The newly declassified files have revealed that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s daughter Anita Pfaff’s decision to decline the Bharat Ratna which the P V Narasimha Rao government wanted to confer on Netaji, saying that accepting it “may well be interpreted as a slight to his memory”, put the Centre in a fix as the award had already been announced by the President’s Secretariat on January 23, 1992.
In a meeting with Rao, then Cabinet Secretary and Home Secretary discussed whether the announcement should be “withdrawn”. It was also discussed that if the award is not withdrawn, whether Netaji’s name should be included in the pamphlet to be circulated in the Investiture Ceremony on March 28, 1992. They also discussed that if Netaji’s name is to be included in list of awardees in the brochure, whether the word “posthumous” should be added or not, the files have revealed.
Then Home Secretary Madhav Godbole wrote to then Home Minister Shankarrao Chavan that Rao had said that neither Netaji’s name nor his photograph be included in the brochure. Stating that Rashtrapati Bhavan had already issued a press release announcing conferment of the award, he wrote, “This may have to cancelled if his name is not to be mentioned… as this is tantamount to withdrawal of the announcement.”
Only after Chavan discussed the matter with the President on March 24, 1992, that some clarity emerged. “…the President said that there is no provision for withdrawing the Bharat Ratna Award,” a declassified file notes. Chavan further directed that “Netaji will not be mentioned when other names are called during the Investiture Ceremony”.
At the ceremony that year, the Bharat Ratna was awarded to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Satyajit Ray and J R D Tata. Since Netaji’s next of kin had declined to receive it and this had meant no actual conferment took place and hence a notification in Gazette of India could not be made, the government, with approval of the President and the PM, decided that “no further action was necessary and the matter be treated as closed”.
Netaji’s daughter Anita Pfaff’s letter to India’s Ambassador in Germany Kamal N Bakshi, written on February 21, 1992, and declining to receive the award is also among the declassified files.
Stating that in her judgement an honour like the Bharat Ratna would have been appropriate had it been awarded in the 1950s, “particularly if the award was to be granted also in recognition for achievements during India’s quest for independence”, Pfaff wrote, “Thinking of Netaji in this context so late prompts me, however, to ask, whether his achievements were so minor that he had to stand in line for so long, or so great that they would be remembered even after such a long time.”
…I wish to extend my thanks to those who selected him… However… I cannot help but feel that one cannot honour Netaji today by awarding the Bharat Ratna… Forgive me… if I will not be party to an act which in my opinion may well be interpreted as a slight to his memory,” she added.