The highest civilian award in India, the Bharat Ratna, is yet again embroiled in controversy. This time it is the Assamese musician and poet Bhupen Hazarika who had been posthumously conferred the award on January 26. On Monday, Hazarika’s son Tej Hazarika, protesting against the ‘painfully unpopular’ Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, put the government on notice.
“Bharat Ratnas and longest bridges, while necessary, will not promote the peace and prosperity of the citizens of India. Only just popular laws and foresight on the part of leadership will,” US-based Tej Hazarika said in an email statement. He went on to add that the Citizenship Bill was in “direct opposition to what Bhupenda believed in his heart of hearts”.
The tradition of conferring the Bharat Ratna “in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order” has been around since 1954. Over the decades it has frequently found itself entangled in controversy over the choice of its recipient, or the circumstances in which he or she was being awarded. Here are five such instances from the past when the highest civilian award in India was involved in controversy.
Kumaraswami Kamaraj was a member of the Indian National Congress (INC) and played an instrumental role in managing the party after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was actively involved in the freedom movement, particularly in the Madras presidency and had started the sword satyagraha there. In 1976, the Indira Gandhi government posthumously honoured Kamaraj with the Bharat Ratna. However, the decision drew sharp criticism from many who saw in the act an attempt to influence voters ahead of the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 1977.
In 1988, then then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi conferred the Bharat Ratna posthumously to Tamil super star and former chief minister of Tamil Nadu M G Ramachandran (MGR). MGR’s unsurmountable popularity across Tamil Nadu is well known. However, Gandhi’s decision to honour him with the highest civilian award drew criticism as an act of wooing voters for the 1989 Assembly elections.
Similar controversy also erupted when V P Singh’s government decided to honour Dalit rights activist B R Ambedkar in 1990. Incidentally, the country was observing Ambedkar’s centenary celebrations that year. However, Singh’s decision to posthumously award Ambedkar was seen as a means to placate Dalit voters.
Subhas Chandra Bose
In January 1992, the government announced its decision to honour Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with the Bharat Ratna. However, the news was met with much disappointment and a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court to repeal the award. The petitioner had taken exception to the use of the word ‘posthumously’ in the the press release and had pointed out to the fact that the government had not officially accepted Bose’s death on August 18, 1945. Soon after, Bose’s family refused to accept the award.
In November 2013, the government nominated Sachin Tendulkar for the Bharat Ratna, the youngest recipient of the award. However, the decision was soon followed by severe controversy. Many argued that there were other eminent sportsmen before Tendulkar, such as Vishwanathan Anand, Dhyan Chand among others who had not been honoured similarly. Further, a PIL submitted to the Election Commission noted that awarding Tendulkar was an election gimmick since he was a nominated member of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha.