Mother Teresa was awarded the Bharat Ratna after she became a recipient of the Nobel Prize for peace in 1979. If Irom Sharmila of Manipur gets the Nobel Peace Prize for her more than decade long hunger strike to scrap a draconian inhuman Indian law called AFSPA, will the Indian State who always considered her efforts not more than mere suicide attempts, have the courage to award her the country’s highest civilian award?
India has only 3 civilians in the last 11 years who were good enough to be awarded the highest civilian award of the nation. Whether we are really an incompetent bunch of 1.2 billion people or plain cowardice of the Indian Government to make a decision in favor of some nominee, least it might affect the emotions of those rooting for someone else to be crowned,- no one knows. The sad part lies in the fact that we are not questioning. Expressing shock, grief, or surprise at someone not being awarded does not mean that one is questioning the system.
Ever since the Bharat Ratna, which translates to Jewel of India in English, was established by Rajendra Prasad, President of India on 2 January 1954, it has been often a matter of debate and criticism.
To start with, it is called India’s highest civilian award, awarded for the highest degrees of national service. However, Param Veer Chakra is actually placed in a higher rank, deservingly, and is evident from the fact that only 21 have received the Param Veer Chakra so far in Independent India, against 41 Bharat Ratnas. Anyway, in order of Precedence of the Republic of India (hierarchy of important positions), Holders of the Bharat Ratna decoration comes in the seventh position jointly with former Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers of the Union, Leaders of Chief Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission of India and the respective Chief Ministers of States. The highest civilian award is for excellence in art, literature, scientific achievements, social service, and even sports, since last year with an agreement from the Minister for Home Affairs and Prime Minister of India.
For a country obsessed with regionalism and emotionalism; where people fight over the pettiest issues like naming or renaming a street or building over their own favorite leader, Bharat Ratna has been a troubled decoration. The biggest problem probably lies in the fact that there is no formal criterion by virtue of which any person is decorated with the Jewel of India. Have a look at the list of 41 names that have been awarded a Bharat Ratna and comparing them against each other, at least in terms of skill sets, would be comparing apples to oranges. They all were probably great people, but how do you define whether they were the greatest or greater than others whose names were also nominated but never made it.
When K. Kamaraj of Tamil Nadu was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1976 by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi just before the elections, it was a political move. When M. G. Ramachandran of Tamil Nadu, again before elections, was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1988 by Indira’s son and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, it was just a history repeated in a matter of twelve years. No one to date questions on what criteria the decision was made because of two reasons. One, – people think questioning it would man insulting the greatness of Kamaraj or Ramachandran (when it was only the process to be questioned and not the people’s work or greatness). Second, – almost the same ruling party continued to dominate the country.
When Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of Pakistan became the Bharat Ratna in 1987, it became evident that Bharat Ratna is not just for Bharatiya or Indians, – it is beyond boundaries. Following the trend, Nelson Mandela became the Jewel of India in 1990. None questioned WHY and HOW.
Freedom Fighter Gopinath Bordoloi of Assam was awarded posthumously in 1999, 49 years after his death. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was awarded posthumously in 1992 (thought a Supreme Court question on his evidence of death put on hold to the award). The greatness of Netaji or Bordoloi is remembered in history but was there any value added by this posthumous award? Why could we not consider Mangal Pandey or Kushal Konwar, who was the first to revolt against the British Raj? No one debates or questions, again.
There are foreigners who have been awarded, there are industrialists, musicians, filmmakers, politicians (read Ministers), educationalists, social reformers. How their work, success, or contribution evaluated against each other’s, or how would be done in the future?
If tomorrow, we have the names of Asha Bhosle, Vishwanathan Anand, N R Narayana Murthy, and Baba Ramdev as nominees or public demands for the Bharat Ratna, we do not actually have the ways to evaluate or to make a decision. The Indian Government may very well instead give the award to Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh for her pro-India stand in recent years to tame down militancy in North East India; and we would be left scratching our heads!
An emotional section in Assam is lamenting at Late Bhupen Hazarika, the bard of Brahmaputra not being awarded as the Bharat Ratna (even after the MP’s of North East demanded it in Lok Sabha). Cricket fanatics are expressing anguish at Sachin Tendulkar not being awarded. We don’t know if late Hazarika was not considered because all last three Bharat Ratnas were musicians (Lata Mangeshkar, Bismillah Khan, and Bhimsen Joshi) or whether Tendulkar was not considered because he is still young and playing. Strangely, none is yet expressing concern or filing an RTI or demanding to make a transparent policy of evaluation for judging who the Bharat Ratna should be.
Today it should not actually matter to us who is awarded unless; we know the process of evaluation.
If we continue to be satisfied with statements and reasons from the Indian Government such as Mr. X has been awarded the Bharat Ratna because of making the country proud and bring tears of pride or smiles of happiness through his excellence, we should very well accept it if Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the Bharat Ratna this year (for he too made most of us proud and brought tears and smiles together when he hit that final Six to the stands making Team India the world cricket champions).