By Dr Ghayur Ayub
Let us raise our hands and pray for the health, as defined by WHO, of president Asif Ali Zardari and thank him for the gallant actions he is known to take. He has made records in every field he has tried his hand at. And there have been many of them. For example; his ability to find the appropriate words at special occasions is unique. Who can forget the bouquet of oratory flowers he presented to Sarah Palin. And what about his knowledge of etiquette in official meetings with royalties and other dignitaries? Let us not forget the formal engagements in which his sense of preferences take inexplicable turns. People still remember how he left an official function and rushed to a private gathering at a restaurant in New York where he used to go with his buddies in the good old days of his exile? It was the same restaurant about which a former foreign secretary had this to write, ‘We were having dinner at this posh restaurant (in NY) and in walked Asif with a group of men who would never be seen in polite company.’ And what about his commitment to promises, telling the media that they shouldn't be taken as sayings from divine scripture. The list goes on. His unpredictable generosity took a new turn when it was whispered that he might be behind the free-for-all distribution of 'Nishan-e-Imtiaz' on March 23rd this year.
Before coming to that, let me give a brief account of such awards. Basically, there are two types of awards; orders and decorations. The distinction between the two is somewhat vague. But generally, orders are limited in number while decorations have no such limitations and are awarded purely to recognize high merits or superior accomplishments of the recipient. Both come in multiple classes. Today almost all countries have some form of orders of merit or country decorations. Historically, the origin of orders of merit and decorations can be traced back to the Middle Ages when they were created by European monarchs to mimic the military orders of the Crusades. Most of the monarchs that followed had either kept an existing order of chivalry or created a new one to reward loyal civilian and military officials. Such orders remained out of reach of the general public up until the 18th century when by 1757 AD they were gradually opened to any deserving officer regardless of social origin. For example, in 1802 Napoleon created the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour), which could be awarded to any person, regardless of status, for bravery in combat or for 20 years of distinguished service. It is still France's highest award and serves as the model for numerous modern orders of merit in the Western World, such as the Order of Leopold (Belgium, 1832) and the Order of the British Empire (United Kingdom, 1917).
Despite this change, some orders in Europe remained out of reach of the common men; such as the Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary (1764) which still requires one to have at least four generations of noble ancestors. Today, most European orders are comprised of five ranks or classes. The highest is usually called the Grand Cross, with descending ranks of Grand Officer; Commander; Officer; and Knight. Each of these ranks wear insignia. Depending on the seniority of the officer these insignia, which can be in the form of cross, medal or star, are worn from a sash, around the neck, or on the left chest. Once awarded, an order may be revoked if the individual dies, commits a crime, or renounces citizenship. The United States removed titles and honours that represented nobility but kept the Medal of Honor for members of the military and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for civilians. Some of these awards have special privileges attached to them. In Communist countries orders of merit usually came in one to three grades, with only a badge worn with or without a ribbon on the chest. Also, unlike the Western orders, the Communist orders could be awarded more than once to an individual. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc most Eastern European countries have reverted to the Western-style order of merit.
In Pakistan, these awards were established on March 19, 1957. following the proclamation of Pakistan as an independent Republic on March 23, 1956. The announcement for the awards is usually made on August 14th and the investiture is followed on March, 23rd. The Civil Awards comprise five Orders, each with four descending categories: Nishan, Hilal, Sitara and Tamgha, such as; Nishan-e-Pakistan (national); Nishan-e-Shujaat (bravery); Nishan-e-Imtiaz (excellence); Nishan-e-Quaid-i-Azam (leadership);and Nishan-e-Khidmat (service). It should be noted that these are civil decorations awarded to civilians for distinguished service but military personnels can also achieve them for services of a non-military nature.
The award under discussion Nishan-e-Imtiaz is the top decoration in the category of order given to a civilian. This award is given to a person who has accomplished duty beyond what is assigned to him/her. It is important to understand that just accomplishing routine duty is not the criterion for the award. The person has to show eminence and be outstanding in providing excellent service in a significant field of activity. It means that he/she has to prove that he/she has achieved distinction and thus provided distinguished service beyond his assigned duties in the fields of literature, arts, sports, medicine, or science. This award is usually given to individuals in isolation not in groups because the whole purpose of the award is to assess the recipient’s individual capabilities in par excellence. In the past this award was given to outstanding personalities in their fields such as Dr Abdul Qadir Khan, Abdul Sattar Edhi, Dr. Abdus Salaam and Akhtar Hameed Khan, to name a few.
When we compare the expected capabilities of the past and present award holders, we find a great disparity between them. For example, most of those political players who were given the Nishan-e-Imtiaz have not shown any individual excellence in their work nor have they displayed extraordinary professional skills deserving of such an honour. Handing over these honours as they have been is like honouring a child who was told to perform an operation. After all, the majority of those randomly selected 27 parliamentarians have very little legal knowledge to frame the intricate constitutional rules and regulations where a single dot or comma can change the meaning of a sentence. I personally know a few of them who cannot speak or read proper English-the language of address. The inadequacy in their end-product (the 19th amendment) was reflected in the highest court in the country which sent it back for review; the public who found an obvious tilt in favour of party leaderships; intellectuals who found it hollow in its substance; and even fellow politicians who found the amendments lopsided. In short, no body found par excellence in their work which is the primary requisite of the award. On top of it a few of the team members carry tainted reputations. Every body knows that Babar Awan, Raja Pervez Ashraf and Naveed Qamar are linked with the Punjab Bank scandal, Private Rental Power scandal and LNG scandal respectively.
So the question is who was the initiator of this nomination and why these facts were ignored? All fingers are pointed in the direction of the man residing on the hill and known for favouring his cronies. If it is true than his unique style of obtuse politics has given a new twist to this prestigious award. He, in his usual candidness without fear of getting tainted with disrepute and even corruption, obliged his friends yet again. Some would call it a most distasteful act as this time he has put a few toadstool mushrooms (Babar et al) with the sweet mushrooms (Abdus Salaam et al) in one basket. How sad. The question is when, how and where is it going to end?