Ratna to Vajpayee is fine, but why Malviya?

The award of the Bharat Ratna, the highest national civilian award, should be above controversy. It is to be given to individuals who have rendered exceptional service towards arts, literature and science and in recognition of public service of the highest order.

While these criteria are right, the yardsticks used to measure them in individual cases have not always been unbiased or free of dispute. The NDA government has decided to confer the award on former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and posthumously on freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malviya.

The decision to bestow the honour on Vajpayee is to be welcomed and has been widely hailed. He was the most prominent BJP leader and was thrice prime minister of the country. Vajpayee rose above partisanship and ideological and other divisions and represented the country at large in his words, conduct and actions.

The abundant qualities of consensus-building and statesmanship that he was endowed with made him acceptable to all. Vajpayee deserves the honour, which should, in fact, have gone to him earlier.

But the award for Malviya raises serious questions of propriety. He was an important Congress leader of the pre-independence era, an early leader the Hindu Mahasabha and the founder of the Benaras Hindu University.

He was among the first propounders of the Hindu nationalist view in politics and supported causes like cow protection and predominance to Hindi. He was also against the Congress support for the khilafat movement and the idea of separate electorates for different communities.

It could be his Hindu idiom of politics that led the present government to choose him for the honour. There could be a personal angle also because most of Malviya’s life and activities were centred in Varanasi which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency too.

These are certainly wrong considerations for a national honour. The idea of a posthumous award may itself be anachronistic and inappropriate. Why is Malviya, born 153 years ago and who died 68 years ago, chosen when there are equally or more deserving personalities from the past like Tilak, Gokhale, Tagore and many others? Selective mining of the past for personalities is wrong. There will be no end to it.

There is the need for a better and more objective mechanism to select recipients of the highest national honour so that they will be above controversy. At present, the Union cabinet takes the decision.

A committee headed by the President and with eminent personalities as members, may do a better job of selection, which should reflect a national consensus. Political and other considerations devalue the award, as it has happened in the past also.

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