Former President Pranab Mukherjee, BJP leader Nanaji Deshmukh and singer Bhupen Hazarika have received the Bharat Ratna.
New Delhi: India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, will be conferred after a gap of four years to former President Pranab Mukherjee, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nanaji Deshmukh and singer Bhupen Hazarika.
As is customary, a list of 113 Padma awardees was released by the government on the eve of Republic Day, with the civilian awards meant to “recognise achievements in all fields of activities or disciplines where an element of public service is involved”.
Since the award was instituted in 1954, 45 individuals have received the Bharat Ratna, the last being former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Banaras Hindu University founder Madan Mohan Malviya in 2015.
The Prime Minister recommends the names of Bharat Ratna winners to the President, with a maximum of three awards allowed any year.
Among the three other civilian honours, the Padma Vibhushan has been bestowed on 307 individuals, while 1,254 have been awarded the Padma Bhushan, and 2,913 the Padma Shri.
The Padma Awards Committee, constituted by the Prime Minister every year, receives nominations for the awards. The committee is headed by the Cabinet Secretary and includes the Home Secretary, Secretary to the President, and four to six other eminent members. Its recommendations are submitted to the Prime Minister and the President of India for approval. The awards are usually presented by the President in March/April every year.
ThePrint takes a look at the significant names on the list this year
- Pranab Mukherjee: In a political career spanning over five decades, Mukherjee donned several hats — holding different ministerial portfolios like defence, finance, and external affairs in Congress governments at the Centre before becoming the President of India in 2012. A critic of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) throughout his career, he found himself at the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from his former Congress colleagues and Left-leaning intelligentsia when he agreed to address an event at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur as a chief guest on 7 June 2018. In his speech, Mukherjee chose to present the ideas of Nehruvian nationalism and pluralism, which was seen as a clear indictment of the Sangh’s ideology, which is defined by Hindu nationalism.
- Bhupen Hazarika: When Bhupen Hazarika passed away in 2011, there was a demand put forth in the Assam Assembly that the legendary Assamese singer, poet, lyricist and filmmaker be granted the Bharat Ratna. Hazarika had joined the BJP in 2004, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, and served as an Independent member of the Assam Assembly between 1967 and 1972. The award is particularly significant given the BJP’s push to consolidate its presence in the northeastern states. It comes amid controversies in the northeast over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill. One of his most famous renditions, Ganga Behti Ho Kyun, is an indictment of fractured principles in modern-day India. In the late 1990s, he came together with popular singers like Shaan and Kavita Krishnamurthy for a cover of the song, set to a heart-wrenching music video.
- Nanaji Deshmukh: For Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) had been home since the age of 12, when he joined the organisation in 1928. When the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 as the RSS’ political arm, Deshmukh joined as a member. Deshmukh went on to become a senior leader in the Janata Party and the BJP. For his distinguished work in the fields of education, and rural health and self-reliance, Deshmukh was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan in 1999 — the same year he was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha. The senior leader passed away on 7 February 2010 at the age of 93.
- S. Nambi Narayanan: Former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist S. Nambi Narayanan, who headed ISRO’s cryogenics department in the 1990s, spent nearly two decades in a legal battle to restore his reputation. Narayanan, considered one of the foremost minds in science in the country, was implicated as a spy in 1994 and booked under the Official Secrets Act, accused of selling sensitive technology to enemy countries. After Narayanan was acquitted in 1998, he took on the government for ruining his distinguished career as a scientist. In September 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the Kerala government to pay him Rs 50 lakh as compensation.
- Kuldip Nayar: Veteran journalist and political commentator Kuldip Nayar is remembered for his fierce dedication to journalistic integrity, his fight for human rights and freedom of the press, and his unflinching resistance to the Indira Gandhi administration during the Emergency. Nayar authored 15 books, served as India’s High Commissioner to the UK in 1990, and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1997. Through his work and activism, he advocated for the mending of India-Pakistan relations, leading marches to Wagah every Independence Day to light candles at the border. He died on 23 August 2018. In 2015, he was given the Ramnath Goenka Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to journalism.
- V.K. Shunglu: The former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India is the man behind the 2010 audit report on the Commonwealth Games scam, which indicted the then Delhi Government for severe contractual irregularities and overspending. It was based on what the former CAG’s team found that the CBI was able to register an FIR against CWG organising committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi, his close aide Lalit Bhanot and treasurer A.K. Mattoo on 23 August 2012.
- Mahashay Dharam Pal Gulati: Anyone who has seen the iconic MDH Masala ads recognises the trademark moustache and red turban of the spice major’s CEO, Mahashay Dharam Pal Gulati. What started as a small spice shop in the city of Sialkot, Pakistan, before Partition grew into one of India’s leading spice empires, expanding to over 15 factories. In 2017, 94-year old Gulati, a high-school dropout, was the highest paid fast-moving consumer good (FMCG) CEO in the country, taking home more than Rs 21 crore as salary in 2016. His company, Mahashian Di Hatti (MDH) achieved a 15 per cent increase in revenues to Rs 924 crore that year, with a 24 per cent rise in net profit at Rs 213 crore. Gulati told The Economic Times that “nearly 90 per cent of my salary goes to charity in my personal capacity”. He is a high school dropout.
- H.S. Phoolka: The senior lawyer, 73, has over the past 34 years spearheaded the fight to bring justice to the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He served as an Aam Aadmi Party MLA in Punjab but stepped down as leader of opposition to continue the legal battle, playing a pivotal role in sending Congress leader Sajjan Kumar to jail for life for his role in the riots. Phoolka quit the AAP on 3 January this year.
- Karingamannu Kuzhiyil Muhammed: The current project archaeological director in the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Muhammed has also served as regional director (north) of the Archaeological Survey of India. In his autobiography Njan Enna Bharatiyan (I an Indian) in Malayalam, the former archaeologist argued that Left historians like Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar were responsible for stalling an amicable settlement in the Ayodhya Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. He has also been quoted as saying that the relics found by the ASI during excavations proved the existence of a temple at the masjid grounds, and that “Muslims should hand over the land to Hindus since it belongs to them”.
- Subrahmanyam Jaishankar: India’s former foreign secretary has been awarded the Padma Shri for his illustrious career as a diplomat. The retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer of the 1977 batch has served as the Indian Ambassador to the United States, China and the Czech Republic, as well as the High Commissioner to Singapore. The longest serving foreign secretary in four decades, Jaishankar was appointed by the Tata Group as president, global corporate affairs, last April after the government accepted his request to waive the one-year post-retirement cooling-off period for civil servants looking to join the private sector. Jaishankar’s tenure as foreign secretary was particularly notable for his vital role in facilitating constructive dialogue between India and China during and after the Doklam standoff. He also reportedly enjoyed PM Modi’s trust, acting as his unofficial foreign policy adviser, and accompanying the PM on foreign trips that secretaries weren’t usually part of.
This is an updated version of the report.
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