Bharat Ratna, Katju paradox, et cetera

Here is a former judge of the Supreme Court, expending his energies in seeking a Bharat Ratna for a poet who had been dead 150 years

In mid-November, I wrote a newspaper column disagreeing with Justice Markandey Katju’s assessment of the Indian media. The chairman of the Press Council of India responded immediately by sending me a copy of a speech he had delivered. The matter would have ended there but the good Mr Katju had other ideas.

In the days that followed, I was subjected to a barrage of spam from the Press Council chairman’s office. Most of the email was fairly anodyne — Justice Katju wishing a delegation from the Mumbai Press Club all the best for its visit to Pakistan,
sending his greetings to the courageous press corps in that country, and so on.
On Saturday, December 17, a somewhat strange email turned up. It was a copy of a letter Justice Katju had written to another gentleman: “I would like all Urdu lovers to appeal to the Prime Minister to recommend Bharat Ratna for Mirza Ghalib. I had made this appeal in the mushaira organised by Jashn-Bahaar, and my appeal had been endorsed by prominent persons in the audience like Smt. Meira Kumar, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Mr Salman Khurshid, hon’ble minister, Mr (Y.S.) Qureshi, chief election officer (sic).”
I was left scratching my head. Only days earlier Justice Katju had strongly criticised the media for its coverage of actor Dev Anand’s death, terming it a wrongheaded priority at a time when farmers were committing suicide. Yet here was an important public figure, a stalwart intellectual and a former judge of the Supreme Court, expending his energies in seeking a Bharat Ratna for a poet who had been dead 150 years. Could he not have devoted his precious time to composing a petition related to the agrarian crisis? I must confess I did wonder.
The irrepressible Justice Katju’s idea also flummoxed me for what seemed to be a patent anachronism. Mirza Ghalib, perhaps the finest Urdu poet ever, died in 1869 (other sources say 1872). This was 80 years before India became a republic on January 26, 1950. The Padma series of awards and the Bharat Ratna are state honours given by the Republic of India to those who have been of service to or have otherwise embellished that very Republic of India. Can they be given to those who lived and died before the republic was instituted or even conceived?
Justice Katju’s intervention — perhaps in years to come philosophers will discuss it as the “Katju paradox” — was obviously timed to coincide with the UPA government’s decision to expand the criteria for a Bharat Ratna. The Union Cabinet has agreed that “performance of the highest order in any field of human endeavour” — and not just in the four categories of art, literature, science and public service — would make an individual eligible for India’s highest civilian award.
Of course, Mirza Ghalib is not affected by these changes. As a writer and poet, he falls under the rubric of “literature” anyway. The revision of criteria follows an urging by Ajay Maken, Union sports minister, to bring sportspersons under the ambit of eligibility.
Mr Maken, like Mr Katju, has spent the past few months making grand pronouncements and unworkable proposals. He has mooted a new sports law that probably violates the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines for autonomy of national sports bodies. He has taken on the Indian cricket board and the organisers of India’s first Formula One event because they have managed without government money and depended on private enterprise rather than sports ministry patronage.
Finally, he has batted for a Bharat Ratna for one sportsperson — Sachin Tendulkar — because this is guaranteed to get him headlines. In a politically correct afterthought, he has added the name of Dhyan Chand, the hockey wizard who played his final Olympic match in 1936.
Both Mr Katju and Mr Maken are resorting to gimmicks. A posthumous award rarely makes sense, unless given within a year or so of the person’s passing, when memories of his or her life and achievements are fresh and relevant to contemporary society. If historical figures are to be considered, what prevents Rani Lakshmibai and Tipu Sultan being named for the Param Vir Chakra, Emperor Ashoka being given the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, and Raja Raja Chola becoming the fourth head of government in Tamil Nadu (after C. Rajagopalachari, K. Kamaraj and M.G. Ramachandran) to get the Bharat Ratna?
In the case of Mr Maken, to ask for the Bharat Ratna for two specific sportspersons — great as both may be — without any consultative process, recourse to objective parameters and logic other than personal preference — represents a ministerial arrogance bordering on feudalism.
Dhyan Chand has been dead 32 years. He should have got the Bharat Ratna in his lifetime. If he didn’t the loss is India’s, not his. Yet what of the man rated the second-finest centre forward in classical hockey, and the true successor of Dhyan Chand? Balbir Singh won three Olympic gold medals, just as Dhyan Chand did. He lit the torch at the opening of the 1982 Asian Games. More important, he is still with us. Let us honour him while he is around, presuming of course Mr Maken has even heard of him.
As for current-day contenders, surely Viswanathan Anand must rank higher than Tendulkar. It is a fair argument that Anand, world chess champion on three occasions now, is the greatest Indian sportsman of all time. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988, 11 years before Tendulkar. In 2008, Tendulkar and he became the first Indian sportspersons to be given the Padma Vibhushan. What has Anand done (or not done) in the past four years to merit supersession?
We may never get an answer, not in an environment where the likes of Mr Katju and Mr Maken have so trivialised the Bharat Ratna selection process that it resembles a beauty contest more than a thoughtful commemoration of a living person’s contribution to India as we know it.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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