Bharat rat(na) race

By Dr N. Janardhan

A few weeks ago Sachin Tendulkar ‘controversially’ became the youngest and first sportsperson to be formally decorated with India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna.

Since 1954, the official criterion for conferring this coveted award was the “highest degree of national service”, which included artistic, literary, and scientific achievements, as well as “recognition of public service of the highest order”. In December 2011, the Indian government modified the criteria — “for performance of highest order in any field of human endeavour” to include sportspersons.

While the inclusion of sportspersons is undisputable, just as the fact that Tendulkar has been and will remain one the world’s greatest cricketers, the following are some reasons arguing why another sporting hero should have made the cut.

First, while Tendulkar meets the criteria of ‘performance of highest order in any field of human endeavour’, he falls short of ‘public service of the highest order’. According to facts available in the public domain, Tendulkar earned about $200 million during his 24-year career and would, perhaps, continue to earn phenomenal incomes in his ‘retired’ life as ‘Brand Tendulkar’ is reinvented and kept alive.

By awarding it to the richest sportsperson in India and the richest cricketer in the world, the Bharat Ratna is now a truly ‘rich’ award. And Tendulkar may be the first recipient to endorse commercial products and profit from it.

Second, Tendulkar’s choice for the award has to be juxtaposed against other sporting greats who have been ignored. In the hype around Tendulkar, we have been forced to ‘miss the wood for the trees’. The name that heads such a list is hockey wizard Dhyan Chand, who also served the country as an army soldier and played the game without any commercial strings attached.  The sports ministry acknowledged that its recommendation for the three-time Olympic gold medallist in the 1920s and 1930s, who passed away in 1979, was overruled by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

In a decision that smacks of populist politics, the Congress party first claimed that Sonia Gandhi was instrumental in getting Tendulkar nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian parliament, and then stressed that the PMO forwarded its recommendation to the president after Rahul Gandhi returned from Tendulkar’s last Test in Mumbai.

According to Chand’s son Ashok Kumar, also an Olympian hockey player of repute: “There have been dharnas, morchas and even a hunger strike recently to urge the government to consider Babuji (Chand) for the Bharat Ratna, but it has evoked no response from the authorities.”

At one point, the government even argued that it would have been improper to honour Chand more than three decades after his death. It is now likely that neither Chand nor any other sportsperson would get this award in the short and medium term. It is also worth noting that during an era when cricket is moving from one match-fixing and corruption scandal to another, rewarding a cricketer is akin to rewarding a sullied sport that is in desperate need of mending. While cricket is already a hugely popular sport in India, bestowing the Bharat Ratna to Chand would have certainly helped promote the ‘clean’ and ‘struggling’ game of hockey among the youth.

Third, it could also be argued that very little of Tendulkar’s career developed by fighting against the odds. The ‘little master’ had many things going in his favour — hailing from a middle-class family that did not have to excessively worry about food and funds; cricket becoming a profitable profession; custom-made bats and pads; doctors flying overnight to wherever he was to treat his niggles; the Board of Control for Cricket in India footing his medical bills; and corporate houses lining up to sign him on.

Compare this with what Chand, badminton’s All England Championship winner Prakash Padukone, Asian Games gold medal-winning athlete P.T. Usha, world chess champion Vishwanathan Anand and world billiards champ Geet Sethi, among others, had to endure to play and excel in their respective sports.

The sports they pursued were neither appealing among the masses nor commercially lucrative. Yet they became champions in their own right, brought accolades to India and popularised their sporting disciplines to make them what they are in modern times. Chand, in particular, died in straitened circumstances after suffering from cancer. A Bharat Ratna to him would have been justice delivered, even though delayed.

By contrast, rather than motivating the current generation of cricketers and Indians in general, Tendulkar himself was a product of the motivation that enthused Indian cricket fans after the World Cup victory in 1983. The credit for this turning point in Indian cricket should go to the likes of Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar.

Finally, Tendulkar is no doubt great, but his ‘greatness’ would have been magnified had he turned down the award and suggested it go to Dhyan Chand instead.

—Based in the UAE, Dr N. Janardhan is an honorary fellow of the University of Exeter. Courtesy: Khaleej Times