I once found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with something written by Aakar Patel. In a column for Live Mint, “Why Sachin shouldn’t get the Bharat Ratna”, Patel expertly laid out the case for why this particular batsman didn’t deserve the award. Why the Indian government would want to hand out the honour to Sachin was obvious: it allowed the prime minister to bask in his reflected glory. I remembered Patel’s column when hearing news that the government had decided to hand out posthumous Nishan-e-Imitazes on August 14 to Saadat Hasan Manto and Mehdi Hassan. In doing so, the government is guilty of the same piggybacking that spurred the proposal for Sachin’s Bharat Ratna. Indeed, the crime is compounded by the fact that the honourees are dead. Poor Manto never got to decide if he wanted a title from the government.
The Mormons’ practice of posthumously ‘converting’ people to their religion caused a lot of controversy in the Jewish community when it was revealed that among the ‘converts’ were some Holocaust victims. This is essentially what the government is trying to do with Manto, a dissident writer who was penalised by his own government and once took a smaller amount than offered by the US government to write for a publication it sponsored just so he could humiliate them.
There are some who will argue that honouring Manto now is surely a case of better late than never and that by doing so the government is acknowledging and apologising for the past injustices heaped on the writer. Excuse me for being sceptical. The government honouring those who fight censorship is inherently absurd since a government that actually opposed censorship wouldn’t have anyone to hand out these medals to in the first place. This is why Baloch journalists have their websites blocked rather than being awarded a Nishan-e-Imtiaz. And if Manto was around today, I doubt he would be pleased with a government that has tried to block internet pornography en masse.
I would also argue that the government shouldn’t be handing out these civilian awards to anyone. Its sole purpose for doing so is self-aggrandisment and there is no reason for people, especially those whose work is defined by its antagonism to authority, to play along. Journalists, in particular, whose sole reason for existence should be uncovering government wrongdoing, should refuse all government honours and all credible artists should be careful of being co-opted by governments that are quick to abandon them if they cross certain limits. Soon after the party took power, armed goons from the PPP attacked the Shanakht festival in Karachi because a painting was not seen as sufficiently deferential to Benazir Bhutto. Artists are meant to be transgressors who critique society from its outer margins. That is certainly what Manto was and the idea that he would consider a government award anything other than a badge of dishonour is laughable.
If the government is serious about honouring those who excel in their chosen fields, it would quietly hand out funds to people involved in social service rather than staging photos with them; it would let our cricketers win matches without muscling in on their glory and scoring choice tickets to important matches and it would invest in sports at the grassroots-level, rather than sending as many officials as athletes to the Olympics.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2012.
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