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Why Bharat Ratna is deferred this year too?

By: Ashwini Ahuja
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(Writer is bilingual fiction writer and novelist)

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This year too, the decision on conferring Bharat Ratna has been deferred. It’s indeed a good and praiseworthy decision on the part of the government. The way the highest award of the land has been politicised, deferment is the ideal solution.

THIS YEAR too, Bharat Ratna has not been conferred on anybody. It’s indeed a good and praiseworthy decision on the part of the government. The award has lost its glory and become an object of mockery with every political party desiring that it be conferred on its leader. In the circumstances, it is good that it has not been conferred on anybody. It was LK Advani, the astute BJP politician, who sparked the controversy by writing to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the government confer the Bharat Ratna on the BJP stalwart and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in recognition of his sincerity, dedication and matchless service to the nation.

He did not know the letter would lead to other parties seeking a similar recognition for their own leaders. If we look back, we realise that Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of the nation, has been conferred for sheer political reasons. Jai Prakash Narain was conferred the award in the year of 1999 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. The VP Singh government conferred the Bharat Ratna on BR Ambedkar in 1990. 1990, incidentally, was Dr Ambedkar’s centenary year. Dr Ambedkar’s portrait was also installed in the Parliament at the time. A movie was made on Ambedkar’s life. Why all this was done? In reality, both the leaders had an eye on the vote bank.

Every political party boasts of iconic leaders and demands the highest honour for them as a matter of right. No one can stop them if they seek the award for their deserving leaders. But a political leader of stature, writing to the Prime Minister, to demand the award for his boss, has set a new trend. About the letter, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “It’s not our tradition and there is still time to take a decision (on Vajpayee).”

I am personally of the view that unlike LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has always been a wonderful and secular leader who fully believes in and respects democratic values. Moreover, he has been an orator par excellence and boasts of a spotless political career. But, is this the actual reason for Advani proposing Vajpayee for the award? Certainly not.

It is believed that he has raised the issue since the Lok Sabha elections seem to be round the corner and nearly 10 states will go to poll this year too. Vajpayee has projected Advani as the prime ministerial candidate and hence Advani proposed Vajpayee for Bharat Ratna by way of thanking him (or was it sycophancy?). If one says that it’s another instance of the highest civilian award falling prey to ugly politics, it may not be an exaggeration.

When Bhim Rao Ambedkar was conferred the Bharat Ratna during VP Singh’s regime, the country was going through a wave of communal politics. After all, he had been fighting for the empowerment of Dalits for years. But why he was not conferred the award earlier? This testifies to the sheer narrow-mindedness and prejudice on the part of the powers that be.

On January 2, 1954, the government of India instituted four civilian awards, viz, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and the highest of them all, the Bharat Ratna. According to the original statute, there was no provision to confer the award posthumously that year. So, Mahatma Gandhi, who was then the most deserving candidate, was not conferred the award.

In its inaugural year, Bharat Ratna was conferred on three individuals, viz, Sarvapalli Radha Krishan, CV Raman and C Rajagopalachari. In 1977, during Morarji Desai’s regime, it was discontinued because the government felt the award had become irrelevant owing to politicisation of the honour. After three years, when Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister again, the Bharat Ratna was restored. It was conferred on Mother Teresa (Mary Taresa Bojaxhiu) for her unmatched service to lepers.

Till date, forty individuals have been honoured with the prestigious award; it includes five Prime Ministers, viz, Pandit JL Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Rajeev Gandhi. Among them, four belonged to Congress and one, viz, Morarji Desai, hailed from a non-Congress party. Indira Gandhi was the first woman recipient of the award.

Apart from public service, several other fields such as social sciences, environmental studies, art, literature and journalism are considered for award of Bharat Ratna. In 2001, it was jointly conferred on Lata Mangeshkar and Ustad Bismillah Khan. The Vajpayee government was in power then and it did not dare to announce a deserving candidate for fear of political opposition. So, the government of the day deferred the award to avoid embarrassment. In truth, the top honour has given rise to bitter political controversies over the last few decades.

Bharat Ratna is generally announced on the eve of Republic Day. Although it is not mandated, LK Advani, gauzing the UPA government’s mood, promptly scripted a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, so he can repay Vajpayee’s kindness. After his letter, a flood of nominations followed: Kanshi Ram, Simranjeet Singh Maan, Jyoti Basu (later the CPM rejected the proposal), Biju Patnaik, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chawdhury Charan Singh, Mahatma Phule, Babu Jagjivan Ram, M Karunanidhi, former Prime Minister Chander Shekhar, Kapoori Thakur, social reformer Jyotibha Phule, playback singer Mohammad Rafi, Ratan Tata, Mata Amritanandamayi. The Delhi Assembly’s deputy speaker Shoaib Iqbal whimsically proposed the name of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was ousted by the British Empire after the revolt of 1857. He died in exile, in Myanmar.

With each passing day, more and more names are being proposed; the exercise has become the butt of everyone’s jokes. Barjinder Singh, a landowner, says, “It’s an unfortunate trend in politics. It seems that all our political parties have completely lost the essence of this - one of the greatest awards. So, politicians should be excluded from the list. Is political sycophancy the criterion of this award?” He questions, “If yes, then it is better, it be discontinued forthwith.”

Punjabi satirist Principal Gurmit Singh asks, “Do these politicians really stand up to the highest level of national service with a selfless attitude? No, none deserve the award. Moreover, government awards including Bharat Ratna have become a political auction these days. Conferring awards on the likes of AP J Abdul Kalam, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Amartya Sen is justified but now politicians do not command public respect.”

Rohit Bhateja, a lecturer at an engineering college, is of the opinion that people like CV Raman should be conferred this greatest honour. He further says that former president APJ Abdul Kalam had once said at Punjab university, Chandigarh, on the eve of its annual convocation, that “the scientist (Raman) preferred to be by the side of his research student who was about to complete his thesis than attend a ceremony to receive Bharat Ratna in the year 1954. Such great men are rare.” On being asked who deserved it most, he jubilantly voted for Ratan Tata, because, he says, “Today, the time is for Nano technology and for all the right reasons, Ratan Tata is the most deserving candidate for Bharat Ratna.”

Prem Phutela, an RSS man, votes for Vajpayee. “He is a true leader,” he says. But, he is sad that RSS founder Dr Hedgewar and RSS ideologue Golwalker have not been honoured with Bharat Ratna so far, although they both deserved it most because of their selfless service to the nation.

Clamour for such awards is a not a new phenomenon but surprisingly this year, it has become louder than ever before. Every time, it is mired in controversy over the choice of candidates. Dharam Loona, a journalist attached to Dainik Bhaskar at Chandigarh says, “In the year 1988, it had erupted into a big debate when AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran was honoured with Bharat Ratna two years before Ambedkar, three years before Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and four years before Subhash Chandra Bose, were honoured. Ambedkar, Vallabbhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose were seniors and deserved to be honoured earlier but they were honoured later.”

Sudarshan Dhingra, a businessman, is shocked that India, being a country of a billion people, has not produced even a single Bharat Ratna in the past six years. Perhaps, this year too, is going to be a drought year thanks to the politics the award is mired in. He further says that Bharat Ratna is awarded for exceptional service in the field of art, literature, social service, science and public service. “Are celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachhan and Vishwanathan Anand not eligible for this award? Both Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi were extraordinary playback singers. Lata was awarded years ago but Rafi Sahib is so far deprived of the honour. Does it go to the deserving candidate?” Dhingra questions. “We should never forget astronaut Kalpana Chawla’s contribution to the nation. She might have also a suitable candidate if it was decided to confer it on anyone this year,” he suggests.

Ashwini Ahuja

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