In Nagpur last week, in the last over during the desperate defeat to South Africa, Sachin Tendulkar ran in from the third man, swooped on the ball and hit the wicket with a direct throw. His fielding bared the spirit of Tendulkar. It’s made of iron and passion, forged by qualities increasingly old-fashioned—discipline and respect for the game. A month before his 38th birthday, Tendulkar was quicker on the field than most teammates, diving around and throwing with a strong, unerring arm. He’d also made a dazzling century earlier in the day, taking the number of centuries he has hit in international cricket to 99—48 in One-day Internationals and 51 in Tests.
As he nears the astounding mark of 100, it’s an irony that the man who stands for every desirable value—perseverance, commitment to one’s job, grace under pressure, humility despite being lionised—isn’t eligible for the highest civilian award of the land, the Bharat Ratna. “He’s not taken one step wrong,” film-maker Shyam Benegal told Outlook. “He is disciplined, clean and embodies all the values that we tell youngsters they should inculcate.”
You are likely to wonder why Outlook has decided to spark off the ‘Bharat Ratna for Tendulkar’ campaign months before such awards are announced. Well, the reason is that the Indian state needs time to change the guidelines which state that the Bharat Ratna can be given only “for exceptional service towards advancement of Art, Literature and Science, and in recognition of Public Service of the highest order”. Sport is excluded. And therefore, Tendulkar too. Athletics legend Milkha Singh told Outlook, “Sportspersons should get the Bharat Ratna before politicians, for the former unite people and make them proud.”
Politicians have had a strong grip on the Bharat Ratna—they constitute 24 of the 41 winners, six of them prime ministers. Perhaps it’s time to bring sports into the ambit of the Bharat Ratna. And though it can be argued that hitting a cricket ball has no intrinsic value, Tendulkar, in a way, has done great service to India, giving the greatest joy to the greatest number. “The divide between what’s high and popular in art or culture isn’t valid anymore,” says social commentator Santosh Desai. “Why is sport acceptable for Padma Vibhushan but not for Bharat Ratna? This is the kind of thinking you had in the 1950s, when the Keskar regime (B.V. Keskar, minister for information and broadcasting) didn’t allow Hindi films songs on All India Radio.”
But change has been afoot. In 1992, 38 years after the first award, someone from the world of arts bagged it—Satyajit Ray. In 1988, actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran was awarded, but was cited for “public affairs”. In the 1990s, when 17 of the 41 awards were given away, the arts gained, with Bharat Ratnas announced for M.S. Subbulakshmi and Ravi Shankar. Curiously, in the 2000s, only arts have been rewarded, through Lata Mangeshkar, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Bhimsen Joshi.
Shashi Tharoor, politician and cricket-lover, says Tendulkar should be awarded the Bharat Ratna the moment he retires. “It’s India’s highest possible honour and is reserved for those who climb the pinnacle of achievement in their fields—whether politics (Jawaharlal Nehru) or economics (Amartya Sen),” Tharoor told Outlook. “Tendulkar’s accomplishments are of the very highest order and to quibble about whether cricket is an ‘art’ or a ‘science’ is as pointless as debating if Sen’s economics qualifies under the original terms of the award. Giving the Bharat Ratna is simply India’s way of saying, ‘We can’t imagine anyone better in your chosen field. Thank you for the joy and pride you have given us all’.”
Among the reasons cited to not give Tendulkar the award is his relative youth. Says former Indian captain M.A.K. Pataudi, “Most sportspersons retire in their youth. Their contribution to society subsequent to their sporting careers has to be evaluated. This applies to Tendulkar too.” His daughter, actress Soha Ali Khan, agrees, “They should wait until he retires and then evaluate. Only then he may be given it.”
It’s said the award is given late in people’s lives so that the character of recipients can be judged. Says historian Ramachandra Guha, “My wife, who is profoundly indifferent to cricket, thinks Sachin Tendulkar should get the Bharat Ratna because of the pure pleasure he has given millions of fans. Sportswriter Suresh Menon thinks that Vishy Anand deserves the Bharat Ratna as much as Sachin because chess, unlike cricket, is a properly world sport. I agree with both Menon and my wife, with this caveat—the award shouldn’t be given to either while they are active players, in fact it should be delayed till 10 or 15 years after their retirement, when we have a better chance to assess their careers, and equally importantly, their characters.”
Sachin, a quadtych of completion A man who’s “not taken one step wrong”.
It’s ridiculous to think Tendulkar’s 100 international centuries will diminish in value in an assessment 15 years hence. And character, well, is a controversial area to stray into. With what certitude can we say that Indira Gandhi, a recipient, possessed a strong moral character? Nor has the Bharat Ratna always been accorded to luminaries late in their lives. Take Amartya Sen, who obviously had a long career still ahead of him when he was decorated in 1999. Perhaps the state was spurred by a bigger award, the Nobel Prize, being given to him in 1998.
But there remains a question mark over whether service through sport is any service at all. Says Michael Ferreira, former world billiards champion, “I don’t think it should be given to sportspersons. Even Lata Mangeshkar and Bhimsen Joshi should not have been awarded. This award should be for a person who’s galvanised millions of people to do something.” Social theorist Ashis Nandy cites three reasons why the award should not be bestowed on Tendulkar or his ilk: “First, it will only endorse the capacity of the Indian state, the politicians and the bureaucrats, to judge sportspersons when they have already shown that they cannot judge even public service, arts, humanities and science. Second, it will further politicise Indian sports and turn the sportspersons towards greater sycophancy and kowtowing. And third, it will legitimise state awards in a society that has already used the awards to hierarchise scholars, writers, journalists, artists and performers.” Nandy feels all state honours should be abolished. “Neither the Indian state nor the Indian middle class—nor for that matter the Indian media—knows how to handle them.”
Yet, awards won’t go away, for they are grounded in populism. For Tendulkar to be the Bharat Ratna—which he already is, says Lata Mangeshkar—sport or cricket, part of the consciousness of a very large number of Indians, must enter the consciousness of the awards committee too. It’s happened with the arts over the last 20 years, perhaps it’ll happen with sport too.
By Rohit Mahajan in Nagpur and Delhi with inputs from Lata Khubchandani
Among India’s Greatest (Mar 28) was a good read. Your optimism on Tendulkar getting the Bharat Ratna is nice, the man has indeed roused millions of his countrymen and at a time when we were starved of sports heroes. (Thomas) Carlyle would have changed the parameters of hero worship if he had seen the little master’s achievements.
K.R. Deshpande, Bangalore
His 50th Test hundred came in late 2010, it would be a good time now to give him the award. That said, he can’t perform every time for India. The young ’uns need to step up.
G.S. Rao, Bangalore
Ferreira is right, the Bharat Ratna must be given to exceptional people who have taken India forward at great sacrifice to themselves. In sports itself, what about V. Anand, Paes-Bhupathi who have reached the pinnacle in their respective disciplines—and unlike cricket, these are truly global sports. Why doesn’t the media take up their case?
V. Venkataramana, Tuticorin
V. Anand is the world champion in a popular global sport. He too should get the award.
Shaimesh A.K., Udhampur
Sachin’s off-field behaviour has not been impeccable—the shameless seeking of a tax waiver for his imported cars and lifting of fsi caps for his gym being examples. He’s certainly no model citizen.
The question is not if but when he will be awarded. The Congress will not want to give it to Sachin now because he is still younger than Rajiv Gandhi (when he was awarded the Bharat Ratna). They wouldn’t want to take away from the late PM’s only achievement.
Has anyone affected the psyche of the country more than Sachin in the last two decades? Is there really a debate?
Nisheeth Kumar, Mumbai
When there is a Khel Ratna, why duplicate a prize for sportspersons through a Bharat Ratna? Mass adulation cannot be the critical criterion in this matter. But Indians are a highly sentimental lot. So if mgr could be awarded a Bharat Ratna, why not Sachin and everyone else!
C.K. Jaidev, Dubai
This Bharat Ratna will open a Pandora’s box. For all his record-breaking feats, Sachin must bide his time.
Sunil Kumar, Delhi
Sachin hasn’t even won us a World Cup (yet). But this is the age of media manipulation. I’m sure advertisers and sponsoring companies will use the media to manufacture opinion. People who sell products and are “cashable” will easily win awards.
Bharat Paul, San Francisco
Sachin will get a Bharat Ratna, but only after an assessment is made post-retirement on whether he tilts towards the Congress or the ncp. It certainly won’t be for his contribution to cricket.
S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
Outlook did well to look up the guidelines for the Bharat Ratna, but your research is incomplete. J.R.D. Tata was the recipient in ’92 for his contribution to ‘trade and industry’. This terminology is used in the GoI website, just after the mention about “advancement of Art, Literature and Science”. This suggests to me that there is no need for the government to change the guidelines to give it to him.
Shridhar Jaju, Pune
Forget Tendulkar, it’s Sehwag who should get a Bharat Ratna for history will one day record him as the batsman who transformed the very art of odi batting. When Sachin walks in to bat, people stand up and clap, but when Sehwag faces the ball there is silence in the crowd—the same kind of silence that engulfs the audience when a magician walks up to the stage.
Should we give the nation’s highest honour to Sachin Tendulkar just to satiate cricket fans (Among The Greatest, Mar 28)? He has already received the highest honour the country reserves for sports: the Arjuna award. For outstanding contribution, he might be given the award twice...like the bravery awards in the armed forces. Finally, if an exception is made for Sachin, let all fields of endeavour be included.
Lt Col S.P. Karir (retd), on e-mail
True, Sachin has served the nation possibly more than any other cricketer, served as an idol for so many people, and been a brilliant brand ambassador for the game in particular and sport in general. Still, the Bharat Ratna should not be conferred on him right now. As the highest civilian award, it should ideally go to people whose life’s work has favourably touched and changed thousands of lives. Nonpareil as he is in cricket, does Sachin exactly belong to that elevated rank? Again, if he’s is chosen, why not Kapil Dev and Gavaskar? They had as much influence over Indian cricket.
Mrinal Saikia, Guwahati
Apropos the article ‘Among India’s Greatest? ‘
A person who is appearing in TV commercials or any other scale of advertisement should never be given Bharat Ratna. It would be a shameful cheap and ridiculous for our country when the ‘Ratna’ awardees will appear on the TV screen saying which heir oil is better or which lubricant is good for your car etc etc. In India the public become so much overenthusiastic that they ignore the sense of proportion. Let him retire, and as Mr.Guha said, let us assess his career and character. Also what he does with millions and millions of rupees he has earned. (Till now he is very much tight fisted). Examine whether he is worthy of becoming the icon of the next generation or not.
if there is any NOBLE PRIZE for sportpersons.....it should be conferred to SACHIN.....coz he deserves it.......BHARAT RATNA stands for JEWELS OF INDIA........i would like to ask d critics here..... IS SACHIN NOT A JEWEL ? well i and almost 75% of indians consider him a KOHINOOR......THE KING OF ALL JEWELS...
Bharat Ratna is a third class award because politicians typically give these awards mostly to themselves, if not to their favored people from various fields. Even Rajeev Gandhi was a Bharat Ratna!
If you read the list of Bharat Ratna awardees you wonder whether many of them did actually deserve it. And when you compare the achievements of several such awardees with Sachin's achievement in his chosen field, he actully shines lot brighter. If the most popular sport of the nation is ridiculed for not being international enough then why do we choose doyens of Indian classical music and Bollywood music as recipients of Bharat Ratna? Is Bismillah Khan's music international enough?
If galvanising people of India is a yardstick then cricket is the only unifying force across the length and breadth of India irrespective of caste, creed, religion or class. Cricket grounds are the only venues anywhere in India where thousands of ordinary Indians proudly display their patrotic passion and, their tricolor willingly shouting ,"Bharat Mata ki jai". Any other display of tricolor in India is limited only to the government office buildings and Neta-babu's vehicles. Our politicians are the worst criminals in perpetuating a divisive agenda.
Forget all the hoopla on the world cup and the glory of the indian team. Discount what so called has beens like ganguly,shastri and gavasker etc have to say(they are paid to do so).The only way india can win the cup,is if a short 5ft+ , past 30 guy,about whom Lee,Tait had nightmares last night, forgets caution and the need to occupy the crease, and does what he is best at--belting the ball, does India stand a chance. No i am not talking of Tendulkar,who is at best one of the worlds greatest batsmen. I am talking of a guy who everytime he faces the ball makes my hair on my arms stand on edge--someone who history will one day record as the greatest batsman to have transformind the very art of batting--Sehwag! The key to the cup is embedded somewhere in his bat! rest will at best lend a helping hand in a supporting role!If tendulkar is to be given an award the Sehwag deserves something higher ---reason when he walks in to bat people stand up and clap, but when sehwag faces the ball there is silence in the crowd --the same kind of silence that engulfs the audience when a magician walks up to the stage.
In other societies sports is being used to lure the population away from crime. Sachin has been a mentor to millions of kids form rural and semi-urban India, both with his game and his character. And here we have Michael Ferreira claiming that the BR should go only to persons who have galvanised millions and not to Sachin.
All this talk of cricket not being a world sport, is crap. Cricket is the number one sport in India and that is the only thing that has to be considered. His achievements are for what his society holds dear and that is clearly very important. How could somebody in their right senses compare the achievements of a tennis doubles pair to that of Sachin?
Of course, Vishy is another candidate for Bharat Ratna. He and chess in India are synonymous. He has galavanised a whole new generation to take up chess in India.
Why not award a person for his moral values and character too? Politicians of new age India shall fall short on this count, but giving an award to Sachin highlighting his character and moral values is very much the need of the day for the Indian society which is getting morally bankrupt.
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