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Scrap the Bharat Ratna

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:06 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

How does one handle all the demands for Bharat Ratnas that have emanated from different political parties over the last week? What do we say to LK Advani when he insists that Atal Bihari Vajpayee should get the highest civilian award that the country can offer? How do we respond to Mayawati’s demand that Kanshi Ram, her late mentor, also get the same award? What about Naveen Patnaik’s suggestion that the nation honour his father, Biju Patnaik? How about Ram Vilas Paswan’s demand that the Bharat Ratna go to as many people as he can possibly think of — and who might be useful as electoral planks to further his career?

I have a simple answer.

No.

Not because I don’t respect Vajpayee, Kanshi Ram, Biju Patnaik or even all of the fellows whose names Ram Vilas keeps pulling out of thin air, but because I think the Bharat Ratna itself is a bad idea.

And it’s not just the Bharat Ratna that concerns me. It’s the entire system of civilian awards. If it was left to me, I’d cheerfully scrap the lot, tear up all the politically-motivated lists and dance in the ruins of the honours system. And India would be a better place for it.

Our entire system of civilian awards has always been a source of both concern and some irritation to me.

First of all, let’s ask the obvious question: why do we give these awards anyway?

<b1>The real reason is that six decades after Independence, we are still slavishly imitating the British Raj. In England, awards have a long and chequered history going back to medieval times when kings handed out knighthoods, peerages, dukedoms or whatever. Such distinctions are a traditional component of any monarchical system of government; it is through these methods that aristocracies and gentries develop.

In Britain, the transition to a constitutional monarchy affected the true nature of the distinction: a knight no longer automatically became part of the aristocracy. And the era of empire led to the creation of a whole new series of awards to keep colonial administrators happy. (I love the way the Brits still use the term ‘empire’ in their awards: Knight of the British Empire; Order of the British Empire; Member of the British Empire etc. What empire are you talking about guys? It vanished a long time ago.)

The Brits brought an honours system of sorts to India, handing out such titles as Rai Bahadur, but the big awards, even for colonials, were the ones that came directly from London. There could be no bigger honour for a Parsi or a Bengali than a knighthood that allowed him to add ‘Sir’ to his name. (Many Indians were content with lesser awards such as the OBE or even the CBE which, in this context, probably stood for Chamcha of the British Empire.)

After the Brits sailed home, we should have recognised that a republic had no need of an honours system. Instead, we copied their system, inventing Indian honorifics to replace those that derived their grandeur from Her Majesty’s Pleasure. What does Padma Bhushan really mean? Is it, as some of those who have got one insist, “the Indian equivalent of the peerage”? And frankly, who cares?

If my first objection is to the very existence of the system, my second problem is with the selection process.

Do you know how they select the people who get these awards? Apparently, a top-secret committee meets to vet nominations. A tentative list is sent to the Home Minister and, then, to the Prime Minister. There is — almost by definition — no transparency to the process. Nobody knows who made the decisions and none of the judges are ever held accountable.

This is clearly contrary to the principles of all democratic functioning and may make some sense in a country like Britian which even has an unelected second chamber of Parliament. But it seems curiously out of place in India.

It is not my intention to question the selections themselves (some very good people have received awards over the years), but only to point out that this kind of opaque honours system is filled with opportunities for abuse. Even in England, where the political system is much cleaner than ours, the honours list has long been treated with suspicion and derision.

In the early part of the 20th century, David Lloyd George created many dubious peers when he was Prime Minister and, in the 1970s, Harold Wilson was notorious for awarding honours to dodgy characters who frequently ended up in jail charged with criminal offences, after they had turned up at Buckingham Palace to be invested by the Queen.

<b2>More recently, the Tony Blair government reeled from revelations that suggested that Labour party fund-raisers promised honours to those who coughed up large sums of money.

If that’s how dirty the awards system is in Britain, how likely do you think it is that ours can be much cleaner?

My third objection relates to the ‘why bother?’ aspect of the awards. Among the people I know who’ve got national awards, most have been pleasantly surprised to get the honours but have treated them as being of no great consequence.

Nevertheless, I know of dozens — if not scores — of completely undeserving people who plan, who plot and who lobby to get Padma Shris or Padma Bhushans for themselves.

I am always astonished by their desperation because the truth is that after the usual rounds of celebratory parties and congratulatory messages, nobody even remembers the Padma Shris or the Padma Bhushans. In England you can at least add the award to your name (“Sir So and So” or “Lord This or That”), but in India the honour is quickly forgotten.

So, why bother? Why make such a fuss over something that means so little and is so ephemeral?

And finally, my fourth objection. If the Bharat Ratna is India’s highest civilian award, the peacetime version of the Param Vir Chakra, then it should be given only to the most deserving individuals, who have done something beyond the call of duty. We don’t usually give a Param Vir Chakra to a general. Neither do we give it to a soldier for mere bravery — courage is part of his job description.

So, why on earth, should we give the Bharat Ratna to every politician who clambers to the top of the greasy pole? That’s his job; that’s why he got into politics in the first place.

If we are going to give it to a politician then shouldn’t we restrict it to somebody whose achievements go beyond the call of duty? To somebody who has worked selflessly and not merely for the sake of his party? Why should we honour every joker who gets to be Chief Minister or founds a regional or caste-based party?

The NDA government took a decision not to give any posthumous Bharat Ratnas. It was only too aware of the danger of political parties trying to honour dead men in an effort to win votes. I gather also that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not aware of his party’s recent efforts to nominate him for the Bharat Ratna and was less than keen on the idea when he discovered what the BJP was up to.

Vajpayee is right. He’s been a successful Prime Minister. He’s had a long and distinguished career in public life. He doesn’t need any certificates to prove that he’s done something for his country.

I wish other politicians took the same line. But of course they won’t. As far as they are concerned, the Bharat Ratna is just another of the spoils of the system, one more thing they can extract from India.

Last week, I went to the NDTV ‘Indian of the Year’ function. Though the awards went to a galaxy of deserving individuals (Manmohan Singh, Vishwanathan Anand, Rajnikanth, Mukesh Ambani, Shah Rukh Khan etc), the top award went not to any celebrity but, symbolically, to the Indian soldier.

As I saw the widows of soldiers who had given their lives for our country go up to the stage to receive the symbolic award, I felt my eyes moisten. These were ordinary women, robbed of the men they had loved, stoic in their loss, and proud of the nation for which their husbands had given their lives.

Contrast the Indian soldier, his contribution and his sacrifices with the Indian politician as he clamours for his Bharat Ratna.

And ask yourself this: isn’t there something wrong with the honours system?