On August 14, 2012, the president of Pakistan announced a list of honours for 192 people. This list caught my eye for being one of the best in recent years with a wide variety of people, living and deceased, being honoured for their example and contribution to public life. The list also, thankfully, did not feature too many politically motivated honours. However, what concerned me was the fact that in Pakistan, people do not give much consideration to the honours list and I wondered why. In the UK, after which the Pakistani system is based, the twice-yearly honours lists are eagerly awaited and the honours strongly coveted. After all, these honours are recognition of a person’s service, dedication and example and people generally like such appreciation.
The Pakistan honours system was developed in March 1957 — nearly a year after the country became a republic — and largely followed the pattern of the UK system. Therefore, the Nishan-e-Pakistan was equivalent to the Garter and so on. The cabinet office even issued a circular explaining the equivalencies. The aim of the system was the same as in the UK: to recognise, honour and encourage excellence in different fields. Even while there was resistance to the creation of further aristocratic and knighthood ranks, the recognition of excellence through the use of post-nominal honours was considered appropriate not only in Pakistan but also in the more republican India, which established its own honours system in 1954. After all, several of the founding fathers of Pakistan, including the first two prime ministers, the second governor general, the first foreign minister and the chief justice, and several others, had British Indian honours, mainly conferred on them due to their excellence in their fields. In the initial few decades of Pakistan, there was still considerable interest in grant of such honours and the government of Ayub Khan especially used them extensively to spur development in various fields.
However, since the 1960s there has been a steady decline in interest in the honours system. Obviously, the lack of credibility of successive governments has led to diminished appreciation of the awards but the grant and scope of such awards has failed to evolve with time — which, in my opinion, has severely undermined the great encouraging power of such awards.
At present, the Pakistani honours system works on departmental nomination within the government which is then vetted by the provincial government and ultimately the cabinet secretariat. While this was exactly the way the system worked in the UK when the Pakistani system was established, the process has since dramatically changed in the former. Currently in the UK, nominations are invited from the general public (as well as government departments) which are then vetted by a specialised committee in each sector, chaired by an eminent person in the field and not in the government, and then sent to the Honours and Appointments Secretariat, which then further evaluates the nominations for final consideration by the prime minister and then the queen. This system not only includes the people in the process but also ensures that exemplary people are honoured in a transparent manner. This process also allows nominations of people who might have been overlooked by government departments in their considerations. Inviting public nominations invariably leads to those people being nominated who have done good things at a local level. For example, the assistant commissioner of an area might not recommend a schoolteacher for an award but her students who have been impacted by her honesty, dedication, and service over decades might nominate her. The recognition of such a dedicated teacher at the local level might encourage others to follow her path.
The most recent Queen’s Birthday Honours list in June 2012 recognised over 1,200 people, with over 70 per cent of the honorands from the local charity or volunteer sector. By contrast, Pakistan — a country with three times the population of the UK — only had 192 recipients and a large majority of them were nationally recognised figures. Government granted honours are a very cheap and important way for governments to encourage people, enhance social cohesion and community development. At a time when the civil society is fast falling apart and the government is increasingly mired in various crises, perhaps it is important that the honours policy is rethought to recognise the thousands of people who, through their example in their local community, keep the country together.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2012.
More in OpinionChina’s growing influence in Africa