A Stain on the Jewel? Nehru and the Bharat Ratna

  • Posted on: 16 April 2017
  • By: Ayush

In the summer of 1955, India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru flew over to the Soviet Union for a state visit. The trip, extending to almost a month, still remains the longest visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the region— which consists of Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia.[1] The trip was a landmark visit because it escalated the Soviet-Indian friendship to a new high in that era of cold war-ridden bifurcation of the world order. Reminiscing of this visit in his later years, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev recollected that “…Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Moscow in June 1955 was an unexpected stimulus for me in this respect [understanding democracy]. … This amazing man, his noble bearing, keen eyes and warm and disarming smile, made a deep impression on me.”[2] Jawaharlal’s visit to USSR—then one of the two competing powers of the cold war—was an important step for India as cozying up to the Soviets maintained a subtle balance of power in the subcontinent, for the Americans had cozied up to the Pakistanis. So intimate was the visit, that while riding through Moscow, when people threw roses at Nehru and the thorns pricked his fingers, he remarked—sarcastically—“Look, I’ve shed my blood for Russia.”

The grand welcome of the ‘Light of Asia’ wasn’t unknown to the people back in the country. In a banquet thrown for Jawaharlal a month later, President Rajendra Prasad acknowledged this reception: “…We have followed with avidity and eagerness the news of the splendid welcome which has been extended to out Prime Minister by the government and people of the various countries which he visited. It shows, as our Prime Minister had said, the high esteem in which our country is held by the great countries of the world.”[3]

The banquet, however, had a greater purpose. It was hosted to not just to welcome the Prime Minister from his foreign mission, but to nominate him for the highest civilian award of the land: The Bharat Ratna. M.J. Akbar writes that the grandiosity of the state banquet held in Nehru’s honor was such that it seemed “almost as if he [Nehru] was a visiting dignitary himself.”[4] He continues: “Whether it was Avadi, Bandung or Moscow, at Beijing, Cairo or London, 1955 was Jawaharlal Nehru’s and India’s year.”

The ceremony took place at Rashtrapati Bhawan on the 9th of September in the same year. Two other distinguished Indians were bestowed upon with the Bharat Ratna, philosopher Bhagwan Das and renowned engineer M. Visvesvaraya. Another biographer, Shashi Tharoor, writes, “The ‘Light of Asia’ was now the ‘Jewel of India’. There is a photograph of him [Nehru] at the ceremony, in his white achkan with a red rose in the buttonhole, almost boyishly slim, smiling bashfully as the President and an aide-de-camp pin the decoration on him. He was sixty-six and in his pomp, a colossus on the national and international stages.”[5]

In recent years, this ceremony has become a controversy of sorts. Many have pointed out that since a Bharat Ratna awardee is nominated by the Prime Minister and passed on to the President, it would then follow that Nehru nominated himself for the award. Though many Nehru supporters have tried to grapple with this conclusion by stating in detail the great achievements and contributions of the man, many have rightly retorted that despite of all his greatness, conferring the highest civilian honor on oneself has nevertheless an air of cockiness and vulgar immodesty—especially in the case of our first Prime Minister, who was noted for the opposite. As Kuldeep Kumar notes, “There is no need to say that as one of the foremost leaders of the freedom struggle, Nehru was bigger than the biggest award. If anybody was the Jewel of India, it was indeed he. But, it is also true that it was highly inappropriate for him to recommend his own name for an award.”[6]

With the revival of Hindu Nationalism and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in our times, this little allegation of immodesty has snowballed into an avalanche, where this great secular foe of the Hindu right is attacked for all that is personal, and little that is impersonal. With all the outright false and baseless claims that are levelled on the man by this mindless collective—from being ‘born a Muslim’ in a whorehouse to dying of AIDS—this claim however can be counted as being the one that at least has a veneer of plausibility. But again, like most of the claims emerging from the baser elements of the Hindu Nationalists, it does not stand up to the scrutiny of historical facts.

The fact is that no records—letters, telegrams—between the former President and Prime Minister exist that hint at a suggestion made by the latter to the former regarding self-nomination for the award. Moreover, the decision to confer this honor on him seems to have been made during Nehru’s Soviet sojourn in June-July 1955. However, the arithmetic of the journey and the return can still leave room for doubt for anyone with a skeptical nerve. Continuing his speech at the banquet, President Rajendra Prasad then goes on to clear up the here’s-how of announcing the nomination for the Prime Minister: "In doing so… for once, I may be said to be acting unconstitutionally, as I am taking this step on my own initiative and without any recommendation or advice from my Prime Minister; but I know that my action will be endorsed most enthusiastically..." [7]

So there we have it: Jawaharlal didn’t nominate himself for the Bharat Ratna, it was President Rajendra Prasad (ironically, deemed to be a critic of Nehru) who took an unconstitutional initiative to confer the award on the Prime Minister. That he expected his decision would be “endorsed most enthusiastically” was a counter-weight to the unconstitutional act and speaks volumes about Nehru’s standing even among his critics at the time.

Even at the ceremony itself, the speaker did not read out the citation that is supposed to announce the awardee’s contributions. The official book of citation does the same, containing only the name of the awardee.[8] The message was clear: to mention the services rendered by the ‘gentle colossus’ himself would be an embarrassment. At that time in history, Nehru was deemed to be above politics and above the little specifications of the great services he had rendered to the nation. However, now, when the present occupant in the Prime Minister’s Office pretends to do the same, Jawaharlal, sadly, is dragged amidst the political propaganda and character assassination of the vilest kind.

Ayush Tiwari

12th May 2016                                                                                                                     


[1] Suhasini Haider, “Nehru’s Soviet Sojourn”, The Hindu, July 11, 2015.

[2] As quoted in Ramachandra Guha, “The Commanding Heights of Nehru”, The Hindu, November 13, 2012.

[3] Dr. Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Selected Documents: Volume Seventeen, Valmiki Choudhary (ed.), Allied Publishers Limited, pp.455.

[4] Akbar, M.J. (2002): Nehru: The Making of India, Lotus Collection, New Delhi, pp. 497.  

[5] Tharoor, Shashi (2007): Nehru: The Invention of India, Penguin, New York, pp. 192.

[6] Kuldeep Kumar, “No Gems in Literature”, Economic Times, Feb 19, 2011.

[7] Dr. Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Selected Documents: Volume Seventeen, Valmiki Choudhary (ed.), Allied Publishers Limited, pp.456.

[8] Rasheed Kidwai, “Flashback to time of Nehru Ratna’, Telegraph India, December 25, 2014.

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