When wrestling star Sushil Kumar, who has won two Olympic medals for India, was awarded the Padma Bhushan recently, it was not imagined that it could possibly lead to controversy. But, strangely enough, it did. The government’s decision to grant the award to Kumar caused another young sporting star, the badminton player Saina Nehwal, to make a few sharp remarks on Twitter. She was, she said, “really sad” that her name was not recommended to the home ministry by the sports ministry. On one level, Nehwal’s objection was understandable – she saw it as a rejection of her record. And such, indeed, is the inevitable consequence of state awards that judge sporting or for that matter other achievements, often comparing apples and oranges.
But, indeed, the ridiculously bureaucratic context to Nehwal’s objection drove home the manner in which sporting achievement does not gel with the red tape associated with government awards. There is a rule, apparently, that Padma awards are not handed out within five years to the same person – unless they are especially “deserving”, the typical loophole that India’s civil servants grant themselves to permit lobbying and discretion. Nehwal was awarded the Padma Shri in 2010; by her account, she was eligible for the Padma Bhushan this year. Even if she wasn’t, the problem was that the sports ministry ignored the five-year rule when it came to recommending the name of Sushil Kumar. “I will be more than happy if both me and Sushil gets [sic] the award as we both won medals in 2012 Olympics,” Nehwal tweeted. Nehwal’s father joined in, telling the media that his daughter had been unfairly hurt, and the implication of the ministry’s decision to ignore the five-year rule for Sushil Kumar on the basis of him being “deserving” was that Nehwal was somehow less “deserving”. Meanwhile, as if to add to the farce, the sports ministry disclaimed all responsibility for not sending Nehwal’s name to the home ministry, passing the blame backward up the bureaucratic chain to the Badminton Association of India, which the ministry claimed failed to send in Nehwal’s name in time. And, just to make it more confusing, the boxer Vijender Singh said that if there were only two names to be sent on to the home ministry, then why not his? His performance and Nehwal’s, he insisted, were on a par.
Sportspeople are supposed to be competitive. But their competition, ideally, should be on the field, and with others of their own sport. It should not be on the terrain of bureaucracy, and against those from other sports. Nehwal has clarified subsequently that she was not “demanding” an award, but nevertheless this has left a bad aftertaste. Shouldn’t medals and sporting achievements be enough for recognition? The various baubles handed out by the Indian state should be seen as less than nothing when compared to a medal from even a relatively small international event. After all, the latter is won in a transparent and fair competition; the latter is merely an expression of subjective judgment on the part of generalists with little experience of sport. Perhaps the specific motivating force in this case is the closeness between political heft, sport, and stature in Haryana, the state from which all three of the athletes – Kumar, Nehwal and Singh – hail. Haryana’s Jat communities contribute significantly to India’s most successful reservoir of sporting talent. That should be celebrated. Seeking special treatment from the state, however, will create divisions that will have a long-term negative effect. In the end, the sportspeople themselves are not ultimately to blame. The fault lies with the state, in continuing with a flawed awards system that encourages patronage and discretion. Worse, it chooses to award sportspeople whose careers are still young.