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Penchant for pageantry

The criteria for honouring people should not be just leadership, but service to the common people, which makes them leaders, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2008 23:12 IST

Many names have been suggested as deserving of the highest honour India can confer on its citizens: Atal Behari Vajpayee, Jyoti Basu, Kanshi Ram, Charan Singh, Karunanidhi and a few others. All men of great stature and all politicians. No doubt many other names will be tossed in the ring. Who decides and on what grounds, I have not the slightest idea.

The love of titles is in born in people round the world. It is also in the Indian psyche. If one isn't a Maharajah or Nawab, he can be a Tikku, Kanwar or Nawabzada. The British who have a well-established hierarchy of titles, created another set for Indians: Rai Sahib, Rai Bahadur, and Sir, even Lord. Parallel titles were invented for Muslims and Sikhs. No one dares to assume one until it had been formally conferred on him by the Governor or the Viceroy.

Once a Nihang was pulled up for entitling himself Sardar Bahadur Sher Jang Singh. He replied, “My Guru made me a Sardar: I made myself brave (bahadur). What wrong did I commit?” Whatever self-esteem a person has, he or she would like others to recognise it as well: hence the hankering for titles bestowed by the powers that be. So far our governments have been pretty choosy in honouring people: Prime Ministers, politicians, scientists, social workers, literary figures, musicians, artists, journalists. What criteria people who do these selections ever year have in mind is not very clear. I think uppermost in their minds should not be just leadership, but service to the common people, which makes them leaders.

I can think of a few deserving names. There was Shourie of Common Cause: he did not go unsung, but unhonoured. There is Kurien, the doodhwala who ushered in the white revolution. There is Ela Bhat of SEWA who has given unemployed wives something to live for. There is Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh who has provided latrines and washrooms to people across the country and abroad. There must be many others in different parts of our country who deserve our gratitude and recognition by our rulers.

Newest Delhi

Every end of January when I watch the Republic Day Parade down Rajpath and Beating of Retreat on Vijay Chowk on TV, I marvel at the vision of Edwin Lutyens, architect of New Delhi, who foresaw Indians’ penchant for taking out processions and pageantry and provided them space to do so. Many people need to lay out a new city. First, the rulers who must provide land and select an architect. The architect must draw the ruler's vision on paper. Then contractors who collect building material and muster up masons and labourers to put on the ground what was on paper. Engineers who oversee that the architects’ ideas are properly executed. All this went into building New Delhi. It became one of the worlds best laid out capitals with wide roads and lots of greenery: it became unpleasant city to live in.

I have spent most of the 94 years of my life here and describe myself Nayi Dilliwala. I no longer recognise my city as it has grown out of all proportions extending from Ghaziabad and Noida across the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh to Gurgaon in Haryana, from Alipur to Faridabad. Lutyens had planned a city for a few thousand civil servants and staff; now it has a population of nearly nine millions; he had planned roads for a few cars, tongas and bicycles; now almost every family has a car or two and roads are jammed from sunrise to sunset and after. It is a city in which more than twice the number of women get molested and raped than in Mumbai. In my younger days, living in New Delhi was gracious; now I live on sufferance because I cannot afford to live elsewhere and earn my livelihood.

The story of the genesis of New Delhi and its decline from a city of grace to a claustrophobic nightmare of congestion is beautifully told in a well-researched book Delhi Metropolitan: the Making of an Unlikely City by Ranjana Sengupta (Penguin). Besides outlining visions of its founders, she tells you of the growth of innumerable colonies and their inhabitants, of the growth of Gurgaon into a magnificent, modern sub-city largely planned by architect Hafeez Contractor of Mumbai and developers Chaudhari Raghvendra Singh and his son-in-law K.P. Singh of the DLF, the biggest Indian builder of our times. It makes delightful and informative reading.

Ode to Narendra Modi

Uplifting the tails of his own BJP

Modi has won a mighty solo

victory; A picture of sweetness and humility,

He was totally misunderstood, he says; And with folded hands and tearful eyes; All doubts at rest he lays. He is alien to arrogance and aggression; He has never aroused communal passion, As he has gone through a truly nationalist grind

A more secular mind you

cannot find A messiah of peace, progress and prosperity

An apostle of love, equality,

fraternity After making Gujarat fear-and-violence free

He is now ready to serve the country, Replacing both Congress and BJP In utter humility.

(By Kuldip Salil, Delhi)