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Home / Opinion / The Bharat Ratna and a few good men

No award in the world is free from controversy. From the Nobel Peace Prize to the Bharat Ratna, awards have always been instruments and catalysts of politics, bias and conspiracy theories.

Commenting on US President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, American musician, satirist and mathematician, Thomas Lehrer is supposed to have said, “Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize."

Kissinger was considered a weird choice. Before he negotiated a ceasefire for the war in Vietnam, he was considered responsible for its vigorous conduct, a mockery of the idea of peace for many people.

When awards become tools to supplement prestige rather than to honour achievement, such reactions are inevitable. India has had a particularly confusing and poor record when it comes to giving honour where it’s due.

On Sunday speculation was rife that government may confer the Bharat Ratna to former Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Soon Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Dhyan Chand’s names started doing the rounds as other possible names on the list.

Stirring the pot further, Congress leader Manish Tewari tweeted out names of nine more people, including Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Annie Besant and A.O. Hume, who should be considered for the highest civilian honour in the country. This, coming from a member of a party whose past Prime Ministers nominated themselves for the award (Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi), puts the hypocrisy associated with the Bharat Ratna on ample display.

In the midst of all this lobbying there are, however, a few honourable things that stand out.

In 1992, it was decided to confer the award to Subhas Chandra Bose posthumously. The decision, however, met with controversy after a public interest litigation was filed claiming the award cannot be conferred to a personality “higher than the award". The petitioner and Bose’s family also expressed their dissatisfaction over the government of India not formally acknowledging Bose’s death but conferring the award posthumously.

Even today as multiple interest groups are lobbying for their nominee to get the award, Bose’s family has cited similar reasons to not accept the award if it is conferred on him posthumously. “Keep Netaji out of partisan politics, his stature is bigger than Bharat Ratna. How can Netaji be given Bharat Ratna after Rajiv Gandhi? Anyone with a sense of history will agree with me," Bose’s grandnephew Sugata Bose told NDTV.

The way names of possible recipients are being thrown around does much disservice to those who have served India selflessly and truly deserved the award when they got it. While many choices were political, more than a few lauded exceptional achievements in science, arts and literature.

Which finally brings us to the larger question: who should ideally be given the Bharat Ratna? The award is conferred “in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order" in “any field of human endeavour". The criterion is so broad that awards to heads of governments have become acceptable. But do public servants deserve an award for carrying out their duty, which is to serve the public?

If one political party confers the award to a previous prime minister from its own party, is there any way to not see it as a political move? In which case, where does it leave the sanctity of the award?

The Bharat Ratna is India’s highest civilian award. Its award should reflect achievements that further ideas and ideals that define Indianness in the broadest sense.

When the awards were started, the mix of art, literature and public life for which the awards were issued was balanced. The awards were begun after much deliberation and the experience before independence when the colonial government gave knighthoods to further its political goals. The Indian leadership during the freedom struggle was acutely aware of the corrupting influence of such awards and was careful not to head in that direction in independent India.

Within two decades of starting the Bharat Ratna, this caution was discarded. In the last 25 years, the Ratna awards and more glaringly the Padma awards have become tools of patronage not very different from the knighthoods given by the British before 1947.

These questions will remain unanswered till there is clarity on what exactly constitutes “exceptional service/performance of the highest order". Till then the bidding for the Bharat Ratna will continue.

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