A case against posthumous Bharat Ratna

On why there can’t be post-facto curbs on Sachin Tendulkar from endorsing just about anything he wants, and the politics of and over Bharat Ratna

rohit

Rohit Bansal | February 8, 2014


Sachin Tendulkar gets Bharat Ratna from president Pranab Mukherjee
Sachin Tendulkar gets Bharat Ratna from president Pranab Mukherjee

First, four bullets inspired by the JD(U)’s call against Bharat Ratna being given to living persons, borne out of their annoyance with a spate of Sachin Tendulkar endorsements:

1. There can be no logical or legal bar in stopping the cricketer from earning an honest day’s living. As a retired sportsman, the obvious things he can/might do are commentary, endorsements, and appearances. While endorsements and appearances are bound to have a product we like or we don’t, even commentary will be interspersed with commercials, which theoretically amount to a spillover endorsement from Tendulkar.

2.   Related is the blunt fact that Tendulkar didn’t ask for the Bharat Ratna. A grateful nation, with ample help from MP Rajeev Shukla notwithstanding, gave it to him.

Any post-facto curbs on Tendulkar (non-existent at present against endorsements, or paid appearances) are likely to be struck down in court.

It is therefore upon him, not the government of the day, to ensure that for the remaining years and decades of his life, no commercial entity succeeds in affixing ‘Bharat Ratna’ to his endorsements. If that happens, it will be a clear violation of the national awards code – something hundreds of Padma awardees have been getting away with, but Tendulkar might not.

Even here, a moment’s reflection would tell us that books by Nobel laureates, for example, boldly flash their investiture and even sell more than they might have before the anointment even though the contents were exactly the same. So, theoretically, stopping him from being cited in, say an autobiography, as ‘Bharat Ratna Sachin Tendulkar’ may fall flat against the constitutional right he has to earn his livelihood.

3.   To hammer another nail on the JD(U) demand, the guidance available in the note sheets regarding selection of awardees should be pulled out by an RTI. The note sheets will confirm what former cabinet secretary and author TSR Subramanian remembers: ‘…the award be given during the lifetime of the awardee, wherever possible; ….wherever not possible, the awardee should be given soon after his/her death;…(and) it is advisable that the committee does not go too far back in time.’

4.   With ever lowering credibility of governments in power, a better idea is to create a collegium. The present system enable the ministry of home affairs to create a shortlist, then have cabinet secretary and a committee appointed by the government of the day decide among that shortlist – the PMO having unfettered right to add anyone to the original MHA shortlist. This has made the list of Padma awardees, if not Bharat Ratna yet, a capture of folks who are close to VIPs. Hint: 26 out of 127 Padma awardees this year were, er, medicos!


If and when a collegium is set up, here’s why we must continue to oppose posthumous awards.

Before Sachin Tendulkar and CNR got it, a posthumous Bharat Ratna was becoming a force of habit. Out of 41 awarded before them (42, if we include the “posthumous” one to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in 1992, which the award committee had to withdraw after failing to satisfy the supreme court), 13 were given during the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Not one of them was posthumous!

C Rajagopalachari (awardee: 1954, demise: 1972), CV Raman (awardee: 1954, demise: 1970), S Radhakrishnan (awardee: 1954, demise: 1975), Bhagwan Das (awardee: 1955, demise: 1958), Visvessaraya (awardee: 1955, demise: 1962), Nehru himself (1955), Govind Ballabh Pant (awardee: 1957, demise 1961), DK Karve (awardee: 1958, demise: 1962), BC Roy (awardee: 1961, demise: 1962), Purshottam Das Tandon (awardee: 1961, demise: 1962), Rajendra Prasad (awardee: 1962 demise: 1963), Zakir Hussain (awardee: 1963, demise: 1969) and PV Kane (awardee: 1963, demise: 1972) got their due while they were alive.

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad was offered the Bharat Ratna before he died in 1958, but he refused on moral grounds and the investiture was done in 1992 – 34 years after his demise.

Nehru forgot at least three giants: Vallabhbhai Patel (recognised only in 1991 – 40 years after his demise), Subhash Chandra Bose (detailed above) and BR Ambedkar (recognised in 1990 – 35 years after his demise in 1956). But I feel it was a good thing in the balance of interest.

Remember, Nehru’s was a time when the doyens of the freedom movement were alive. Also, from Bal Gangadhar Tilak to Bhagat Singh, even Gandhi-ji, hadn’t died a century ago.

If Nehru had rolled the clock back 45 years ago, like his successors were to do, the list of Bharat Ratna could have had several hundred, may be even Ashoka, Gautam Buddha and Akbar.

That was another time and the PM too much of a rationalist to be honouring the dead.

The same is true for the Nobel Prize. You can win it only while you are alive – the only exception is if you kick the bucket in between the nomination and the award.

But politicisation picked up soon after Nehru. Unwittingly, one might add, Lal Bahadur Shastri got the Bharat Ratna posthumously, in 1966, amidst a wave of public grief over his unexpected demise during a trip to the erstwhile USSR.

Then, Indira Gandhi helped herself to one in 1971, riding on the military victory in Bangladesh. Manekshaw, her chief of army staff didn’t; he was, in fact, promoted to the five-star general position of Field Marshal for 14 days and then eased out, perhaps on account of trying to hog too much of the credit.

By then Bharat Ratna politics had lost most of its post-independence innocence. VV Giri got his five minutes of fame in 1975, five years before his demise, surprising many on what he did to deserve the honour that Patel and Ambedkar hadn’t even though they died after the awards had been instituted.

In 1976 came the Bharat Ratna to K Kamraj, a sworn nemesis of prime minister Gandhi, but now safely in heaven!

The one to Mother Teresa was a no-brainer. It happened 17 years before the angel’s demise in 1997.

The first Bharat Ratna in Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership was decided with impeccable criteria. Badshah Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan came down to New Delhi to receive it in 1987.

This set up what was to happen next year, a blot to a hoary tradition. The name of Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister MG Ramachandran was etched on the alumni list. The Tamil politics of the PM was MGR’s only qualification, MGR having died a year before. The gloves were off.

Posthumous tokenism engulfed Ambedkar (1990), Patel (1991), Azad (1992) and Netaji (1992), not to miss prime minister PV Narasimha Rao’s gambit to win support in the Congress with a posthumous Bharat Ratna to Rajiv Gandhi himself, and one to Nelson Mandela, the first to someone outside the Indian subcontinent. That year was something. JRD Tata and Satyajit Ray got one too.

In the interim, as if to balance the score card from the tag of Nehru-Gandhi domination, Morarji Desai got his Bharat Ratna in 1991 (demise: 1995), Gulzarilal Nanda in 1997, at a fantastic age of 99, and Aruna Asaf Ali one year after she died. Importantly, Jai Prakash Narain got his Bharat Ratna only in 1999, 20 years after he had died.

In recent decades, with consensus getting rarer, the politicos have lost a little bit of their brazenness. So, we’ve had singers MS Subbulakshmi (1998), Lata Mangeshkar (2001) and Bhimsen Joshi (2008), musicians Ravi Shankar (1999) and Bismillah Khan (2001), scientists C Chandrasekhar (1998) and APJ Abdul Kalam (1997), and economist Amartya Sen in 1999, though after the world had recognised him with the Nobel Prize.

The only politico who got Bharat Ratna recently is a chief minister from Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi, in 1999, but 49 years after he had died! If this wasn’t tokenism, what is? Do we want more?

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