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Ghalib, Bharat Ratna And Lost Memories Of The Indian Republic

By Farzana Versey

23 December, 2011

The highest Indian civilian honour is become a joke, not only because of the names being bandied about but due to the so-called reasoned responses to those names. There is a cultural, philosophical and atavistic leap from Sachin Tendulkar to Mirza Ghalib.

Ghalib may ever-so-gratefully be turning in the grave on being considered for the Bharat Ratna, though the chances the finance minister quoting him in the next ‘baajit’ (budget) are remote. Pranab Mukherjee might just opt for Sarat Chandra.

That the Padma awards are politicised is a known whisper, but this year we have everyone jumping on to the Bharat Ratna bandwagon, which has resulted in a glut of Ghalib verses reappearing with as much vigour as Veena Malik’s disappearance. Sarat babu has not been as lucky, and it is rather interesting that most op-eds are not even mentioning him. What is the politics behind such counter-politics? It started with Markandey Katju, a former judge and chairperson of the Press Council of India, doing what people consider the equivalent of digging graves. He has responded in a column in the Indian Express:

“I have been criticised for demanding Bharat Ratna for Mirza Ghalib and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Some even lampooned me by saying that Bharat Ratna should also be given to Lord Rama and Gautam Buddha, and Param Vir Chakra to Tantia Tope. In reply, I wish to say that there is nothing wrong in giving awards posthumously, provided they are given to the right persons, and Bharat Ratna has been often conferred posthumously in the past, for instance to Sardar Patel and Dr Ambedkar. Moreover, Ghalib is a modern figure, not a legendary one like Lord Rama, or an ancient one like Gautam Buddha. Many of his thoughts were, for his times, surprisingly modern. Though he was steeped in the feudal tradition, he often broke through that tradition on perceiving the advantages of modern civilisation… As regards Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, in a recent function in Kolkata I appealed for the award of Bharat Ratna to him. Here was a man who in a feudal society (early 20th century Bengal) launched a full-blooded attack on the caste system, against women’s oppression, and superstitions…”

Irrespective of his motives, I would not rubbish Justice Katju without taking into account the larger framework. His proposal, in fact, lays bare the idea of how we view history and whether such honours and their contribution affect a large mass of people and in what manner.

The reactions can be revealing, as is this piece by Ashok Malik in the Asian Age:

“The Padma series of awards and the Bharat Ratna are state honours given by the Republic of India to those who have been of service to or have otherwise embellished that very Republic of India. Can they be given to those who lived and died before the republic was instituted or even conceived?”

If service to the nation is the yardstick, then not many have been real contributors. There is lobbying for these honours and professionals wait for the lists like students waiting for results. The Bharat Ratna has been arbitrary, in that it is based on the whims of a small group and pressure tactics have been used to make sure that the person so anointed is popular. Popularity is based on commercial considerations. The most-endorsed person (and there is a pun in there) is likely to be feted with a Padma. Some have refused these awards. Does it make their contribution any less?

In what manner did Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Nelson Mandela, both recipients of the Bharat Ratna, embellish the Indian Republic?

Besides, let us see such honours holistically. Are we to consider the conceptualisation of India as a Republic as the cut-off date for historical relevance of India as a nation? What about the tumultuous period of 1857? What about the gathering momentum of the freedom struggle? I reiterate that this is not only about handing out awards, but to see the nature of contributions to the country beyond its status as a Republic.

Ashok Malik’s reasoning is frightening:

“A posthumous award rarely makes sense, unless given within a year or so of the person’s passing, when memories of his or her life and achievements are fresh and relevant to contemporary society."

What does it tell us about the nature of achievements if they are dependent on memories? If a person’s work is likely to be forgotten or become irrelevant within a year of death, then what really is the contribution to the Republic? Do we need statues, roads, and garden benches named after people for us to remember them? Posthumous awards are as relevant as death is inevitable. Since death does not announce itself, it becomes a bit difficult to put someone in queue.

As regards the swipe and sarcasm doing the rounds about awarding people like Rani Lakshmibai and Emperor Asoka, there are awards named after several historical figures. One wonders why our Republic has not grown up enough and suffered from the much-needed amnesia to forget them. Now, why does someone not tell these people that forgetfulness would help a great deal when we are discussing certain political issues where such a past is made the pulpit from where contemporary India fights elections for its Republic?

Justice Katju has pushed the envelope a bit:

“People are talking of giving the Bharat Ratna to cricketers and filmstars. This is the low cultural level to which we have sunk. We ignore our real heroes, and hail superficial ones. I regret to say that the present generation of Indians has been almost entirely deculturised, and all they care for is money, filmstars, cricket, and superficialities.”

He is not entirely right, and certainly not when he rubbished the media coverage of Dev Anand’s death, but it does not merit Mr. Malik’s wonder as to why he is “expending his energies in seeking a Bharat Ratna for a poet who had been dead 150 years. Could he not have devoted his precious time to composing a petition related to the agrarian crisis?” Those of us who are responding to Mr. Katju are not penning paeans to the farmers. We are also discussing these very superficialities. And many of us do question film stars and cricketers ourselves.

Anna Hazare is one of the names being pushed, and whatever he writes about the agrarian or industrial crises, he would still be seen as a drumbeater by quite a few.

There is the question of real heroes, and the youth treats Hazare at the same level of pop iconism as it does film stars and cricketers. He too appears on reality TV shows to promote his campaign as they do.

As regards the crowning glory, let me leave you with another poet who wept for his land. Alas, it was not a republic then:

"ya mujhe afsar-e-shahaa na banaya hota
ya mera taj gadayaa na banayaa hota"

(Bahadurshah Zafar)

Farzana Versey can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/




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