Ghalib, Sarat Chandra and Subramania Bharati deserve the honour. We tend to ignore our real heroes, and hail superficial ones.

These days, the issue of awarding the Bharat Ratna on Republic Day is in the news. When I appealed for the Bharat Ratna to Mirza Ghalib and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, some people objected, saying that such awards should not be given to people who are no more.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong in giving awards posthumously, provided they are given to the right persons. The Bharat Ratna has been conferred posthumously in the past. Two examples are Sardar Patel and Dr. Ambedkar.

Mirza Ghalib is a modern figure, not a legendary one like Lord Rama, or an ancient one like Gautam Buddha. Though he was brought up in the feudal tradition, he often broke through that tradition on perceiving the advantages of modern civilisation.

Thus, in one sher (couplet), Ghalib writes:

Imaan mujhe roke hai, jo khenche he mujhe kufr

Kaaba merey peechey hai, kaleesa merey aage

The word ‘kaleesa' literally means church, but here it means modern civilisation. Similarly, ‘kaaba' literally refers to the holy place in Mecca, but here it means feudalism. So the sher really means: “Religious faith is holding me back, but scepticism is pulling me forward; feudalism is behind me, modern civilisation is in front.”

Ghalib is hence rejecting feudalism and approving of modern civilisation. And this in the mid-19th century when India was steeped in feudalism.

Urdu poetry is a shining gem in the treasury of Indian culture (see my article, ‘What is Urdu,' on the website www.kgfindia.com). Great injustice has been done to this great language. Before 1947, Urdu was the common language of the educated class in large parts of India – whether the person was Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian. However, after 1947 some vested interests created the false propaganda that Urdu was a foreign language and a language of Muslims alone.

Mirza Ghalib is the foremost figure in Urdu, and the best representative of our composite culture. Though a Muslim, he was thoroughly secular, and had many Hindu friends. He no doubt died over a century ago, but our culture, of which Urdu is a vital part, is still alive.

I first appealed for the award of the Bharat Ratna to Ghalib at the Jashn-e-bahaar Mushaira in Delhi in April 2011. My appeal was supported by many prominent persons in the audience. They included Meira Kumar, Speaker of the Lok Sabha; Salman Khurshid, Union Law Minister; and S.Y. Quraishi, the Chief Election Commissioner. However, soon thereafter a leading journal described my appeal as ‘sentimentalism gone berserk.'

As for Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, at a recent function in Kolkata I appealed for the award of the Bharat Ratna to him. Sarat Chandra in his stories launched a full-blooded attack on the caste system, against women's oppression, and superstitions (see Shrikant, Shesh Prashna, Charitraheen, Devdas, Brahman ki beti, Gramin Samaj, etc.), evils that plague India even today.

In his acceptance speech at a meeting organised in the Calcutta Town Hall in 1933 to honour him, Sarat Chandra said: “My literary debt is not limited to my predecessors only. I am forever indebted to the deprived, ordinary people who give this world everything they have and yet receive nothing in return, to the weak and oppressed people whose tears nobody bothers to notice. They inspired me to take up their cause and plead for them. I have witnessed endless injustices to these people, unfair, intolerable injustices. It is true that springs do come to this world for some — full of beauty and wealth — with its sweet smelling breeze perfumed with newly bloomed flowers and spiced with cuckoo's songs, but such good things remained well outside the sphere where my sight remained imprisoned.”

This speech should inspire writers in India even today when 80 per cent of our people live in horrible poverty, when on an average 47 farmers have been committing suicide every day for the last 15 years, when there are massive problems of unemployment, and problems in the areas of health care, housing, education, and so on.

I also appeal for the Bharat Ratna to the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, who a hundred years ago wrote against women's oppression and was a thorough nationalist and social reformer.

Here is a verse from Bharati, who wrote powerfully in favour of women's emancipation. This was cited in a March 14, 2008 judgment of the Supreme Court of India, written by Justice Markandey Katju, in Hinsa Virodhak Sangh vs Mirzapur Moti Kuresh Jamat & Ors:

Muppadhu kodi mugamudayal

Enil maipuram ondrudayal

Ival Seppumozhi padhinetudayal

Enil Sindhanai ondrudayal

(This Bharatmaata has thirty crores of faces! But her body is one. She speaks eighteen languages! But her thought is one.)

Here is another verse from Bharati:

Gummiyadi! Tamizh Nadumuzhudum

Kulungida kaikotti gummiyadi!

Nammai pidiththa pisasugal poyina

Nanmai kandomendru gummiyadi!

Yettaiyum pengal thoduvathu theemai

Endrenni irundhavar maaindhu vittaar;

Veettukkulle pennai pootti vaippom endra

Vindhai manithar thalai kavizhndhaar.

(Dance and celebrate, so/the whole Tamil Nadu reverberates/that all evil forces which/surrounded us are driven away for ever. Those who declared it was evil/for women to get educated are dead and gone;/The strange men who were for sequestering women/have left the scene in disgrace)

How many people in India have read Ghalib, Sarat Chandra and Subramania Bharati? There are demands to give the Bharat Ratna to cricketers and film stars. This is the low cultural level to which we have sunk. We ignore our real heroes, and hail superficial ones. I regret to say that the present generation of Indians has been almost entirely deculturised. All that they care for is money, film stars, cricket, and the superficial.

Today India stands at a crossroads. We need persons who can give direction to the country and take it forward. It is such people who should be given the Bharat Ratna, even if they are no more. Giving it to people who have no social relevance, such as cricketers and film stars, amounts to making a mockery of the award.

(Justice Markandey Katju is Chairman of the Press Council of India. For the second translation from Tamil, the book Bharathiar Kavithaigal, published by Bharathi Puthaka Nilayam, Madurai, 1964, was consulted.)

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