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Degrees of parochialism

india Updated: Aug 26, 2010 00:30 IST
Hindustan Times
Prime Minister

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was conferred an honorary doctorate in civil law by Oxford University in 2006. Mr Singh, a Punjab University and Cambridge University economics graduate and Oxford post-graduate, is a citizen of India. That same year, Amitabh Bachchan was awarded an honorary degree for his contribution to the Indian film business by

De Montfort College in Leicester, Britain. Mr Bachchan, who never studied in Britain, is also a citizen of India. Noam Chomsky was awarded an honorary doctorate by Calcutta University in 2001. Mr Chomsky, a linguist and political activist, is an American citizen. The point one is trying to make is this: when a university decides to award an honorary degree to someone, it decides to make its admiration for the person public — and be associated with him or her. This has little to do with the nationality of the person being honoured. The fracas over world chess champion Viswanathan Anand's honorary degree from Hyderabad University initially being blocked by the Government of India and then quickly given the go-ahead after a public outcry should be seen in this context.

One of the strange byproducts of an increasingly confident India over the last decade has been the schoolboyish way it sometimes ends up defining national pride. The very idea of 'Indianness' and pegging it down to strict parameters seems to have become a pathological hobby. Add old-style bureaucratic nitpicking and we have a concoction where awards and honours and celebrations smack of a nationalistic theology. A truly confident society is one that seeks to honour merit and the meritorious regardless of constricting markers like a person's national tag or citizenship. Hyderabad University was wise to seek out Mr Anand and honour him. Even if Mr Anand had indeed been a Spanish citizen, he clearly deserved the honour for being at the pinnacle of his chosen field as well as for being an Indian (regardless of his passport) who has made Indians proud.

Both the people and the Government of India should realise that those who do the honouring are as worthy of admiration as those being honoured. As for why the government remains in the business of ticking or crossing the names suggested by universities for honorary degrees list is beyond any real reasoning. We suggest that an honorary degree be reserved in all Indian institutions of higher learning for the government so that it doesn't ever stop feeling honourable.