New Delhi: On Wednesday, the Indian government announced that it will confer the country’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, on former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the late founder of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya.

Vajpayee and Malviya join an illustrious band of awardees who, over the years have been conferred the Bharat Ratna in “recognition of exceptional service or performance of the highest order".

The Bharat Ratna was formally instituted on 2 January 1954, when a communique from the President’s office announced that a medal was to be awarded for “exceptional services towards the advancement of Art, Literature and Science, and in recognition of public service of the highest order."

Its earliest recipients included Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the only governor general of India; Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s first vice-president and second president; and C.V. Raman, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930. They were conferred the award in 1954. 

The following year, in 1955, eminent theosophist and freedom fighter Bhagwan Das was among three awardees. The other two were Sir Visweswaraya, the former Diwan of Mysore and a man often hailed as the “Father of Indian Civil Engineering" and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Two years later, in 1957, Govind Ballabh Pant, freedom fighter and first chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was conferred the award. Pant was also the Union home minister in 1955-1961.

Social reformer Dhondo Keshav (Maharishi) Karve, known for his work in the field of women’s welfare, was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1958.

After a gap of three years, in 1961, former West Bengal chief minister B.C. Roy and Rajrishi Purshottam Das Tandon were awarded the Bharat Ratna. Tandon is remembered for his efforts which went a long way in Hindi becoming India’s official language. 

Roy, who began his career as a physician, later became a freedom fighter and an important member of the West Bengal Congress.

In 1962, Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, was given the award.

The other recipients in the 1960s included former President Zakir Hussain and Indologist Pandurang Vaman Kane (1963) and former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (1966). 

Shastri was the first posthumous recipient of the award. There were only three awardees in the 1970s. They were former prime minister Indira Gandhi (1971), president V.V. Giri (1975) and former Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Kamaraj (1976).

Mother Teresa, in 1980, became the first and only naturalised citizen to be given the Bharat Ratna.

Mother Teresa, a social reformer who founded the Missionaries of Charity, was born in modern-day Macedonia (Skopje).

Three years later, in 1983, another social reformer, Vinoba Bhave, founder of the Bhoodan (land gift) movement, became a posthumous recipient of the award. Bhave also received the Ramon Magsasay award in 1958.

Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, also known as the Frontier Gandhi, in 1987 became the first foreigner to be awarded the Bharat Ratna.

A freedom fighter of Pakhtun ethnicity, Khan was the founder of the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement. Khan became a Pakistani citizen after the subconitinent’s indpendence from British rule and partition in 1947. 

The following year, in 1988, film actor and three-time Tamil Nadu chief minister M.G. Ramachandran (also known as MGR) was awarded the Bharat Ratna, again posthumously.

Ramachandran also founded the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the party currently in power in Tamil Nadu.

In a case of better late than never, the government of the day conferred upon Babasaheb Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, the Bharat Ratna in 1990. The same year, it also conferred the award on Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa. Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize three years later in 1993.

The following year, in 1991, two former prime ministers of India were given the award—Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated that year, and Janata Party leader Morarji Desai, who was prime minister for two years between 1977 and 1979. India’s first deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel was also given the award that year.

In 1992, noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray, industrialist Jamshedji Tata and freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were awarded the Bharat Ratna.

After a five-year gap, in 1997, the government awarded two-time interim prime minister of India, Gulzarilal Nanda, freedom fighter Aruna Asaf Ali and Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Kalam, a former aerospace engineer with Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), also served as India’s 11th president between 2002 and 2007.

In 1998, Chidambaram Subramaniam, another freedom fighter and former Union minister, was given the Bharat Ratna. 

Noted Carnatic music singer M.S. Subbalakshmi was also given the country’s highest award that year.

The awardees in 1999 included Jayprakash (JP) Narayan, Amartya Sen (who also won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001), renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar and Gopinath Bordoloi, freedom fighter and the first chief minister of Assam.

Noted playback singer Lata Mangeshkar and shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan were given the Bharat Ratna in 2001.

While no individual was awarded the Bharat Ratna for eight years thereafter, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, another musician and renowned exponent of Hindustani music, was conferred with the award in 2009.

Last year, cricketer and Rajya Sabha MP Sachin Tendulkar and scientist C.N.R. Rao were its recipients. Tendulkar, aged 40, was also the youngest recipient of the award.

This story has been modified to reflect the correct description of late Ustad Bismillah Khan.

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