A Bharat Ratna for Mahatma Gandhi?

Published: January 28, 2015 00:06 IST
(Dorab R Sopariwala is Editorial Adviser at NDTV and writes on political and economic issues.)

Thank you, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Thank you, Baba Ramdev, Thank you, Ranjit Savarkar. The first two declined to accept Padma awards, while the third felt that his forbearer, Veer Savarkar, did not need an award for recognition. What a refreshing change!

For several decades, we have known that the civilian "honours" system is broken. A noted sportsperson recently claimed an honour almost as a matter of right and 'seniority' (that old Indian disease) because another sportsperson had received it. And then a Bollywood grandee turned down an honour offered to him on a similar ground.

The system has been corrupted and debased and we have now come to a sorry pass. Does a republic really need such an elaborate system of honours? After all, in a republic, we are all supposed to be equal.  I am not sure all Indians know that, for the first three years of the Republic, we had no state awards. Then, the old disease crept back in 1954. It would be unrealistic to think that we can turn the clock back - but can we at least try and improve this system before it becomes a laughing stock and brings embarrassment upon all of us?

As a starting point, may I suggest three simple rules in the form of questions?

Question 1 - Who should be eligible for these awards? These awards are for public service, e.g. for arts and culture, for education, for service to society, etc. Should sports fall in this category? Sports give us pleasure, entertainment, joy and even pride. But I would not say that it is public service. Moreover, sportspersons already have their separate awards - the Arjuna Awards, the Khel Ratna Awards, the Dronacharya Awards. In addition, they get their medals, their prizes, their endorsements and public acclaim. Moreover, their associations (the IOC, the BAI, etc.) can honour them.

Let us see how other some other countries honour their sportspersons. Take the case of US swimmer Michael Phelps. He has won 18 gold medals (not to forget four silvers) at the Olympics - that is twice as many as all of India has won in the 100-odd years it has been competing (9 in all - 8 in hockey and 1 by Abhinav Bindra).

And has Phelps been honoured by the US? No. His home state of Maryland has twice awarded him the "Order of DUI"! DUI meaning caught driving under the influence of alcohol and punished. Of course, as is right, this multiple gold medalist has been honoured by the US Olympic Committee and other sporting bodies - but no state honours.

And here we have silver medalists asking for state awards as a matter of right.

What great 'state' honours have been bestowed on Roger Federer, who has won 17 Grand Slams, no less!

Donald Bradman, a better-than-average cricketer by any reckoning, and Garfield Sobers, a pretty good all-rounder, were each given just a Knighthood - among the lowest grade in the British system of honours. Alex Ferguson, during whose tenure Manchester United won 37 trophies, also got just a Knighthood. Among our cricketers, we have people spanning the entire spectrum of honours! 

So, let sporting bodies reward and award great sportspersons. I concede that it is impractical in India to not give Padma honours to sportspersons. But can we at least severely restrict their numbers to 1-2 annually, in favour of those who render great public service - often without recognition or financial benefits?

Question 2. Should awards be given posthumously? In his speech at the burial of Caesar, Mark Antony said: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones". Following that simple principle - if one isn't good enough to get a state award when one is alive, then one should not get it when one has departed. As Ranjit Savarkar, referring to the possibility of a posthumous Bharat Ratna for Veer Savarkar, said: "I feel they should keep great leaders out of award politics .... There is no end to the list of names" (Indian Express, January 25, 2015).

However, in the past, honours have been bestowed upon the departed. In the 2015 list also, out of 106 honours, five are posthumous. In fact, out of the 45 Bharat Ratnas awarded since 1954, around a dozen have been posthumous awards (the posthumous one to Lal Bahadur Shastri is in a class by itself - for he died while serving the nation).

This year, we hit a new low when we began awarding people who died before India became a republic (i.e. those who lived in a British Bharat) like Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. This may open the gates to all kinds of other names.

If Malaviya, the Didi will ask: what about Tagore, a Nobel Prize winner, who returned his Knighthood after Jalianwala Bagh? And Uddhavji will ask: how dare we forget Shivaji? And what about Emperor Akbar? And why not the great poet Thiruvalluvar and the great writer Munshi Premchand? And surely Jhansi ki Rani? And Tansen? And Jamsetji Tata? And Emperor Ashok? And how can we leave out Raja Raja Chola I and Chandragupta Maurya? And how about Chanakya and Aryabhatta? And Shahid Bhagat Singh? And the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh? And the mathematical genius sans pareil Srinivas Ramanujan? And Tipu Sultan? And the physicist J C Bose? And, in this year of 'nari shakti', what about Lord Bentinck and Raja Rammohan Roy who worked to suppress 'sati'? As Ranjit Savarkar suggests, the list is endless.

So, if we do not put a stop to this, over the years to come, our political masters could lead us to the ultimate debasement and award 50 Bharat Ratnas every year to people who died before Independence! We have a large enough stock of great persons stretching over several thousand years to give 50 Bharat Ratnas annually for at least the next 100 years!

And the ultimate shame will be when we make Mahatma Gandhi a Bharat Ratna. Looking down dolefully at us from the Elysian Fields, he may well say: "He Ram, is this the India I lived for, fought for .... and died for?

Question 3 - How should these awards be given? And how many?  There needs to be a truly independent and unbiased committee that selects the awardees. We now have enough such committees to select all kinds of legal and constitutional functionaries, so let us have one more. There also needs to be a numerical limit on the number of awards to be given. Instead of more than a hundred baubles being distributed every year (106 in 2015), we should restrict the number to, say, 10-15 truly deserving persons every year. This will certainly increase the value of these awards in the eyes of the public.

To conclude, I would like to make two points:

What does it say for a system of honours that, in 2015, finds 106 deserving cases but has no place (as far as I am aware) for Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner - and the only resident Indian who has that honour.

Finally, at every Republic Day, we normally have the sad spectacle of 2-3 women collecting the Ashoka Chakra for the valour that has cost their husbands their lives. As I watch these women, it brings tears to my eyes, a big lump in my throat and great pride in my heart.

I must say that I do not feel even remotely the same at the investiture for Padma Awards winners at Rashtrapati Bhavan. What about you?

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