Bose or Vajpayee: India politicises, then downgrades Bharat Ratna

New Delhi: It is India's own Pandora's Box that has been opened and cannot be shut again.

Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award that was instituted in 1954 to honour persons for their exceptional service to the nation has often been compromised, politicised, mired in controversies for being used to reward people for specific services rendered or being turned into a bait to lure caste or regional based support. And it is getting increasingly difficult to restore the sheen to the peepal leaf-shaped medallion conferred on 43 persons so far, 11 of them posthumously.
The latest round of speculation about the probable awardees has once again raised a storm. And it is not because the BJP is trying to live up to its promise to confer this on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee, veteran BJP leader and former prime minister, who is now ailing.

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. AFP

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. AFP

There are two other reasons for it.

Revisiting the Bose controversy

The first relates to reports that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose could be among the awardees that has irked his family which first wants his disappearance to be probed. The second deals with the opening of the floodgates, with demands already being raised from different quarters to confer this award on no less than a dozen of their leaders, past and present, and several more expected to join the queue in the coming days.

"Netaji has been missing since 1945. When you award him with Bharat Ratna posthumously, you have to say when he died, but where is the evidence? The best way to honour him is to declassify government files which can reveal the truth behind his disappearance," PTI quoted Netaji's grandnephew Chandra Kumar Bose saying. "All of us feel that Bharat Ratna is not the appropriate award for him. None of us will go and accept the award," he said, on behalf of around 60 family members.

Demanding that Netaji be kept out of partisan politics, Sugato Bose, another grandnephew and a MP, underlined that "anyone with a sense of history will agree with me," adding "How can Netaji be given Bharat Ratna after 43 people? How can he be given Bharat Ratna after Rajiv Gandhi?" And in a line of argument that has perhaps restrained the government from vesting the award on Mahatma Gandhi, he stressed "Netaji’s stature is bigger than Bharat Ratna."

To be fair to the government, there has been no word from it on this so far but leaked reports have already done the damage. More so, when a similar move in 1992 had backfired with an embarrassed government, following a court case, forced to cancel a press release issued by the President’s Secretariat to confer the award on Bose posthumously. At that time, a PIL had sought revocation of the award as the government had not officially accepted Bose’s death and it was "ridiculous" to confer the award on a personality higher than the award itself.

The court held that since the government had only announced and not proceeded to confer the award by signing the sanad (certificate) or publishing it in the gazette, the award cannot be revoked and the press communique can be treated as cancelled. It sidestepped the controversial issue of "posthumous".

Opening the floodgates

The second reason for the gathering storm is that the speculation about Vajpayee and Bose as possible recipients of the Bharat Ratna has led to a clamour for others too to be considered.

At first count, the list included hockey wizard Dhyan Chand, BSP leader Kanshi Ram, legendary freedom fighters including Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Lala Lajpat Rai, INA founders Rash Behari Bose, Gen Mohan Singh, Home Rule advocate Annie Besant, Congress founder AO Hume, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Aligarh Muslim University founder Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, BHU founder Madan Mohan Malviya (whose statue Narendra Modi had garlanded while launching his election campaign in Varanasi) and socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia.

Whew!

Then, there are states—like Rajasthan, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, North East, barring Assam—which do not as yet have a Bharat Ratna awardee associated with them. They are also expected to raise their voice along with that of others as pressure builds up on the Modi government, both from within and outside, to use it to woo states like West Bengal or Tamil Nadu where it is weak. Indeed, despite his obvious greatness, the speculation about Bose is also seen in this context so much so that such considerations threaten not only to devalue the award but also the recipient and the government that decides on it.

Twisted tale

But then the successive governments of the day have themselves to blame for the question mark that hangs over the award. There are no doubt several recipients who have deserved the award but the manner in which the award and its selection has been modified or used has robbed it of some of the shine.

The original 1954 specification of the medallion was modified in 1955 to the one that is now being used. The original statute did not provide for posthumous awards. This was changed in 1955 and starting with former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966, 10 others have figured in the list. In 2011, the rules guiding the conferment of the award were broadened to include exceptional service/performance of the highest order in "any field of human endeavour" and not just arts, literature, science and public services.

The award itself—along with other personal civil honours—was suspended from July 1977 to January 1980 because the Morarji Desai government was against dispensing such honours. Ironically, in 1991, four years before his death, Desai was anointed with the Bharat Ratna by the PV Narasimha Rao government. The second suspension was from August 1992 to December 1995 when several PILs were filed to challenge their constitutional validity on the ground that Article 18 of the Constitution disallows any "title", other than military or academic. They were reintroduced when the Supreme Court held that they were not "titles". Even those who have been conferred with the award for their greatness have not escaped criticism.

Politicising the awards: Did Nehru and Gandhi honour themselves?

Since the awards are based on the prime minister’s recommendation to the president, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were lambasted for honouring themselves in 1955 and 1971. Did the duo return the favour by similarly honouring their presidents, Rajendra Prasad and VV Giri in 1962 and 1965? Rajiv Gandhi was slammed for trying to influence the voters in the Tamil Nadu assembly polls in 1989 by adding former Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran’s name to the august list of Bharat Ratna awardees and that too before several other luminaries whose contribution far outweighed his as, for instance, BR Ambedkar known as the father of the Indian Constitution and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who integrated various small states and principalities into India. And when Ambekdar was put on the list in 1990, then prime minister VP Singh was slammed because his decision carried a whiff of dalit politics with it.

In recent years, every announcement has been contested with a PIL. In 2013, CNR Rao's selection was contested on the ground that other great scientists like Homi Bhabha had been left out and Sachin Tendulkar's announcement was seen as violative of the election code of conduct until the Election Commission stepped in to clear the air.

Even the issue of a Bharat Ratna for Mahatma Gandhi has figured in the court, with the petitioner demanding this award for the father of the nation. Earlier in January, a division bench of the Karnataka High Court orally observed "He (that is, Mahatma Gandhi) is above all… and does not require a certificate."

With the Bharat Ratna increasingly being associated or remembered for the controversies it has generated or tends to generate rather than for the inspiration it can provide, there have been intermittent demands to scrap it.

Time for Transparency

But if the Bharat Ratna has to be restored to its intended glory, the award has to be delinked from politics and the process of selection of the recipient of the award needs to be made more transparent.

Presently, a select committee vets nominations received from various quarters. And a tentative list is drawn up and sent to the home minister and then to the prime minister who, in turn, can recommend to the president a maximum of three nominees for the award that carries no monetary grant and prohibits the recipient from using it as a title but invests him with a certificate and a rank that is seventh in the order of precedence. The entire process is shrouded in secrecy that allows room for suspicion, and possibly misuse. But that is possible only if the government of the day delinks it from politics and does not use the award to magnify its appeal among a certain section of voters and supporters or to reward those who have served it (as distinct from the nation).

But that could well be asking for the moon.


Updated Date: Aug 12, 2014 07:56 AM

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