13 February 2015

Titular politics

S.K. Sinha
Feb 12, 2015

National awards recognise the contribution of individuals and provide an incentive to others to emulate and strive. It is an important component of good governance.

It has been an old practice for governments to recognise distinguished services of individuals by giving awards. Akbar had his “Nau Ratan” from different disciplines like music, administration, military and so on. Aurangzeb, known to be a religious bigot, honoured his Hindu general, Jai Singh of Jaipur, with the title of Mirza Raja. He was the only general with that title, like the Nizam of Hyderabad was the only “His Exalted Highness”, while all the other princes were only “His Highness”.

The British had instituted a whole lot of awards of different orders with different grades. Peerage was the highest award in which there were different grades, like Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount and Baron. There were several other orders, like Order of the Garter, of the Bath, of the British Empire, of the Star of India, and so on. The Order of the British Empire had the maximum grades — MBE, OBE, CBE, KBE, and GBE. The latter two were Knights, Knight Commander and Grand Knight Commander of this order.

There were also Indian titles like Rai Bahadur/Khan Bahadur/Sardar Bahadur and Rai Saheb/Khan Saheb/Sardar Saheb. Besides, the Kaiser-i-Hind medal was given for social service. Mahatma Gandhi was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal for organising evacuation of casualties on stretchers from the battlefield during the Boer War in South Africa. Sir Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

During the freedom movement, the Congress called upon all Indians to return titles given to them by the British as those were badges of slavery. After Independence, it was decided that we would only have gallantry awards in war and peace and no awards for distinguished service following the US pattern. We had the Veer Chakra series for gallantry in war, the PVC, the MVC and VrC. These are Indian equivalents of the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross in the British Army. The Ashok Chakra Series, Class 1,2 and 3, was introduced for gallantry in peace like the George Cross in Britain. These were subsequently designated Ashok Chakra. Kirti Chakra and Shaurya Chakra, respectively. Initially, we had no awards for distinguished service in the Army. Thus despite the outstanding work done by officers and men in management and conduct of the 1947-48 Kashmir War, no award for distinguished service was given to anyone.

In 1960, the Vishisht Seva Medal series, with three grades, was introduced for distinguished service in peace, and in 1980 the Yudh Seva Medal, also with three grades, for distinguished service in war, was introduced. The police have the President’s Police Medal and Police Medal. Both these medals are separate for gallantry and distinguished service. We have a well-organised array of medals for recognising gallantry and distinguished service. The Bharat Ratna is the highest award in our country. So far there have been 43 recipients of this award. There have been a few controversies regarding giving this award, the most glaring being the omission of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel from the awardees for 37 long years. It is surprising that Sardar Patel, was not among the first recipients when this award was instituted in 1954. There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to ignore his contribution and downplay his unique role in integrating the nation.

M.G. Ramachandran, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was awarded the Bharat Ratna to secure Tamil votes in 1988. It was only a non-Congress government that belatedly awarded the Bharat Ratna to Sardar Patel in 1991. Seventeen of the 43 awardees have been political leaders most of whom have been Presidents and Prime Ministers. Scientists and scholars figure in a fair number, as do musicians and others connected with the film industry.

The Bharat Ratna rules were amended to allow this award to be given to a sportsman. Sachin Tendulkar’s performance deserves this great honour. So does Dhyan Chand, the great hockey wizard of all times. There has been another big omission. Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Manekshaw’s military leadership won a victory unprecedented in over 2,000 years of Indian history. Ninety-two thousand Pakistani soldiers surrendered to Indian forces at Dhaka after a two-week war and a new nation of a hundred million emerged. 2014 was his centenary year. The government was ill-advised not to include him in the list of Bharat Ratnas this year.

The Duke of Wellington was raised to the highest grade of peerage when he was made a duke because the Victor of Waterloo had changed the course of history. When he died the British sovereign and Prime Minister as also heads of state and government of countries in Europe participated in his funeral procession. Manekshaw’s funeral at Wellington, named after the great duke, was not attended by the defence minister or the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The Army Chief was out of the country and the other two services were represented by two-star officers.

I would venture to suggest another name for a Bharat Ratna. Like Lata Mangeshkar, Bhupen Hazarika had a most captivating voice and was one of the top singers of our time. One of the causes of alienation of people from the Northeast has been that they are not treated well in the rest of India. I recall that with great difficulty we had managed to get a Bharat Ratna for Gopinath Bordoloi, the great statesman but for whose stand in 1946 Assam may have become part of East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. The award helped in getting the people of Assam back to the national mainstream. Today there have been several cases of discrimination and violence against students from the Northeast in our national capital and in other cities. It is reported that the authorities at the Taj Mahal insisted that a batch of girl students from Handique Girls College, Guwahati, buy entry tickets at rates prescribed for foreigners. They had identity cards issued by their college with “Guwahati, Assam”, printed on it. The ignorant staff maintained that since India was not written on their card they would have to be treated as foreigners.

A Bharat Ratna for Bhupen Hazarika will provide a balm to the hurt feelings of the Assamese. National awards recognise the contribution of individuals and provide an incentive to others to emulate and strive. It is an important component of good governance.

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir

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