When RTI enthusiasts sought records of the recommendations for awarding the Ratna to Nehru, Indira, Prasad, Giri and others, they were told by records and file notings were not available.
Bharat Ratna to Karpoori Thakur and Lal Krishna Advani have rekindled the debate and controversy surrounding the time when the highest civilian award was conferred upon prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi by their respective governments.
February 2024 has jogged memories of the summer of 1955.
That was when Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was conferred the Bharat Ratna by his own government.
Nehru was on a visit to Europe in June-July 1955, addressing heads of Indian missions in Europe at Salzburg and meeting the Chancellor of Austria, Julius Raab, in Vienna when the award was announced.
It was only the second year since the award, given for “exceptional service towards the advancement of art, literature and science and in recognition of public service of the highest order”, had been instituted through a presidential notification.
The first recipients were C. Rajgopalachari, C.V. Raman and S. Radhakrishnan – all in 1954, the year the award was instituted.
President Rajendra Prasad, who had an uneasy relationship with Nehru following differences over several issues, took full responsibility for conferring the Ratna on Nehru.
“In doing so,” Prasad said on July 15, 1955, “for once, I may be said to be acting unconstitutionally, as I am taking this step on my own initiative and without any recommendation or advice from my Prime Minister; but I know that my action will be endorsed most enthusiastically…”
Nehru was honoured along with philosopher Bhagwan Das and technocrat M. Visvesaraya.
“The ‘Light of Asia’ was now officially ‘Jewel of India’,” diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor wrote of the decision in his 2003 book, Nehru, The Invention of India.
On September 7, 1955, Nehru was conferred the Ratna at a special investiture ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The then Union home secretary,A.V. Pai, read out the names of the recipients.
But Nehru’s citation was not read. The official book of citations merely mentioned the name of the Prime Minister and avoided any reference to the services he had rendered.
Old-timers say it would have been difficult to encapsulate Nehru’s contribution in a few paragraphs.
According to a newspaper report of that day, the gathering burst into thunderous applause as Nehru was conducted to the dais where the President greeted him and presented the medal and the sanad (citation).
Writer-scholar parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor too captured the moment in his book, “Nehru- the Invention of India” [Penguin India 2003] on page 192, “There is a photograph of him (Nehru) at the ceremony, in his white achkan and red rose in the buttonhole, almost boyishly slim, smiling bashfully as the President and the aide-de-camp pin the decoration on him. He was sixty-six and… a colossus on the national and international stages.”
By December 1971, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, too, was riding the stage like a colossus. She had won the Lok Sabha elections early that year and now she had humbled Pakistan in the war for Bangladesh’s liberation.
The Ratna was conferred on Indira in March 1972, although the award was for 1971.
Like Prasad had done in 1955, the then President, V.V. Giri took full responsibility for conferring the honour on Indira.
Nehru and Indira both returned the compliment.
Prasad was awarded the Ratna in 1962 when he had retired as President. Giri, whose term as President ended in August 1974, was conferred the Ratna in 1975.
In recent years, when RTI enthusiasts sought records of the recommendations for awarding the Ratna to Nehru, Indira, Prasad, Giri and others, they were told by the Prime minister’s Office and Rashtrapati Bhavan that records and file notings relating to information or achievements of these individuals were not available.
In 1996, then Supreme Court Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi and other judges suggested to the Prime Minister that a committee be set up to lay down guidelines for selection of nominees.
The judges suggested that the panel be headed by the Prime Minister, with the other members being the Lok Sabha Speaker and the Chief Justice of India or his nominee, and recipients be selected in consultation with the President.
But successive governments at the Centre have not followed up on the suggestions. Nominations are now based on political considerations, with the choice communicated to the President who makes the formal announcement. There is also no specific day for announcing the names.
A former judge has raised doubts about the advisability of involving the President and the Chief Justice in the selection process.
Rajinder Sachar, president of rights body PUCL, had felt that such provisions would lead to serious complications. “The direction to consult the President is a bit anomalous as Article 74 clearly mandates that the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the council of ministers,” he said.
“Of course, the Prime Minister may go by the advice of the President, but to lay that down as a matter of law would send confusing signals.”