Three journalists feature in this year's list of India's high civilian honors. And that begs the question: Should journalists accept state honors? The answer is an unequivocal no.
State anywhere in the world is a political entity and invariably represents the interests and biases of the ruling dispensation. By implication, any honor coming from such an entity ought to be viewed for what it really is. It is a political prize, which in itself is not bad, but it does come burdened with expectations.
It is possible to argue that national honors should be seen as something non-political and with no strings attached. One can also assert that some honors are above narrow political considerations. However, given India's deeply patronage-laden system it is obvious that someone, somewhere in that system made a studied decision to honor certain individuals and not others. It is in the end a political judgment.
It is a well-known fact that decision making around civilian honors is fraught with a great deal of political jostling. We all know about the amount of lobbying that precedes the final announcement of such honors. There could not be a more compelling example of that than the unseemly insistence displayed by various political groups to honor one of their own with the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian honor.
One is not suggesting for a moment that Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Datt and Vinod Dua do not deserve a high state honor on the strength of their high profile careers. The question is not about their merit. It is about whether independent journalists should allow themselves to be co-opted by an entity with which they at best enjoy a strictly professional relationship and with which they by the very nature of their job must frequently lock horns with.
Unlike other professions for which state honors are also justifiably given, the whole raison d'tre of the media is to be able to keep enlightened distance from the rest of society so as not to be influenced but even create the perception of not being influenced. It is entirely possible to be able to accept the honor without in any way compromising one's journalistic integrity. It may be an old-fashioned view but journalism has certain absolutes, one of which is not playing coy with the state.
It is possible that this view would stir up some debate on whether journalists must view everything in life with suspicion in order to retain their credibility and independence. At the very least they should assiduously avoid becoming comfortable or familiar with those they seek to subject to professional scrutiny. Admittedly, this is a difficult question. Can Sardesai, Datt, Dua et al politely decline to accept the honor on the ground of professional considerations without causing offence to the state as an entity? Perhaps not, but then that is the whole point of being in this profession.
Some might see this line of thinking as being too absolutist or may be even foolishly idealistic, not to mention the more trivial view of being a case of sour grapes. However, as long as one continues to pursue this unique profession which meets everyone but befriends none it is important to maintain distance. Of course, like everything else in life, this too is a purely individual judgment call and it would be presumptuous to suggest otherwise. Accepting the honor would not necessarily make them less discriminating journalists. However, declining it would definitely be a measure of how seriously one takes the larger philosophical question of the media's role versus that of the state's.
(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist and commentator. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org