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A CHRONICLE FORETOLD
- The first three Bharat Ratnas saw the future with clarity

Three Indians were decorated with the Bharat Ratna in the very first year — 1954 — that the civilian awards were instituted: the elder statesman, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the vice- president, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and the Nobel laureate, C.V. Raman. No one said at the time that all three were south Indian, all three Brahmins. Their pre-eminence was manifest. They accepted the decoration with respect and went about their work according to their lights.

All three had a Calcutta connection. CR had served as the first governor of West Bengal, the other two had taught, with distinction and dedication, at the University of Calcutta. Om krato smara kritam smara, the Isha Upanishad tells us. The work alone is to be remembered, the work alone.

It is instructive to see, on the anniversary of our Independence, what these men had to say in the midst of and, indeed, from the very heart of their work, about their country, their people.

CR was a prisoner of the raj in 1921. Holed up in Vellore Jail, he could have been bitter about his jailors, about the imperial power. He could have looked forward to swaraj as one might to a dreamlike goal. But no, he did something that surprised his contemporaries then and surprises us now. He wrote in his jail diary: “We all ought to know that Swaraj will not at once or, I think, even for a long time to come, be better government or greater happiness for the people. Elections and their corruptions, injustice, and the power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration, will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice, and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration. The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination.”

This was a full quarter century before swaraj was attained.

Radhakrishnan was a member of the constituent assembly on the midnight of August 14/15, 1947 when, with Jawaharlal Nehru, he made a speech of surpassing value. Reminding the nation of “our national faults of character, our domestic despotism, obscurantism, narrow-mindedness, superstitious bigotry”, he said almost exactly what CR had said 25 years earlier. Radhakrishnan’s words: “Our opportunities are great but let me warn you that when power strips ability, we will fall on evil days… From tomorrow morning — from midnight today — we can no longer throw the blame on the British. We have to assume the responsibility ourselves for what we do. A free India will be judged by the way in which it will serve the interests of the common man in the matter of food, clothing, shelter and the social services. Unless we destroy corruption in high places, root out every trace of nepotism, love of power, profiteering and black-marketing which have spoiled the good name of this great country in recent times, we will not be able to raise the standards of efficiency in administration…”

That was said at the very moment free India was born.

I do not have access to any comment made by C.V. Raman on the eve of Independence but the following observation of CVR’s to young Indians is an agnatic cousin of CR’s and SR’s: “Success can only come to you by courageous devotion to the task lying in front of you and there is nothing worth in this world that can come without the sweat of our brow. I can assert without fear of contradiction that the quality of the Indian mind is equal to the quality of any Teutonic, Nordic or Anglo-Saxon mind. What we lack is perhaps courage, what we lack is perhaps driving force which takes one anywhere. We have, I think, developed an inferiority complex. I think what is needed in India today is the destruction of that defeatist spirit…”

Today, those three Bharat Ratnas would have been saddened to see their apprehensions and prognoses coming true. Generalizations are wrong but who can deny that efficiency of administration is not India’s best introduction ? Who can deny that our elections have brought us a great stature in the world but have also brought corruption? And where is the doubt that the power and tyranny of wealth — CR’s startling phrase — rules the land?

Power, political and monetary power, outstrips ability by a long measure. And corruption in high places — Radhakrishnan’s astonishingly prescient expression — has disfigured the image of our public life.

As for the sweat of the brow, Raman’s ideal, that has long since ceased to be valued, especially in oneself. The concept of hard work, of service, of what used to be called pride in one’s work, is now an archaism. Except in our gifted artisans who survive miraculously, in our armed forces, in the body of farm labourers across the country and in a few remarkable professions like those of nurses and teachers, ‘work ethic’ is a national casualty.

We seek to derive the maximum advantage from the minimum effort. There is a mentality, widespread if not omnipresent, which sees the plodder as a fool, the successful shirker as clever. It only follows that the man or woman who is honest with money is regarded as naďve, to be pitied and the crook who gets caught making illegal money as unlucky. It is the honest politician, by which I mean one who does not encash files, sell favours, turn opportunities of service into ATMs, and there still are many of those, who keeps us in hope. It is, likewise, the exceptional official, doing the work of a hundred, who keeps the administrative machine from collapsing. Thank god there are some such exceptional men and women, still, amidst us. But by and large, the surface density of work-shirking, responsibility-dodging, blame-shifting, back-biting, tale-carrying and, alas, palm-itchy laggards has swelled beyond belief. What we are, the State is.

Radhakrishnan also spoke of intolerance.

This trait takes many forms but nowhere more seriously than in politics. Ironically and paradoxically, the denominationally intolerant are being projected as administratively able. Those with a questionable secular integrity are said to be men of unquestionable financial integrity.

The first three Bharat Ratnas foresaw more than ordinary mortals can. But even they could not foresee the self-contradictory piquancy of our predicament today. The liberal Indian, the Indian with a secular conscience, an innately democratic instinct, a value for civil rights, is shown up as effete , a political pansy, whereas the macho rattler of sabres, is offered to the nation as its saviour. A country with its work ethic weakened, its abilities outstripped by narrow self-interests, and its domination by the power and tyranny of wealth well-nigh complete, is easily persuaded to say ‘give us a benign dictator’. Fascism comforts the sloth of mind, the slow of thought, the valuationally sluggish. Fascism excites the timid, the languid and the bored.

And so we are seeing rise in the very heart of a democratic but languorous India a poison plume of the most corrosive intolerance. In the coming months the nation will be obsessed with who will ‘make it’ to the Lal Qila next August 15. That is only natural. But we should be agonizing about what kind of flag will be unfurled on its ramparts — the great national tricolour or one with a skull and crossed bones sewn behind it.