Maverick: The ‘Anti’ Pros
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, Jan. 29, 2008
Now that the country has decided that for seven years running no one has been a jewel in our crown, we can talk about the business of those who refuse to be knaves of the System.
While I love anti-establishment figures, there are occasions when the rejection of awards is cause for wonder. And I am not referring to the posthumous honour to Subhas Chandra Bose which had to be withdrawn because there was a case filed in the Supreme Court against its “posthumous” nature!
We shall talk about someone like Ustad Vilayat Khan who refused the national awards twice because he felt the committee wasn’t competent enough to judge his music.
These awards are not about expertise. They are about how proud you have done the country. If knowledge of a field is important, then who can decide on something as abstract as ‘peace’? Should people refuse the Nobel Peace Prize because Alfred Nobel invented dynamite?
The word ‘principles’ is thrown around quite randomly. Is abjuring rewards the highest virtue? Towards the end of his life I had interviewed Morarji Desai and asked him what Mahatma Gandhi would have to say about encomiums like the Bharat Ratna? “He would not have permitted it. I, too, don’t believe in these things, but since I had accepted the Pakistani award I could not refuse this one.”
This was extremely candid.
Quite in contrast to historian Romila Thapar who has stated she will “only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work”. Does her professional work not involve poking into heritage sites of the country? When she talks about academic institutions, are they all privately-owned?
Suppose an institution awards V.S. Naipaul, whose views on Hindutva are quite different from hers, would she then refuse one from it even for her “professional work”? I have the highest regard for the lady as I do for Arundhati Roy, who snubbed the Sahitya Akademi Award saying she could not accept the honour from an institution linked to the Government whose policies she opposes. She threw the baby out with the bathwater, to use a cliché, for the ‘government-linked’ institution was feting her for raising questions in ‘The Algebra of Infinite Justice’.
Dramatist Ratan Thiyam had returned the Padma Shri a while ago and written to the President saying that the Centre’s decision to extend the Naga ceasefire had “caused deaths, injuries, turmoil and restlessness in the North-East”. This was a clear protest. Just as Khushwant Singh’s was when he rejected his Padma Bhushan to voice disapproval against Operation Blue Star. In 2007 he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan; he accepted it. It is possible to nitpick and say justice to the victims of the Sikh riots has still been denied, but we have to take into account the several governments that have come in the interim. He had opposed a particular government action, not the aftermath.
Journalist Nikhil Chakravartty believed journalists should not be identified with the establishment. This is a perfectly honourable stand. We will have to extend the parameters, then. Journalists ought not to go on junkets with ministers. Besides, how many people would refuse the Person of the Year honour given out by media houses that depend on advertising? The ads are about companies that may do a lot of hera-pheri where taxes are concerned, or they may market things that pollute the environment or face creams that reveal prejudices. How would the recipients react to this?
If an award is named after a renowned figure, would it be prudent to make sure that the person honoured shares a similar ideology? Should we not apply the same yardstick to private enterprise as we do to our government?
It is absolutely right to oppose Establishment policies, but how many people check on the antecedents and financial history of the organisations that invite them to lecture against the System? Why is it that those who are so particular about our government’s abysmal human rights record, do not hesitate to be special guests of countries with similar or worse records? If it is the sheer ability to salivate over imperialism and rubbish it, then no one is stopping us from doing so on home turf. I have always maintained that the minute you apply for a sponsored visa and are ushered through immigrations till you return home, you are hostage to the alien environment.
I like to quote the example of Robert Redford who was honoured a few years ago by the Kennedy Centre for his lifetime contribution to the arts and American culture. He had second thoughts about attending the function as he might have had to sit next to President George Bush, whose policies he disapproves of. Instead of getting self-righteous, he said, “It’s obviously a big honour that cannot be denied. My initial confusion was whether it was in any way tied to the government. Once I realised it was an honour above politics, I breathed easier.”
He was mature enough to recognise that the arts have no politics and as an American he ought not to have a problem with ‘American culture’.
Therefore, Indian art and Indian culture and being honoured as a representative have nothing to do with who runs the government. The splitting hairs scenario is a fascinating exercise but hardly rewarding.
Together with the vanity of those who win, is the vanity of those who choose to not win. In a twist of gumption, the winners are called losers.