The award of Bharat Ratna to veteran politician and initiator of the Ram Mandir Rath Yatra LK Advani has let loose a stream of thoughts that need to be shared. It wasn’t long ago that this honour was conferred posthumously on socialist leader and champion of backward classes Karpoori Thakur. That decision was considered a masterstroke to puncture the INDIA balloon before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
How does one explain the grateful party’s gift to the strategist that blunted Mandal with Kamandal? Only the other day the margadarshak was being rather impolitely advised not to journey to Ayodhya for the Praan Pratishtha Mahotsav. Is this a consolation prize for not trying to steal a bit of the limelight?
The prime minister can afford to be gracious and generous after his Cabinet unanimously passed a resolution showering high praise on him as a Yuga Pravartak and an individual chosen by destiny and the deity itself to set India on a glorious journey for millennia to come. Bharat Ratna is for lesser mortals. Bharat Bhagya Vidhata stands above all strife and petty politics.
There was a time in distant past fast fading from memory when one could count the Bharat Ratna in fingers of one hand. After all it was the highest civilian honour the nation could bestow on worthiest of its children. There was something special about it. The first few were distinguished scientists, engineers, scholars, and social workers in a league of their own M Visvesvaraya, CV Raman, PV Kane, DD Karve.
Then things changed. Those who had occupied high office like President of the Republic were considered worthy of this designation as the most glorified retirement benefit. There were many others perhaps even more remarkable men in public life who were overlooked because they had voiced dissent or criticised the government of the day.
However what was surprising that Pt Jawaharlal Nehru accepted Bharat Ratna while in office. He also came up with an appropriately moving speech for the occasion. The then President may have been kept him in dark about this ‘present’ from the people of India but he should have known that this would set a bad precedent.
In any case he was recognised as a sparkling jewel who ruled hundreds of millions hearts and didn’t require ribbons and medals to add to his lustre. Indira Gandhi was another Prime Minister in office who accepted this honour while in office. But then, she was a chip off the old block and lived by another set of values. Sycophantic followers were soon to equate her with India. But that is another sad story.
One recalls Pt HN Kunzru who refused to accept this honour on the ground that he had opposed the institution of such ‘distinctions and titles’ in the Constituent Assembly. On the other hand there are great artistes who have turned down Padma Vibhushan as they felt that their peers had been declared Bharat Ratna.
What has devalued the Bharat Ratna is arguably the practice of conferring it posthumously in a blatantly partisan manner. The only exceptions may be Lal Bahadur Shastri the hero of 1965 who galvanised his compatriots with the stirring slogan ‘Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!’ Not only had he deterred Pakistan on the battlefield but had also shown statesmanship to build stable peace on the subcontinent.
When Mrs G lost the elections in 1977 clamour began to redress the ‘imbalance’. There were strident demands to instal regional leaders on this pedestal. Many communities thought that they had been treated like step children. The list of ‘heroes’ much greater in stature than those favoured by the dynasty kept lengthening. Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Madan Mohan Malviya, Subhash Bose. Ironically, the long list of the ‘overlooked and wronged’ was dominated by politicians.
By now there is fair representation of musicians, dancers, folksingers, sportspersons but scientists and scholars remain outsiders. There can be no disagreement about Bharat Ratna like Lata Mangeshkar, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Subbalaxmi, Pt Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Bhupen Hazarika, but at the same time one can’t thinking about glaring omissions like VG Kurien and MS Swaminathan.
There is a famous bhajan sung by Pt DV Paluskar that has the words Paayo ji maine Ram Ratan Dhan Paayo! What can be more precious than this gem that outshines all other precious stones?
Indian fondness for gems is well known. This is where the mountain of light Kohinoor was mined and chiselled and Akbar the Mughal Emperor carefully chose the Navratan—nine gems that adorned his court. Among them were soldiers, statesmen, scholars, musicians and administrators. It shouldn’t be dismissed as an idle thought that inspiration for Bharat Ratna was drawn from fragments of shared civilisational memories. Diamonds, it is said, are forever and other rare gems can claim the same- the emeralds, rubies, pearls, sapphire, topaz and the rest. What we must never forget that it is the seller and purchaser who decide the value of what remains—however precious—a stone.
Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University