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We want to know who the jury is!

February 13, 2008

No one knows who the men and women are who decide on the national awards. It’s a well guarded secret. Snigdha wrote and asked me whether I knew who comprised these jury panels, she wanted to know if there was a bias. No amount of digging could yield an answer. The nearest I got to it was this article:

Apparently, a top-secret committee meets to vet nominations. A tentative list is sent to the Home Minister and, then, to the Prime Minister. There is — almost by definition — no transparency to the process. Nobody knows who made the decisions and none of the judges are ever held accountable.

Lobbying, Bribing and Begging for awards
The result of the lack of transparency is inevitable. People lobby for awards, they bribe to get awards and they beg to get awards. And when there are two deserving padmavibhushan.jpgcandidates, but one is a member of the ruling party, you can guess who the award will go to. It happened this year. The country second highest award, The Padma Vibhushan went to the functioning and senior most Finance Minister – Pranab Mukherjee. I am not saying he didn’t deserve it, but it’s like the government giving an award to itself. If a committee independent of the government had given him the award, it would have carried more authority.

The kind of lobbying that people do to get awards is explained well in this article. An excerpt:

What started in 1950 as a serious attempt to honour achievers in various fields has now increasingly become the preserve of…sycophants and flatterers…(even) artistes are known to lobby hard for these awards…you have cases like a former headmaster getting it when an ex-student is PM, or the wife of a favoured bureaucrat being awarded for social service…When it comes to loyalists, even the unwritten rule of keeping a gap of 10 years between two Padma awards is not followed…(and) the bottomline has not changed: anyone who opposes the government of the day does not get an award.

Something to make us all squirm. Something to make the genuine, deserving award winner squirm.

The Bharat Ratna circus

bharat-ratna.jpgTake the Bharat Ratna. India’s highest civilian award awarded “for the highest degrees of national service. This service includes artistic, literary, and scientific achievements, as well as “recognition of public service of the highest order.” But, it wasn’t awarded this year. And it hasn’t been awarded for quite a few years because of a fear of controversy. What didn’t help was that various politicians were trying to get the Bharat Ratna awarded to their own party honchos. The lucky ones with the fan following ranged from Vajpayee [1], Kanshi Ram [2], Mulayam Singh [3], the late Chaudhury Charan Singh and Chandrashekhar [4] Politicians all. A shame, because some deserving person could have got it if people hadn’t made such a circus out of it!

Maybe they should just scrap the BR. Dragging it through the muck like this is like dragging India’s name through the mud.

Even if the jury names are announced, justice is not ensured
Film award juries are usually known but that doesn’t mean the process is fair. There was a controversy over which film to send to the Oscars. Dharm or Eklavya. When Eklavya was sent (it didn’t even win a nomination finally) it created a stink because one of the jury members were close to the person who made Eklavya. The Oscar committee heard about it, the whole world heard about it. I don’t think anyone doubted that Dharm was the better film. I have not seen Dharm but I have seen Eklavya, which was at best an average film. Amazing that it was even considered. Dharm on the other hand had already won another international award but it wasn’t selected to go to the Oscars.

Knowing who the jury members are seems to make the stink worse. The Film Federation of India (FFI) had nominated the jury but they did not tell the other members of the jury that one of their fellows was associated with the makers of Eklavya. As this was not known, the member was allowed to vote and finally Eklavya won by a margin of one vote. Wonder why the FFI (a government organisation) allowed this? Pressure? Bribe? Lobbying? Friendship?

Where civilian honours are concerned, where one has no idea who the jury is, it makes one suspect that there is no jury at all…or simply a fraud jury.

There have been controversies over the National Film Awards as well. The main grouse is that there is no way of knowing why a particular jury member is chosen. As it’s explained here:

The problem stems from the fact that there is no transparency in the jury selection process. While some jury members have the requisite merit to judge films, there are always a few faces which surprise everyone by their inclusion. As a result, we have seen members walking out of the jury, allegations of lackeys of politicians, particularly of the I&B minister of the day, getting selected to the jury because of their qualification of being ‘social workers’ or some such thing…

Sports awards have also been tainted
Shooter Anjali Bhagwat had accused the Arjuna Awards committee for “nominating athlete K M Beenamol a few years ago for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award ahead of her, saying its decision showed that performance alone is not the criteria for the award.”pvc.jpg

Defense Awards are more honest
Defense awards seem to be most free of controversy. Bravery awards like the PVC (Param Vir Chakra) and the MVC (Maha Vir Chakra) are seen to be clean. Vir Sanghavi writes:

We don’t usually give a Param Vir Chakra to a general. Neither do we give it to a soldier for mere bravery — courage is part of his job description.

It is in fact given for extraordinary bravery, when an army man goes beyond the call of duty. You can read one example here at the Bharat Rakshak site (he happens to be my uncle).

The way forward
What needs to be done to bring back the good name of our awards is best summed up by Professor Romila Thapar, one of India’s best historians:

The procedures for these awards should be systematised and made more transparent. We should know who is consulted when names are considered, what the procedure is in taking a decision, and who decides. If the names of the members of these committees are known, that would add to the prestige of the award. Those listed for awards should be consulted just prior to the finalisation of the list. This would save considerable embarrassment on both sides when awards are declined.

Here is a list of those who have turned down government awards, and it’s a long list!

(Acknowledgments: Thanks to Snigdha for asking me to write about this. Pictures are from government of India sites.)

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2008 10:06 am

    I don’t even understand how such awards can have any credibility if the people of the country don’t even know the jury. The entire process needs to be transparent. There needs to be some sort of a constitution that elucidates every aspect of the selection process. Why doesn’t the Govt. want to make it transparent? Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of every one?

    Regarding the selection committee for the movies, it’s weird that the jury can’t decide which movie to send! Probably a public poll would have been a better option, considering the fact that they continue to send bad movies for Oscars. It’s such a shame.

  2. ulag permalink
    February 13, 2008 10:58 am

    Its well known that many of these awards are given to sycophants. People who have served the ruling party well but are well past their prime to reap the benefits. Its a good thing that they havent given out the Bharat Ratna in a long time. Atleast that has helped salvage some integrity for our highest civilian honour.

    As for the Oscar selection FFI juries the less said the better. Its a well known fact that they have a rare talent to pick really incompetent movies(lagaan being an exception). The jury is influenced by the people involved in making the movie as is evident from their selections of Eklavya, Paheli, Devdas for the Oscars. Regional movies are hardly even considered. I strongly feel that Mani Ratnams “Kannathil Muthamittal” should have been sent instead of “Devdas” in 2002. “Kannathil Muthamittal” was such a subtle masterpiece and it was shocking that it wasnt selected.

    The annual state awards are a bigger joke. In Karnataka, “Rajyotsava” awards are given out every year on Nov 1st. The number of awardees are always about 100! Usually about 70 people are chosen for “excellence” in various fields. That is the first list. Soon many politicians realize that their sycophants are not on the list and about 30 more are added to the list in the last minute. This happens every year and makes a mockery of the award. Pretty soon almost everyone in Karnataka with even a remote political connection will have a Rajyotsava award.

  3. February 13, 2008 10:59 am

    Nita:

    You remember Indian journalists ‘demanding’ of Gordon Brown that Sachin T to be knighted? The honours system in India, I cannot help but think, was inspired by the British honours system although as Feanor’s comment helpfully told us the purpose was very different.

    In the end, human beings are all the same – they create information asymmetries and then exploit them; those with power, abuse it; those with elected office steal and swindle. It does not have to be awards; in America, Presidential pardons are a key ‘currency’. Lets watch who gets out of jail when Dubya goes!

  4. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 13, 2008 11:01 am

    Nita,

    While I agree with you in general about the questionable ways adopted in respect of the civilian awards, I do believe that the highest of them — the Bharat Ratna — has been generally free of controversy (other than the notable omission of a posthumous award to Mahatma Gandhi, and the withdrawal, on a mere technicality, of one to Netaji after it had been announced). Therefore it should NOT be scrapped. Rather it should be upheld as an example of how to go about deciding the recipients of the honours lower in the hierarchy. True, the recent hullabaloo, with political parties lobbying on behalf of their big bosses, was shameful. But in fairness to the Government it does not seem to have succumbed to the pressure.

    There have not doubt been several questionable decisions regarding the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, and possibly a few even regarding the Padma Vibhushan. The most ridiculous one that I recall from recent years is the one that was given to a singer (not much heard of or heard before or since) because she did musical recordings of A B Vajpayee’s poems. And this when he was PM, which means that his office had a role in approving the award.

    BTW, these awards were instituted in 1954, not 1950. And the link you provided to the list of those who turned down the award is not living up to its promise.

    Incidentally, if you visit http://india.gov.in/myindia/bharatratna_awards_list1.php , you will find that the Pranab Mukherjee case is not without precedent, though arguably the awardees were persons with much higher achievement.

    I have corrected the link. Thanks. – Nita.

  5. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 13, 2008 11:15 am

    Amendment: My comment above seems to suggest that Mr. Pranab Mukherjee is a Bharat Ratna recipient, which of course he is not. I was responding only to your observation about “the government awarding itself”.

  6. February 13, 2008 12:17 pm

    well the best thing would be to let the public vote…then again we might see SMS capturers…..so much for democracy…

  7. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 13, 2008 12:59 pm

    iamvisheshur,

    I was dreading the thought of someone coming up with the sms idea! You did!!

  8. February 13, 2008 5:28 pm

    Ruhi, even I am flummoxed as to how anyone can value these awards when no one knows who the jury is!

    Ulag, it’s sad isn’t it that regional movies don’t stand a chance! And as we don’t know who the jury is, we cannot even find out why!

    Shefaly, yes we have taken this awards system from Britain but what’s terrible here is the lack of a jury. The govt. wields absolute power, so much power that they need not even name a jury!

    Vivek, even I think SMS voting won’t be a bad idea! :) At least we will be able to criticize the voters!

    Vishesh, SMS voting is better than the present system!

  9. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 13, 2008 5:52 pm

    Nita,

    For once — thanks for the smiley!

  10. Raj permalink
    February 13, 2008 6:15 pm

    Nita,Ulag,

    I agree that “regional”(I don’t like the term) movies and “non-commercial” movies do not stand a chance ! However,I have no intention of converting this post into another language battle.

    I have watched only some parts of the movie “Kannathil Muthamittaal” (“She kissed me on my cheek”) and not the whole movie.But I know the complete story from reviews.The primary reason why Mani Ratnam’s movie was not nominated is not the language in which it was made.It is because it depicted the common man’s suffering in the most sensitive way without taking sides in the conflict.In fact the movie was so neutral that both the warring sides (Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers) did not like it.

  11. February 13, 2008 7:07 pm

    @ Nita:

    “…but what’s terrible here is the lack of a jury.”

    It is the same here. Tony Blair’s government gave a new dimension to sleaze with their blatant trading in honours. I do not know any ‘due process’ being followed for Oscar entries. I do however know from friends who are BAFTA members or BAFTA nominees that the BAFTA awards are decided by the members and they all have the DVDs way in advance of the official release to the open market.

    The only thing where a public vote is taken is for entries to Eurovision – an increasingly camp, politicised and in Britainm only increasingly noted for its ironic value in entertainment. In case this is (rightly) not on your horizon, ABBA performed as a Swedish entry on Eurovision before they made it. Celine Dion, although Canadian, sang as a Swiss entry and nowadays you can be sure that the eventual competition is won by some East European country because they vote in a political bloc with a tacit understanding. So much for their differences and bloodshed over major matters, they are so united over minor and dare I say rather crappy music!

  12. February 13, 2008 7:19 pm

    Well, looks like we are closer to Britain that we thought! I am surprised though because one tends to think that these countries have progressed on so many fronts, at least they would have some sort of transparent system. But I think Britain does suffer from the award hangover of the colonial days. In the link I provided to Vir Sanghavi’s article he has made some derogatory remarks about the british system.

  13. wishtobeanon permalink
    February 13, 2008 8:07 pm

    Our politics is itself a circus, I am not surprised that the award system is also one – sorry for the strong words!

    That’s what we need, strong words! In fact I would say you are being too kind to our policians! – Nita.

  14. February 15, 2008 5:56 am

    Nita, thanks for doing this. (Sorry to chime in a little late. Was caught up in a move).

    The fact that you had to to struggle to dig up how the process works is the root cause of the problem.

    There are a couple issues that irk me about these awards, besides the lack of transparency and the purpose of such awards, as the links here discuss (thanks for the articles!):

    a) Genuine citizens suffer. There are people like E Sreedharan of the Delhi Metro who truly deserve national recognition. But ironically, as we have seen in the past, many of our achievers are recognized after international bodies have already spotted them. (Remember Satyajit Ray?)

    b) Naming the jury: More than panel members, I am concerned about the process. How are the panelists chosen? By who?
    (Like the US legal jury system, I can see a potential problem with revealing names of jurors early on — it can open them up to bribery/ threats/etc. Of course, we need to know who they are at some point, but we need a transparent system in place that has checks and balances to make sure the jury is selected fairly and is functioning fairly.

    (c) Working journalists and judges accepting these awards: Any working journo or working judge accepting an award from a political establishment makes me cringe. They may continue to function independently, but once the seed of doubt has been sown, it’s hard to reclaim that lost credibility.
    These are crucial services that civil and democratic societies depend on. By and large, we trust their good intentions as society’s watchdogs.

    @Vivek: While I am with you on giving the Bharat Ratna another chance, I can’t say it has by and large non-controversial. Remember Rajiv Gandhi? People were so outraged that many lamented the award had lost all its worth.
    At least the good news is that people still DO care who wins the Bharat Ratna.

    Sigh :(

    Thanks again, Nita, for writing about it. The discussion here is also great! Thanks guys!

    SS

    Snigdha, you are welcome. :) – Nita

  15. February 16, 2008 11:38 am

    A few things I wanted to add. The oscar entrants from India, Lagaan was 2002. Devdas was 03. And Lagaan was not an exception. It was sub par.
    http://ihyphenhate.blogspot.com/2008/02/and-oscar-goes-to.html

    A question that perpexes me, however, is that Lagaan didn’t win the National Award. Dweepa did.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0330241/

    So much for Lagaan’s credibility. (I say that for lagaan, since of the list of movies being sent to the oscars and the list of movies winning the national awards, the NA seem less tainted, but that is my opinion)

  16. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 16, 2008 4:00 pm

    Snigdha,

    Sorry, I had forgotten about Rajiv Gandhi — not just in the context of the Bharat Ratna but totally. Anyway, I think when we say “by and large” we recognise that there are some limitations.

    And my faith in the Bharat Ratna (by and large) is unimpaired because I am not only aware of the signal contributions of almost each of the awardees, but also have in-depth familiarity with the work of at least four of them. And I had the good fortune, when I was in my teens, of observing at close range at least one of them, though I cannot claim acquaintance with him.

    One thing that irks me, though, is that out of the 40 Bharat Ratnas awarded since 1954, only five have gone to women. Of these, one was a serving PM at the time of being awarded, and one is a popular singer of film songs who, while I don’t belittle her achievements, seems to belong (at least to my prejudiced perception) in the category of “vote-by-sms” nominees.

  17. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 22, 2008 6:05 am

    Hello all,

    I have been thinking. Is a blog is a legitimate instrument to start a formal campaign? if it is, this may be the right place to start one for a posthumous Bharat Ratna to Baba Amte, the eminent social worker and crusader for social justice who passed away recently.

    For a start let us all be surre we are well-informed in a holistic way about the man, his work and his achievements. This should not be too difficult with the internet being so handy. And if there are individuals among us who have special information to share, that can be added.

    Vivek, there is a place called petitiononline and that is the right place to start. A petition like you have in mind is a simple one and easy to formulate and pass around for signatures. It is not controversial and therefore you will get people signing it as well. I remember there was a petition to make Kalam the next pres, which I had signed as well. – Nita.

  18. wishtobeanon permalink
    February 22, 2008 8:20 am

    I had been thinking of the same idea as Vivek mentioned in the last post (about awarding the Bharat Ratna to Baba Amte). The only regret is that it would be posthumous. But, a posthumous award to a deserving candidate is better than an award going to a vile politician.

    I too think that such a petition will have sufficient support. It’s an excellent idea of Vivek’s. I will definitely sign such a petition. – Nita.

  19. sangeeta permalink
    February 22, 2008 9:15 am

    Vivek,

    Its an excellent idea and I don’t think anyone will oppose it too.I will definitely support such a petition.

  20. Raj permalink
    February 22, 2008 11:17 am

    Fellow citizens,

    Count me in ! I will be a part of it ! Thanks !

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