case of a sportsperson virtually dictating to the Sports Ministry that she should be given a Padma award and that the Sports Minister succumbing to her demand. And this is shocking from whichever angle one may look at. In fact, when I posted my anguish over this in the Facebook, many friends’ reacted, agreeing with me. I think it is worth reproducing some of their comments. My Indian-American friend Amit Gupta, a great follower of and writer on Indian sports, though professionally he is a strategic affairs specialist, rightly says that “Prakash Padukone, India’s greatest badminton player, never made demands. This generation needs to learn what it means to be a real sportsman.” Friend and colleague K Srnivasan wrote, “What is this nonsense that you can apply for a higher Padma at the end of a five year cooling off after receiving a lower Padma! That’s what Saina’s father who doubles as her spokesman told the HT City. Apply? Unbelievable! I think Saina has lost the plot. Her yo yo like performances over the last four years is a reflection of this regression from a single-minded dedicated badminton player to one who is now distracted and sometimes consumed by other interests. What a pity?”
General Raj Mehta, one of the country’s distinguished soldiers, reacted to my post saying, “ You see this happening year after sickening year…People who should be focusing on bringing sporting honour to India (and therefore to themselves) spend a lot of time in backdoor machinations and canvassing for these awards. This is shameful and nowhere near the sporting ideals these athletes profess to subscribe to. They come across as carpetbaggers; fly-by-night operators hoping to cash in on their excellence by all means; mostly unfair means. For Govt to fall prey to such unethical means is to make a declaration of helplessness and absence of a system of awards that is above board and respected instead of castigated.”
Vivek Raina, a senior private sector professional said, “I think Padma awards for sports people should be abrogated….we all know that they do it for the money…..all of them….so why BS about nationalism when you make it……in fact a sports person should get a Padma on the basis what he/she has done outside sports ….to use their influence in the society for the greater good…….just like cricketers being awarded knighthood on the basis of their contribution outside sports and taking into account the overall effect of their presence in the society…..”
In my Facebook post, I had suggested what should be the government’s response to Saina’s blackmail. But before coming to that, let it be admitted that Saina could make a particular Padma demand precisely because Padma awards have been given over the years to the people by the government of the day in a most non-transparent manner that one can think of. These awards, like the highest civilian award Bharat Ratna, have been highly politicised in the process. It may be noted that Padma Awards were instituted in the year 1954. It is supposed to be awarded to citizens of India (even foreigners in rare cases) to recognise their distinguished contribution in various spheres of activity, including “the Arts, Education, Industry, Literature, Science, Sports, Medicine, Social Service and Public Affairs”. However, the selection process has been so controversial that we have witnessed how on occasions people chosen for the award (playback singer S. Janaki, for instance) have rejected it on the ground that it was beneath their dignity to accept the award that should have come to them much earlier.
The awards have been used as patronage by successive governments, so much so that the honours have gone at times to dubious individuals and persons otherwise distinguished but rewarded specifically for a favour done. For example, the Manmohan Singh government awarded the Padma Bhushan to the controversial hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal on the specious plea that he had played a key role in facilitating the India-United States civil nuclear agreement. Last year, a Haryana resident, one Sandeep Kapoor, petitioned the President to withdraw the Padma Shri awarded to Pune industrialist A H Firodia on the ground that he did not have the “financial integrity” credentials checked before conferring one of the highest civilian honours. Kapoor alleged that Firodia was a “multiple willful defaulter” of bank loans of over Rs 200 crore, with a score of criminal cases against him on January 25, 2012, the day the award was announced. And what was more intriguing, Firodia, whole time director of Kinetic Engineering Limited, Pune was conferred the award in the same year 2012 when another director of the company, Dr Kantilal Hastimal Sancheti, was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan. Two persons of a same company had never got the awards in the same year till then.
Similarly, some doctors, despite their competence, got the Padma awards under controversial circumstances. The Padma Bhushan award for Dr. Chittaranjan Singh Ranawat came in the wake of his successful knee surgery on the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 1981, Dr. Dhanwant Singh, it was alleged, got a Padma Shri for having performed a cataract operation on the then Home Minister Giani Zail Singh. We have also the case of one J.A.K. Martyn, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1985 during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, his claim to fame being the fact that he was the principal of Doon School, Gandhi’s alma mater.
It may be noted that in 1996, a high-level committee headed by K.R. Narayanan, who was Vice-President at the time, had set stringent qualifications for the Padma awards, stressing the “exceptional” nature of the recipient’s service. Likewise, in 2004, President Abdul Kalam had to write to then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, advising caution in the selection of the awardees. It may also be noted that in December 1995, in two separate but concurring judgments in response to several writ petitions questioning the constitutional validity of the awards, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court had observed that things were not in order as far as the manner in which the awards were doled out. The Court had spelt out in no uncertain terms that the number of awardees should be restricted to less than 50 each year. The then Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi had suggested that the Prime Minister should constitute a committee to lay down clear guidelines and select recipients in consultation with the President.
However, all said and done, nothing has changed. The process of selecting the awardees continues to be as opaque as ever. The government of the day has been flouting the deadline for receiving recommendations and habitually overruling the Awards Committee. This leads to the question why should it be the government that will do the selection. There are strong merits that the selection committee should be autonomous and independent of the government and consist of individuals of impeccable integrity. This committee, unlike the government, is unlikely to come under the outside pressure, as it will have no constituencies as such to nurture.
Now coming back to the Saina, the Modi government must give a strong signal to all potential blackmailers (after Saina, now we hear that boxer Vijender Singh is demanding he too should be given a Padma Bhushan. He is believed to have told the press, “Since my 2008 Olympic bronze and the 2009 World Championships bronze, I have gone on to win an Asian Games gold, a bronze and a silver in Commonwealth Games besides a gold in the World Police Games. So if her name can be considered, then I can also try my luck,”) that Padma awards are offered, not demanded. Home Minister Rajnath Singh must not only reject her nomination but also find out a way how one Padma Shri award given already to Saina is withdrawn. It is up to her for playing or retiring. As General Raj Mehta says, if she wishes to wind up or play under different flags, that is her choice.
By Prakash Nanda