Did The Best Men Win?
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Did The Best Men Win?

What is the level of scrutiny undertaken before choosing recipients of the Bharat Ratna?

By Dr. Ashoka Prasad

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I have been a diehard cricket fan for almost six decades and Sachin Tendulkar has enthralled me for nearly quarter of a century now. Like many others, I was glued to the television on Sunday and watched Sachin’s speech. He richly deserves the highest accolades – and if those accolades are in the form of Bharat Ratna, so be it. Yet, I have for long been an opponent of state-sponsored honours as many factors cast legitimate doubts over calibration of merit being the only variable to determine who deserves this honour. My dismay is over the fact that no major media house seems to have regarded this as an important enough matter to merit discourse.

My first unease surfaced even before the announcement of the Bharat Ratna awardees. Rajiv Shukla announced on two channels that he had the personal authority extended to him by Sonia Gandhi to encourage Sachin to join the Congress. The byte may have been pre-recorded but it was simply tasteless to inject politics on the day we hoped to see the whole country united by their regard for one individual who was capable of uniting the country. After the awards were announced for Sachin and CNR Rao, it was Shukla again who announced that he wanted everyone to appreciate how the UPA government had respected the public sentiments in their choice of Sachin.

In case Shukla has forgotten, it is the President who decides upon the award and not the Cabinet – and the President is expected to be non-partisan. There have been occasions when Presidents have rejected Cabinet suggestions and at least in Bhagwan Das’ and Rajendra Prasad’s cases the respective Presidents made the decision themselves without any input from the Cabinet. Shukla again seems to have conveniently forgotten that at least half a dozen Opposition leaders had already written to the President supporting Sachin’s nomination. To claim credit in such a partisan manner was nothing short of ridiculous.

Several Hindi news channels followed this up by reporting that Rahul Gandhi had a hand in Sachin being awarded. Even rediff.com news column supported this hypothesis and thus far there have been no retractions. Instead, a few Congress politicians have spread the story that it was Rahul who “ordered” the top Congress brass which resulted in the Prime Minister sending the two nominations at 1 pm to the President who immediately approved them.

That scenario raises some very serious questions. Is our top national civilian honour subject to the whims of an extra-constitutional authority which at this time at least holds no governmental position? And does he have the acumen necessary to make nominations to the government who would feel obligated to forward that immediately to the President without any meaningful scrutiny? According to me, that only serves to demean the award as it suggests that the award can be manipulated. Very few would begrudge Sachin the award -and it is entirely possible that this story may just be a canard, but unless it is countered effectively many would entertain doubts. Nothing concerning the government moves with such speed in India, usually. Could it be that even in the case of a person like Sachin who enjoys universal adulation, the government was not averse to politicising?

As for the other recipient, CNR Rao has undoubtedly done some noteworthy work on solid state chemistry but many scientists I spoke to had concerns on two counts. The first was that if the honour was to be conferred on a scientist( CV Raman is the only scientist to figure in the list of Bharat Ranta holders – unless Kalam is included),there are several scientists in India who have deserved and deserve the award far more than Rao by virtue of their commitment to science. Satyendra Bose (after whom the boson particles are named) or Meghnad Saha never received one, nor did KS Krishnan, AP Mitra or Satish Dhawan. Among those living, chemistry stalwart Professor George kindles far greater respect among his peers. Ashok Sen has made seminal contribution to the string theory which merits the highest distinction.

Also, in 2011, a multi-authored scientific paper which had him as an author was found to have lifted passages verbatim from an earlier paper. By any reckoning, this constitutes plagiarism and I am astounded at Rao’s defense. It is a well-established principle reiterated after the David Baltimore case that once a scientist consents to have his/her name as an author, he/she cannot escape the responsibility of ethical transgressions that go with it. And “cut and paste” jobs are crass plagiarism. This is a clear case of lifting entire paragraphs and while they may not have a bearing on the scientific results, the fact remains that it was wilfully plagiarised. We should not forget that Joe Biden, now the US Vice President, had to drop out of the presidential race in 1988 after admitting using a few words of a speech by another politician without attribution.

The unsettling suspicion here is that Rao benefitted through his connections both in the academia and politics and was able to wade through without any lasting penalty. There is another factor which is worrying. National civilian honours are normally announced around Republic Day or Independence Day. Why couldn’t these awards have waited another few weeks? These questions aside, heartiest congratulations to Professor Rao and Sachin.

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