Today marks the 115th birth anniversary of India’s hockey legend Major Dhyan Chand. In his honour, the day is celebrated as the National Sports Day in India. Since morning, tributes have poured in for the legend and some quarters have demanded that he should be conferred with India’s highest civilian honour i.e. the Bharat Ratna.
In fact, Major Dhyan Chand is not the only name doing the rounds for the prestigious award, as the Telangana government also plans to pass a resolution in favour of Late Shri PV Narsimha Rao (former Prime Minister of India). A Bharat Ratna awardee, is not only considered a Gem of India (literally), but is also vested with some key perks and privileges. Therefore, it is a must that the procedure for conferring the award should be fair and transparent. However, it must be noted that the award has been surrounded with controversy at times and the awardees have been accused of lobbying for the awards and at times conferring the awards on themselves.
In the present post, I shall discuss the procedure for conferring the Bharat Ratna in India. Thereafter, I shall throw light on whether the award constitutes a ‘title’ which is prohibited under Article 18 of the Constitution.
What is the Bharat Ratna?
The Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) is the highest civilian honour in India and is vested without any distinction of race, occupation, position or sex. The award is bestowed on an individual for her/his exceptional service and performance of highest order in any field of human endeavour. A Bharat Ratna awardee is ranked 7th in the Central Government’s Table of Precedence which means that she/he gets precedence over Chief Ministers and Governors (outside their state), Judges of the Supreme Court, Chief Election Commissioner, Attorney General for India, State Cabinet Ministers etc. in state and ceremonial occasions.
It should be noted, that earlier the award could be bestowed to an individual only for her/his exceptional service in the field of advancement of art, literature and science, and in recognition of public service of the highest order. However, this requirement was amended to the present ‘performance of the highest order in any field of human endeavour’, arguably to accommodate cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and award him the Ratna.
The Bharat Ratna was introduced in the year 1954 and Indian scientist CV Raman was its first recipient. Other recipients include Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, JP Narayan, Amartya Sen, A.P.J Abdul Kalam, Lata Mangeshkar etc. The award has been conferred to foreign nationals as well, namely Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and Nelson Mandela. The award can be conferred on an individual posthumously as well. Every year the award is conferred on maximum three recipients.
Procedure for Awarding the Ratna:
According to the Notification dated 08 January 1955 (as amended by notification dated 16.11.2011) [‘Notification’] issued by Office of the Secretary of the President, the Bharat Ratna is conferred by the President through a Sanad i.e. warrant/certificate under his hand and seal. Thereafter, the names of the recipients are published in the Gazette of India and a register of all such recipients is maintained.
The President also has the power to cancel or annul the award bestowed to any person. If she/he choses to do so, the recipient’s name is erased from the register and she/he is required to surrender the decoration and the Sanad. The said notice of cancellation must be published in the Gazette of India.
It should be noted that a person is considered a Bharat Ratna recipient, only when her/his name is published in the Gazette of India. A mere press communique issued by the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s House/Palace) stating that the award has/will be conferred, does not make one the recipient of the award.
For instance, in the famous case of Union of India v. Bijan Ghosh (1997) 6 SCC 535, the President had issued a communique stating that Bharat Ratna would be conferred posthumously on Shri Subhash Chandra Bose. The communique led to widespread uproar, since it had used the word ‘posthumously’ for Shri Bose. A quarter of the society believed that since no specific report of his death was accepted by the Government of India, it cannot and should not confer on him any title with the description ‘posthumously’. Thereafter, demands were made that the award be revoked and a petition was filed in the Supreme Court to that effect. Owing to the public sentiment, the government withdrew the communique and Netaji’s name was not published in the Gazette of India. If the communique amounted to conferring the award, its reversal would have been possible only by cancellation or annulment, both a dishonour to the national hero.
Although the award is conferred by the President, the decision on the recipients is taken by the Prime Minister alone. In fact, if any other Ministry wishes to make a recommendation or receives one, it is required to forward it to the Prime Minister’s Office (Santosh Sahai v. Ministry of Home Affairs, 2013 SCC Online CIC 11609). This was not the original position, as Pt. Nehru was conferred with the award on the decision of President Rajendra Prasad. Prime Minister’s supremacy in the decision making came into being in the year 1996, in response to a Supreme Court judgment. I have discussed the judgment later.
Is Bharat Ratna a ‘Title’ under Article 18 of the Constitution?
Article 18 of the Constitution of India bars the state from conferring any title, on a citizen of India. The only exception to this rule, are military titles or academic distinctions. The original text of Article 18, as prepared by the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, had no such exception. However, later an amendment was moved by Shri TT Krishnamachari to add them.
A perusal of the discussions in the Assembly shows us that the framers only wanted to put an end to the titles of nobility i.e. Rai Sahab, Raja, Sir etc., as they created an unequal class of citizens. However, there was no embargo on the state recognising merit or work of an extraordinary nature, which would be covered under the exceptions. To ensure equality, framers mandated that no recipient of such honours, would use them as suffixes or prefixes. (This is currently the law. A recipient cannot use the honours as suffixes or prefixes, but may use it in her/his bio-data/letter head/visiting card etc.)
In Balaji Raghavan v. Union of India (1996) 1 SCC 361, the National Awards were challenged for violating the principles of equality enshrined under Article 14 and 18 of the Constitution. The Court dismissed the petition stating that theory of equality does not mandate that merit should not be recognised. The Court relied on Article 51-A(j) i.e. the fundamental duty of every citizen to ‘strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity, so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement’, to state that there should a system of awards and decorations to recognise excellence in performance of these duties.
Before concluding the judgment, the Court made some pertinent remarks on the procedure for granting these awards. It observed, that the need for necessarily granting awards every year required reconsideration and hence, a High-Level committee appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the President of India should look into it.
In compliance with the judgment, a High-Level Review Committee was constituted by the government in May 1996. The Chairman of the Committee was the Hon’ble Vice President of India and its members were the Cabinet Secretary, Attorney General for India, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Secretary, to the President of Sahitya Academy, Chairperson, University Grant) Commission, Vice Chancellor, Kashmir University and Professor Yash Pal, National Research Professor. The Committee stipulated that the recommendation for the Bharat Ratna would be made by the Prime Minister alone and she/he will be free to consult anyone she/he chooses. This recommendation gave the Prime Minister supremacy in conferring the awards.
In 2014, a petition was filed in the Allahabad High Court, with a prayer to revoke the Bharat Ratna conferred on cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and instead, confer the Ratna on King Ashoka, King Harshvardhan, Bhagat Singh, Neta Ji Subhas Chandra Bose etc. It was argued that the judgment in Balaji Raghava, had not been implemented. The Court refused to interfere stating that the judgment in Balaji was followed. It should be noted that in its judgment, the Court reiterated that the recommendation of the Ratna are made by the Prime Minister to the President (Amitabh Thakur v. Union of India, 2014 SCC Online All 15269).
Bharat Ratna being India’s highest civilian award, should be bestowed on individuals who are truly deserving of the honour. Its past recipients have undoubtedly been worthy women and men, however, at times allegedly politics and ideologies have also played a role behind the awards.
Despite being so, there is no denying that both Major Dhyan Chand and Shri PV Narsimha Rao would be its deserving recipients. In fact, if the name of Major Dhyan Chand goes through, he will finally get the award unlike the year 2014, when cricketer Tendulkar was given the award over him, generating immense criticism in the process.
[As stated in a previous post, there is a dearth of government documents when it comes to appointments and awards. I was shocked to find out that the government admitted before the Central Information Commission, that it had no available records concerning the Bharat Ratna conferred on Pt. Nehru and Mrs. Indira Gandhi.]
The author does not wish to offend any member of the political fraternity with this post.