POST TIME: 20 November, 2021 11:15:15 PM / LAST MODIFIED: 21 November, 2021 02:15:26 PM
DATELINE INDIA: They are ‘People’s Padma’ awards now
While Syed Muazzam Ali was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India's third-highest civilian honour for the year 2020, Colonel Qazi Sajjad Ali Zahir has been nominated for the Padma Shri award for the year 2021. Muazzam Ali has been awarded the Padma Bhushan posthumously.
Kumkum Chadha

DATELINE INDIA: They are ‘People’s Padma’ awards now

In a rare but a welcome move, the Indian government has honoured eminent people from Bangladesh with Padma awards.
Significantly, both India and Bangladesh are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence and the centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well as the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. That apart, President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Bangladesh too is on the cards sometime next month, though there  is no official confirmation as yet. If at all it does happen it would coincide with the Vijay Diwas celebrations to be held on December 16.
“A friend of India” and a “1971 war hero” were among those who were honoured at Rahtrapati Bhawan namely Former High Commissioner to India Syed Muazzam Ali and Colonel Qazi Sajjad Ali Zahir.  While Syed Muazzam Ali was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India's third-highest civilian honour for the year 2020, Colonel Qazi Sajjad Ali Zahir has been nominated for the Padma Shri award for the year 2021. Muazzam Ali has been awarded the Padma Bhushan posthumously.
Truly a friend of India, Syed Muazzam Ali was the former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh. He had served as the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India for a long time. He passed on shortly after his tenure as High Commissioner to India ended. Syed Muazzam Ali had rebelled against the Pakistani government and declared his allegiance to Bangladesh in 1971 while serving in the Pakistan Embassy there. He also served as the Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.

War hero Colonel Qazi Sajjad Ali Zaheer had joined the Pakistan Army in late 1969. He was appointed to the Artillery Corps. Seeing the barbaric atrocities being committed by the Pakistani army in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Colonel Qazi Sajjad Ali Zaheer left the country and reached India. Colonel Qazi Sajjad Ali Zaheer then established contact with the Indian Army and played a key role in the 1971 war. The Pakistani Army issued a death warrant against him, which continues to this day.
The 71-year old Zahir, who had taken part in the Liberation War in Sylhet region in 1971, was handed over the highest civilian award by the President at the Rashtrapati Bhawan while Ali’s award was received by his wife.

Enamul Haque, founder director general of National Museum, was also honoured with the Padma Shri by Kovind at a separate investiture function at the Rashtrapati Bhavan yesterday. A distinguished archaeologist, Haque is also a well-known cultural activist in Bangladesh. He has taught in many universities including Dhaka University.

Bangladesh apart, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi led government must be congratulated for transforming the Padma awards to awards for the common man: a point that Union Minister Amit Shah made.  
It is none other than Prime Minister Modi who invited nominations for people doing exceptional work at the grassroots to nominate people for the "People's Padma Awards".
The point about prefixing People to the coveted awards cannot be ignored. That, if one can go as far saying, is the game-changer.
Thanks to the effort of the Modi government and its conscious decision, the profile of the awardees has undergone a dramatic change:  dramatic  because people who did could not even pronounce Rashtrapati Bhawan or know that one existed ultimately made it there and were honoured within its precincts. This, in real terms, is connecting a government to the real people and obliterating the us and them syndrome.
If government sources are to be believed, the transformation of the Padma awards into the “People's Padma” has been a priority since Modi came to power in 2014. Consequently, the nominations were opened up and the Modi govt allowed the general public to nominate people for the awards. In his Mann ki Baat earlier this year, Prime Minister spoke about the awards becoming people-driven: a visible departure from these being grabbed by a select few. The numbers alone substantiate this: this year, for instance, the number of nominations was twenty times higher than in the year 2014, when the Modi government first came to power.
The Union Home Ministry also invited online nominations for recommendations to make the process fair, free and absolutely transparent. In a much needed overreach, it asked all citizens to make recommendations and self-nominations for awards adding that concerted efforts might be made to identify talented persons whose excellence and achievements deserved to be recognised from among women, weaker sections of society, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe people, the physically challenged and all those who are doing selfless service to society.
For those familiar with the Padma awards are quite aware about the elitist overtones of these awards. In the past, there were usually conferred to the who’s who, if one may use the term or the Page 3 hob-nobbers who either had the right connections or lobbying powers to make it. This is however not to suggest that one should paint all awardees with one brush. There sure were many who well deserved the award but it still remained one that was out of reach for commoners or those working silently on the ground. In other words, the grass root quotient was largely missing.
The Modi government has strived to change that in great measure and has largely succeeded in this direction. Credence is lent to this by the fact that more and more people every year, those unheard of, those unknown and those working both selflessly and silently on the ground without any expectation except results of their sweat and blood made it to what in the pre-Modi days was a coveted and out of reach list. The change, thanks to the focus shift of the current dispensation, has helped India’s common men and women take the first step on the ladder that was never theirs.
Who had heard of Harekala Hajabba, an uneducated orange vendor who constructed a school and educated some 175 children in the village? Or the Tulasi Gowda who planted 30,000 saplings? Both went up the stage bare-feet but won hearts when they went up to receive their respective awards.
“How could I not walk bare-feet to stage”, is what Hajabba said as memory of his parents flashed across when he walked up to receive the award from the President Ram Nath Kovind: “My parents”, he said “could not afford clothes or footwear”, he recalled as the hall broke into an applause during the honour.
How many had heard of Lakhimi Baruah who started a cooperative bank to make women from underprivileged backgrounds financially independent and secure? Or Parkash Kaur who raised abandoned girls? Chutni Devi, once branded a witch, who fought and rescued several women from this evil? Then there is Tsultrim Chinjor who sold off his ancestral land to build a bridge from Ramjak in Jammu and Kashmir to his village in Zanskar.
Most of these people do not make headlines; some of their names cannot be even pronounced but the government not only handpicked them but also helped showcase their work to Indians and the rest of the world.
Therefore when Prime Minister Modi once said that "Only politicians' doctors received awards! We have opened it up to people," he was not off the mark. Or the fact that the country has a lot of talented people who are doing work at the grassroots but are not heard of or ever seen outside their domain.
Taking to Twitter to invite people for making their nomination for the award, the Prime Minister said: "India has many talented people, who are doing exceptional work at the grassroots. Often, we don't see or hear much of them. Do you know such inspiring people? The fact that Prime Minister Modi spoke about “knowing the way” to the award was  a dig at those who use back door channels to get what they clearly do not deserve.

But then the process of the common people getting the Padma honour is not this year’s alone. In fact, since the Modi government took power, unsung heroes have been felicitated be it Karimul Haque from Bengal more popular as “ambulance dada” or any other. For the uninitiated, Haque has ferried patients to hospitals on his bike. Scarred after losing his mother due to lack of medical facilities, Haque was awarded in 2017.
Having said that, this is not to suggest that crusaders were not honoured by the pre-Modi regimes, except they were far and few among the rows of celebrities. Under the Modi dispensation the old order has undergone a change and the unknown faces have out-crowded the known people.
Yet, the Modi government has not given a go-by to the usual suspects: if one may use the term. There is a dash of colour by way of film stars though many of the choices can be questioned including Kangana Ranaut and Karan Johar. Neither qualify for exemplary work. Also, one among the two was on the NCB radar when actor Sushant Rajput’s controversial death was grabbing eyeballs and a video tape of a rave party was in wide circulation. Whether the award is to white-wash those “sins” remains a question mark.
One cannot also miss the overdose of politicians who were conferred the awards. George Fernandes, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar and former Chief Minister Assam Tarun Gogoi were conferred the Padma awards among others this year.
While on politics and politicians, the Congress has accused the BJP for the “disproportionate number” of awardees being from poll bound states: 11, from Tamil Nadu, nine from Assam, seven from Bengal and six from Kerala.
Therefore to absolve the Modi government from playing politics may be a quick assumption though one cannot take away from it the intent to usher in a change and accommodate the deserving and the lesser known silent workers even while keeping ample space for political maneuvering. Having said one must concede that a good beginning has been made to shift focus from celebrities to the common men and women in India.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: ([email protected])