There is now a loud chorus demanding Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, for former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and musician-singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. While it’s a matter of debate who deserves the Bharat Ratna, what seems to work in favour of both Rao and SPB is something else: caste. Both were Brahmins.
It tells us something that the list of recipients of the State award, so far given to 46 Indians and two foreigners (Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Nelson Mandela), largely includes Dwijas, or more specifically, Brahmins. No Bharat Ratna has yet emerged from the groups engaged in foundational tasks such as farming and labour, which made this productive nation what it is today.
Earlier, the Telugu Desam Party had tried to raise the pitch for Bharat Ratna for TDP founder and former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao, a Kamma leader, but the demand never could gather pace because he didn’t get the kind of attention from the national media that his contemporaries did.
Of the 46 Indian Bharat Ratnas, 29 are Brahmins, five Muslims, four Kayasthas, three Shudras, and one from each of the following groups — Dalit, Bania, Khatri, Parsi, Christian. The caste of Bhupen Hazarika, the last recipient, could not be located from any source. Of the four women Bharat Ratna awardees, three are Brahmins and one Christian. It goes to suggest that without Brahmins, who comprise about 4 per cent of India’s population, perhaps this country would not have had enough people worthy to be awarded the Bharat Ratna.
Does the list of recipients tell us that the Indian State has practised an unbiased, honest, caste-free selection of Ratnas from the dust of India? The dust of the nation mainly consists of Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis. With more than half of Indian population comprising Shudras, only three could be found worthy of Bharat Ratna in more than 66 years of the award’s history; of the 18 per cent Dalits, just one — Dr B.R. Ambedkar; and of the 7 per cent Adivasis, none.
Vallabhai Patel was recognised as a Ratna only in 1991, along with Rajiv Gandhi. Before Patel, only two Shudras were awarded Bharat Ratna — K. Kamaraj and M.G. Ramachandran (both former chief ministers of Tamil Nadu).
The Bharat Ratna started being awarded in 1954. That year, three living Brahmins — C. Rajagopalachari, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and C.V. Raman — were recognised. All three of them, in their sixties, were still relatively young. And hailed from Tamil Nadu.
The federal government never established any principles based on which a Bharat Ratna could be selected or recognised from across the country. Some were given the award when they were in a position to influence the selection. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi got the Bharat Ratna when they were prime ministers. Some were awarded a long time after their death (Ambedkar in 1990 and Patel in 1991).
A semi-literate K. Kamaraj, from the Nadar community; C.V. Raman, a physicist; Amartya Sen with a PhD from a foreign university; and non-resident Indians — Bharat Ratna winners’ list looks like the power in Delhi adopting a pick and choose method. Literary talents are not so significant. Many Bharat Ratna awardees have not written anything in their life. Who is selected for Bharat Ratna depends on the power in Delhi and not in the states. One could be a chief minister of a state for 34 years (Jyoti Basu) and not be considered as a Ratna of Bharat. And so, what makes someone eligible for India’s highest civilian award remains unknown
At all times, though, it has been clear that the awardees are selected by the ruling political class depending on the person’s caste and on the political benefits the selection could reap for the government. Patel was recognised as a Bharat Ratna 41 years after his death; Ambedkar was recognised 34 four years after his death, when the government of V.P. Singh — one that believed in social justice — came to power in Delhi, in 1990. Chaudhary Charan Singh, an Uttar Pradesh Jat, despite all his peasant leadership and former prime minister status, could never get it.
In fact, both Ambedkar and Nelson Mandela, a leader of global stature who fought against apartheid and the liberation of Blacks in South Africa, were given the Bharat Ratna by the V.P. Singh government. But in all likelihood, V.P. Singh himself may never get the award, at least not until a pro-Mandal prime minister takes charge at the Centre. And this does not seem to be happening in the near future.
RSS-BJP exploiting flaws
Successive Congress governments played Brahminical politics in the name of secularism, pluralism and diversity. Now, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are brazenly playing casteist politics because they believe in the varna dharma (hierarchical system) and parampara (tradition). Just what happened to social diversity and plurality that is often talked about in the context of Hindutva communalism?
If we look at the list of Bharat Ratna awardees after the RSS-mentored BJP gained control of the federal government in 1999 and then again since 2014, except Bismillah Khan and Bhupen Hazarika (both musicians), Bharat discovered only Brahmin Ratnas — from Gopinath Bordoloi to Nanaji Deshmukh. The shift from the Congress party’s ‘secular’ Brahmin Ratna picks to the RSS/BJP’s Hindutva Brahmin Ratna picks has some ideological dimension. Caste and ideology both are convergent and contending factors when it comes to picking Bharat Ratna. What remains constant is the Brahmin Ratna.
So far, no Communist, whether Brahmin, Muslim or Christian, has been awarded the Bharat Ratna. During the entire Congress rule, Indian Communists held a strong secular umbrella over the party’s head but none from that camp was considered worthy of the prize. Even Ram Manohar Lohia, despite being a prominent national leader hailing from the powerful Bania community, was never considered for the award.
Of course, we cannot imagine this will change in the RSS-BJP era.
The long list of denials
Brahminisation of the Bharat Ratna started with the first selection in 1954. If modern Indians who contributed to the Indian Renaissance and socio-educational reform of the country were considered eligible, then Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotirao Phule and Narayana Guru should have got the award. M.K. Gandhi’s name was avoided after it was held that he was above the award. To this day, no Adivasi has received the Bharat Ratna. Why? We do not know. Birsa Munda and Komaram Bheem were never seen as worthies, just as no OBC has so far been. BP Mandal, who wrote the Mandal Commission Report, is never seen as a Bharatiya worthy of the award.
The Congress alienated the most powerful Shudras, who subsequently launched regional parties and became anti-Congress in so many ways. The list of Bharat Ratna is one indicator of their alienation. The RSS-BJP today are doing the same thing and justifying it using the same logic.
This brings us to the argument of the Dwija intellectuals that caste should not be the basis for any selection in a democratic, secular republic. But the Dwijas never saw caste when 29 Brahmins, four Kayasthas, one Bania and one Khatri got the Bharat Ratna award. Most names are picked from the freedom movement, as if it was a Dwija movement.
No nation can progress with this kind of high-end casteism. The Bharat Ratna awardee list does not show any social inclusiveness or diversity at all. The Congress’ inclusiveness was confined to only accommodating Muslims. The party grossly neglected Shudras/OBCs/Dalits and Adivasis.
The tendency to promote high-class politicians but not regional and local forces created a huge caste and community gap. The second channel of promotion in the awarding of Bharat Ratna — cinema and music — are also Dwija-dominated areas. But today, caste consciousness has reached a different level in India. Everything is being watched. New interpretations of caste are underway not only in India but globally too. Will things change in the future? We can only hope.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. Views are personal.