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The Bharat Ratna poser: who's the real gem?
Vishwanathan Anand's fifth world chess title has sparked off a flurry of debates about who is the most deserving sportsperson to get the Bharat Ratna. Should it be the chess maestro or Sachin Tendulkar who has scored an unprecedented century of international centuries? Is that pandering to the immediacy of events and ignoring some stellar people from the past like Milkha Singh, PT Usha and perhaps most importantly the late hockey wizard Dhyan Chand ?
We have become a mercurial nation where success and failure are sought to be rewarded or criticised instantly, without putting things in perspective. By this I don't mean that people with a spectacular body of work should not be acknowledged by the country's highest honour, but it is imperative that this honour is given after due diligence, not for populist reasons. That would demean and devalue the award, especially when it involves something as lofty as the Bharat Ratna.
That said, the people included in the ambit for the Bharat Ratna (i. e. Jewel of India) cannot exclude India's sportspersons. This is not just because Indian sport has enjoyed so much popular success and media attention in recent times. It is also because sport aims to bring out and showcase the highest human ideals. Achievement, courage, daring, skill, fair play, justice, team work, talent are all part of a sporting exercise. And people who attain some or most of these certainly deserve our commendations.
If anything, the revision in criteria for selection has taken an unduly long time in coming and reflects the utter lack of sporting ethos in the country. For several decades now, sports in India has been seen more as a pastime than as a vocation, leave aside an expression of national well-being and pride. A heightened public awareness of this - thanks to a large extent because of the 'demonstration effect' of globalisation - has compelled politicians to review the scenario. Sportspersons could not be ignored any longer.
So far so good, but there is also a need for caution in such an award which looks for the pinnacle, not the path. Let me play devil's advocate. Every time, for instance, Sachin Tendulkar reaches one more milestone there is a clamour for him to be awarded the Ratna. Over the past few days, campaigns have begun for Vishy Anand. However, both are still playing their respective sports. Their careers are not yet over and nor are their lives. What if both reach even greater heights? Are we to institute a higher honour then for them?
There is another caveat in giving away an award too soon and this does not apply only to sportspersons. The Bharat Ratna is an enormous honour and we have to give the award that respect. Imagine awarding it to someone who later, just as a matter of argument, is convicted for some felony? Would the award be taken away? Would it not be diminished? The Bharat Ratna has to be given for a life lived and acknowledged by a grateful nation. It cannot be swept away by popular passion which is all too often fleeting and fickle.
In a way, this creates the case for first acknowledging those who have ended their life in the limelight. In sport, Dhyanchand, India's great hockey captain, springs to mind here first. Not only did he steer India to three Olympic gold medals he also brought Indian hockey to the world stage. All said and done, hockey is still our national sport and one in which we have eight Olympic golds. Let's also not forget that we - people and nation - have not done Dhyan Chand justice. For all his achievements, he died in penury. If a sportsperson is to get the Bharat Ratna, surely he should be first?
In my reckoning there are some others too. A case could be made for Milkha Singh who brought the Indian athlete to the forefront and although he came fourth in his Olympic event, the barefoot 'Flying Sikh' left behind a legacy which we still benefit from. Would a Bharat Ratna be a fitting tribute at his age?
Following in Milkha Singh's footsteps is PT Usha. Although she is much younger than Singh, PT Usha can be credited with turning the spotlight on Indian women in athletics. Her own achievements are considerable but she also inspired two generations of women athletes, many of whom have performed commendably at the international level. The Payoli Express blew us away not just with her speed but with her dedication and commitment.
These are a few names that come instantly to mind, though there will be strong votaries of Prakash Padukone, Leander Paes, Mike Ferreira, Geet Sethi, Leander Paes and Abhinav Bindra too. The crucial aspect, as in any other area of national life, is that the Bharat Ratna honours not just body of work and legacy created, but impact on the field of work and on the national psyche.
So, have I been able to clear the air or confounded the matter further? Let me give it another go: if it is a living person who gets this award, Vishy Anand simply can't be left out;if it is a posthumous award, then it begs the question.
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