A Civilian Honour Fit For A Star

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There’s a rising chorus to bestow the Bharat Ratna on Sachin Tendulkar, but Viswanathan Anand deserves it first

Ashok Malik 
Contributing Editor

Illustration: Anand Naorem

WHO SHOULD be the first Indian sportsperson to be awarded the Bharat Ratna? If breathless media coverage is anything to go by, Sachin Tendulkar is a shoo-in. Maharashtra politicians, usually united only by land swindles, have come together in advocating a Bharat Ratna for Tendulkar. The Union Sports Minister is batting for it as well, and has even written to the home ministry.

As the Tendulkar chorus has grown louder, a countervailing political correctness has targeted the elitism of cricket. There have been suggestions that Dhyan Chand, winner of three Olympic gold medals and the Don Bradman of field hockey, be awarded the Bharat Ratna this year. Tendulkar can wait.

Despite their achievements, neither Chand nor Tendulkar deserves to be India’s first sporting Bharat Ratna — but for different reasons. The Bharat Ratna was instituted in 1954. Chand played in his final Olympic Games in 1936. To award him India’s highest civilian honour 30 years after he died and 75 years after he ended his career at the top level is a trifle ridiculous.

Tendulkar has had a brilliant past four years, but has he truly outperformed Anand?

True, posthumous Bharat Ratnas have been awarded earlier. In the 1990s, BR Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhas Bose were all named for the award decades after they had died. In each case, some immediate political purpose was being served. To complete the absolute tawdriness, the award to Bose had to be withdrawn because the government could not conclusively establish he was dead. As such, a court barred it from awarding a posthumous Bharat Ratna.

There may be no similar controversies in the case of Chand, but it is worth wondering if a Bharat Ratna for what is essentially a historical rather than contemporary achievement is warranted. Maybe Chand could have been so honoured in the 1950s or in his lifetime. To do it now is to trivialise both his legacy and the Bharat Ratna itself. If a hockey player is to be given the Bharat Ratna, choose Balbir Singh. He was perhaps India’s greatest player after Chand. He also won three Olympic gold medals. Most important, he is still among us.

Posthumous awards, unless announced within no more than 12 months of a person’s passing, serve no purpose. If pre-Independence achievements are to be recognised and appraised by the Republic of India using a system of State honours set up following the inauguration of the Constitution, then why stop with the 20th century? Why not give Akbar the highest prize for national integration and Ashoka the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding?

The case against Tendulkar has nothing to do with history but much to do with merit. He is India’s most iconic cricketer, the game’s biggest star and perhaps its most gifted practitioner. He deserves the Bharat Ratna. Yet does he deserve it more than Viswanathan Anand?

It is a fair argument that Anand, world chess champion on three occasions now, is the greatest Indian sportsman of all time. Indeed, for the title of greatest non-Russian chess player of all time, he has only one serious challenger: Bobby Fischer. In 2007, he became the first Indian sportsperson to be given the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest honour, and beat Tendulkar by a full year. Tendulkar has had a brilliant past four years, but has he truly outperformed Anand? What has Anand done (or not done) to deserve supersession?

When the Republic Day honours list is announced, it is possible Anand and Tendulkar will both figure on it. Equally, it is possible neither will. That is not the point. The fear is the Bharat Ratna is being treated as a sort of beauty contest. There is a difference between India’s highest civilian prize and a text-message poll to decide a reality TV show winner. Do Tendulkar’s cheerleaders realise this? If not, they are insulting him — and Anand.

Ashok Malik is a Contributing Editor with Tehelka.
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