Choosing the jewels of India

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Amongst Delhi’s socially active circles, the old joke goes that government awards are easily buyable; the Padma Shri is available in local neighbourhood markets and the Padma Bhushan requires a trip to Connaught Place. Such cynicism always gets primed in conversations during conferring of the Bharat Ratna. That former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malaviya have been nominated for the award makes no difference. The government sponsorship of an award of such rare merit is its most serious devaluation. The Prime Minister makes the recommendation to the President, who merely signs and endorses the name; the award is conferred.

Is this an appropriate and fair method to select an awardee of such national eminence, the jewel of India? Doesn’t the Prime Minister’s partisan position lend a bias to such a selection? Why should a politician be asked to make a “recognition of exceptional service and performance of the highest order, without distinction of race, occupation, position or sex?” Besides, doesn’t the award’s added scope — “to any field of human endeavour” — make the evaluation even more difficult?

Sadly, the history of the award is a history of its devaluation. In the early fifties when it was instituted, its first three recipients, C. Rajagopalachari, C.V. Raman and Dr. Radhakrishnan, were independence fighter, scientist and philosopher respectively — people whose work encompassed a wide public dimension. Since then, with the addition of music, film and sport, there has been an obvious change in profile. The most recent decoration of this, notably Sachin Tendulkar, was riddled in controversy. Critics asked how a cricketer — despite his national and international popularity and obvious greatness — could be compared to people whose life has been devoted to public service? Why then should Dhyan Chand not be similarly awarded? And since the award was open to foreigners, why not consider Tiger Woods or Roger Federer? Weren’t they even greater figures in international sport? In 1990 the award was, in fact, given to a non-Indian. Nelson Mandela, a Nobel Laureate and a South African citizen, became the first foreign recipient, a jewel of India. When the man belonged to the world, didn’t the Bharat prefix confer a provincial status to his greatness?

Also Read: >All you need to know about Bharat Ratna

Idea of merit

Certainly it would be impossible to find a person who neatly fits all the criteria, and public pressure and prejudice will doubtless always influence an award of such stature. However, in changed times and in a more success-oriented world, the idea of merit itself stands changed. The physical ardour of village activism, or work related to the freedom struggle which took whole lifespans, could now be condensed into ideas achieved quickly and in some uncharted virtual reality. The inventors of Flipkart or Amazon, cricket commissioners and film actors, have come to assume a larger public persona than social workers and welfare economists who work assiduously in the field — work that benefits humanity at a more basic level. But the miracle of instant rewards and awards ensures a disparity of publicity. To compare the work of Mark Zuckerberg with that of Dr. Radhakrishnan — as the Bharat Ratna’s widened perspective now does — is to make an unequal and unfair comparison. This is a comparison not of apples with oranges, but of apple seeds and ripe, full-formed apples.

As the award season begins, television resounds with a host of professional ceremonies — the Best Design Awards, Media Awards, Real Estate Awards, Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. The nature of such pats on the back are meant merely to spur insular competition among like-minded professionals and create pools of envy within predefined professional frameworks. The Bharat Ratna, unfortunately, has begun to succumb to similar forms of petty rivalries. That the award remains the last word in Indian public recognition is thus diluted by its now liberalised inclusiveness. Every modification of the award — from granting it to any and all endeavours, given posthumously, and even open to foreign nationals — has downgraded its merit. Is it an Indian Nobel, an Indian Magsaysay? By opening up the award internationally, does it then need to refresh its name? Should it be called Vishwa Ratna or Duniya/ Srushti Ratna?

Original intent

The Bharat Ratna’s real value lies in the singular and indisputable recognition of an individual’s sustained labour towards achievement of national significance. To unnecessarily open it up to sports or other professional endeavours is confusing public success and stature with achievement in public life. To this effect, its criteria need to revert to its original intent of commitment to public service, and be open only to Indian nationals. While the award standards should be made more insular, the selection process should require more than just political recommendation. However deserving Mr. Vajpayee might be of the Bharat Ratna, the endorsement of the award by a Prime Minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party smacks of hypocrisy as much as the selection of Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi did during the Congress’ tenure. An open selection by a committee representing a constantly changing group of diverse people may remove the taint of politics and give greater transparency to the process. Without it, the jokes on the purchase of government awards may come to include the country’s highest honour as well.

(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer.)

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 5:14:14 AM |

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