The highest civilian award of the country - the Bharat Ratna - was last conferred on former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and posthumously on educationist Madan Mohan Malviya in January 2015. None was awarded during the last two years. Expectations that this most prestigious civilian award could be conferred again on Republic Day this year have surged after army chief General Bipin Rawat said at a function in Karnataka's Kodagu district in November that it was time to recommend the late Field Marshal KM Cariappa for Bharat Ratna.
Whether military men should be conferred the highest civilian award â€“ mark the word "civilian" - calls for serious debate. It could open a Pandora's box as military men can then stake claim to the Padma awards, too. Military men are honoured by an exclusive set of medals for distinguished service - the Seva medals (Vishisht, Ati Vishisht and Param Vishisht). Very rarely, the most distinguished have been promoted to the 5-Star rank of Field Marshal and Marshal of the Air Force - honours no less than the Bharat Ratna.
More recently, former foreign minister S M Krishna, who has since switched sides to the BJP, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi recommending that the Siddaganga seer Shivakumara Swamiji be given the Bharat Ratna for his "yeoman service."
After the awardees were announced on Republic Day 2015, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee opined that Amitabh Bachchan, the film actor, should have been awarded Bharat Ratna instead of Padma Vibhushan, which was awarded to him that year in the Art category. Her contention? Amitabh Bachchan is a legend. Dilip Kumar, another legendry actor who had a stint of over five decades in Indian cinema, was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan that year. The Pakistan government awarded him that country's highest civilian award 'Nishan-e-Imtiaz' in 1998.
Over the years, the prestige and honour that the Bharat Ratna carried on its inception in 1954 has suffered. But further degeneration must be arrested. Politicisation of the award has had its adverse impact on the esteem, honour and status of this award.
There has been a vociferous demand for conferment of the Bharat Ratna on the founder-president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the late Kanshi Ram. The Shiv Sena has demanded the honour for 'Veer' Savarkar, while Samajwadi Party has demanded it for the late Ram Manohar Lohia and late Acharya Narendra Dev.
The award was instituted to honour eminent personalities who excelled in arts, literature, science and public service. In actual practice, it has been awarded to those who toe the line of the ruling party. Howsoever great one's achievement may be in any field, if he or she did not find favour with the ruling government, Bharat Ratna, or for that matter any Padma award, would be out of reach.
In 1988, Tamil actor and former Tamil Nadu chief minister M G Ramachandran (MGR) was awarded the Bharat Ratna posthumously when his widow Janaki Ramachandran was briefly the chief minister of the state. Certainly, he had done much for Tamil Nadu and may have been a "Ratna" of Tamil Nadu, but whether he was a "Bharat Ratna" raises uncomfortable questions.
Among the 45 who have been awarded Bharat Ratna so far are two eminent personalities who were not Indian citizens. While Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan's contribution to Indian Independence cannot be ignored, that of Nelson Mandela raises questions as to the legitimacy of awarding him Bharat Ratna. Doubtless, he was a South African icon. But what was his contribution to our country? The title of the award Bharat Ratna is self-explanatory - that it is to be awarded to one who is a 'jewel' of India.
Token of sympathy?
Another aspect to be considered in awarding Bharat Ratna is whether it should be conferred posthumously soon after a person's death. The fact that the award is conferred posthumously sends out the signal that more than the "recognition of public service of the highest order" rendered by the individual, it is awarded out of sympathy for the deceased personality.
It seemed so in the case of MGR, Rajeev Gandhi and Aruna Asaf Ali, who were awarded the Bharat Ratna soon after their death. Legendary figures like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Jai Prakash Narain were bestowed the honour several years, or even decades, after their death. Better it is to award the Bharat Ratna while the recipient is alive or after at least a two-year hiatus after death, so that emotions do not govern such conferment.
In 2011, the government amended the rules by including "any field of human endeavour" to be considered for this unique honour. Though this clause paved the way for conferring the highest award on Sachin Tendulkar, the cricket legend, the fact that there was another legendary sportsman who ought to have been given the honour first became a talking point.
How could the country ignore the hockey wizard Major Dhyan Chand and confer the award on Tendulkar? The cry for conferment of the Bharat Ratna on Major Dhyan Chand for the last few years has fallen on deaf ears. It is high time the government seriously considered the issue and announced the award to this legendary figure, who made his mark not only in our country but was also acknowledged by the world to be a hockey wizard par excellence.
In school curricula, books on Bharat Ratna awardees need to be introduced. Leaving aside the debate whether or not all of them deserved to be conferred the Bharat Ratna, the fact remains that they figure among the gems of our nation. It is therefore important that children in schools know about them.
(The writer is a former Inspector General of Police, CRPF)