India’s questionable choices of icons

It was only in 1990 that one of twentieth century India’s finest minds, principal author of its constitution and campaigner against caste oppression, B.R. Ambedkar, was conferred this honour, 34 years after his death.

Bharat Ratna (literally Gem or Jewel of India), is the country’s highest civilian honour. It was instituted in 1954 and thus far 43 people have been conferred the award, in many cases decades after their death. Most recipients in the first three decades were politicians who had taken part in the struggle for freedom from British rule and led the country or parts of it later. Scientists, social workers and musicians have figured on the list too. Crucially, upper-caste Hindus have predominated.

The latest two to be conferred the title, in mid-November, are cricket player Sachin Tendulkar and scientist C.N.R. Rao. The cricketer has a mass following in India and among the Indian diaspora and is known to cricket fans in many former British colonies where the game is played. The latter’s is a name few Indians outside of regular English-language-newspaper-reading circles will have heard of and is an unknown quantity abroad excepting among some scientific circles.

Sachin Tendulkar sketch Sketch of Sachin Tendulkar. Wikimedia/Sohambanerjee1998. Some rights reserved.

These are questionable choices. The honour conferred on the cricketer is problematic on several levels. Cricket is no doubt popular in much of South Asia. In the first decades after independence, India and Pakistan were the only two countries on the subcontinent where the game was popular, but soon Sri Lanka and Bangladesh emerged on the scene. The game or a pared down version thereof is certainly played even in rural areas. Lines drawn on a wall or a slab of stone in lieu of wickets, a plank of wood or crude bat and a worn out tennis ball are all that are needed for millions of kids to get playing.

However, a formal game of cricket needs massive resources. Vast, well-tended grounds, pads, helmets, bats, leather-balls, wickets and various other paraphernalia are needed. Only the urban middle class can afford to either raise the funds required or gain access to schools, clubs and other institutions that offer such resources. The class and caste composition of the players can therefore be imagined.

At the rural or slum level, even the people of oppressed castes and communities play the no-frills version of the game, mostly in the evenings and during holidays. But the leather-ball-pad-helmet version is accessible almost exclusively to members of the dominant castes in urban areas. The formal version of cricket is one of the most undemocratic and elitist of games.

Moreover, cricket’s dominance has been at the expense of other sports. In most cricket-playing countries outside South Asia, cricket is far from being the dominant game. Rugby, football (soccer) and others take primacy. Anyone can kick a football anywhere: legends have been born in impoverished parts of Latin America and Africa and people of all classes, tribes and races have had an almost equal chance of partaking in the sport and benefiting from it, not only financially.

Obsession with cricket in India has choked off hockey, in which India once excelled. Moreover, South Asia has many indigenous games that require not a cent, such as wrestling and kabaddi: in the latter, lines are drawn across a small rectangular field, roughly the size of a volleyball court and a raider goes in to touch, during the course of a single breath (demonstrated through continuous utterance of the word “kabaddi”), as many of the opposing team as he or she can while risking getting captured; the team left with its members standing is declared winner. All these games have been in the doldrums.

Cricket has spawned massive corruption, with international ramifications. Bookmakers’ networks have sought to fix matches, thereby testing the integrity of cricketers everywhere. There is a long and growing list of cricketers banned for match-fixing. They include the late South African captain Hansie Cronje. The hugely affluent Board of Control for Cricket in India is a law unto itself, unanswerable to any entity.

Apart from the unsuitability of a member of this corrupt cabal for a national honour, the choice of Tendulkar is problematic for other reasons. His utility to his team has been questioned. He has been accused of playing not to ensure his team won but merely to build his profile in the cricket record books. He hung around for years after many of his generation retired and after people tired of asking when he would go.

Moreover, Tendulkar has not excelled in any walk of life other than cricket and in using his cricket star status to feature in advertisements selling consumer products. He has not taken a stand against the ills plaguing Indian society, not opposed a Hitler-admiring Hindu chauvinist politician, the late Bal Thackeray who rose to prominence by terrorising Indians from outside his native Maharashtra state as well as Muslims. Rather, he has enriched himself enormously, stooping so far as to using his access to bureaucrats and politicians in order to escape paying customs duties on a Ferrari gifted to him and then selling it on at a premium.

C.N.R. Rao’s utility to India would appear to be less controversial. That Rao was conferred the Bharat Ratna award on the very day Tendulkar retired from first class cricket and that invariably Indian newspapers gave pride of place to the cricketer in their headlines, indicates that the government added him as an afterthought, in order to perhaps gain some credibility for its decision to honour the sports star. Rao is said to be an authority in solid state chemistry and is credited with building institutions. However, it is unlikely that he would have gained even the small amount of exposure he gets in the English-language media in India but for a realisation among journalists, bureaucrats and politicians in developing countries in the mid-1970s that much of the news about their countries was negative and that there needed to be greater focus on the positive – an idea expressed in the term “development journalism”.

C.N.R. Rao C.N.R. Rao. Wikimedia/Biswarup Ganguly. Some rights reserved.

Needless to say, for every honest and professional attempt at pursuing “development journalism”, there were innumerable examples of not only self-serving propaganda dished out by dictatorial regimes but lazy, cynical and pro-government writing even in the quasi-democratic developing countries – positive plugs bought by public sector institutions garnered through plying ill-paid journalists with junkets, food, liquor and other inducements.

This is not to insinuate that Indian scientists plunged to such depths but the culture that spawned cynical, lazy and pro-public sector institutions, helped by public relations budgets that provided for generous hospitality, elicited a great deal of publicity for establishments, especially those that were associated with the nuclear, missile and other military-related sciences and technology but also some others. Rao has been good at projecting himself through the media. Incidentally, another Bharat Ratna, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is an aeronautical engineer and has been, despite his Muslim name, a darling of the Brahminical establishment, labelled “missile man” for having helped foster India’s arms industry and thereby affirming Hindu chauvinist manhood, so to speak. He was conferred the honour in 1997 and subsequently made the Indian republic’s president, or ceremonial head of state from 2002 to 2007.

At least one of the hundreds of scientific papers co-authored by Rao has attracted accusations of plagiarism. During a press conference Rao held after the Indian government’s announcement of the award, he called politicians “idiots” for not having funded scientific research to the extent he would have liked. This takes the sheen off his “gem” status, such as it is.

Both Tendulkar and Rao are Brahmins, as indeed are a large number of previous awardees. In fact, the first several, starting with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari in 1954 were Brahmins. Some Brahmins and members of other dominant castes like to think they have a genetic superiority. The truth is that for millennia, they have kept members of the oppressed castes out of education. To this day, in the second decade of the twenty first century, there are villages and towns in India where members of the oppressed castes are barred from some schools, some streets and from drawing water from some wells. It was only in 1990 that one of twentieth century India’s finest minds, principal author of its constitution and campaigner against caste oppression, B.R. Ambedkar, was conferred the honour, 34 years after his death.

During the British Raj, the colonial masters took advantage of Indian society’s fragmentation along the lines of caste, religion, region, language and others. A concept of “martial races” was floated – people of some castes and communities were recruited in large numbers in the armed forces. Brahmins and others were recruited as clerks and pen-pushers. After independence in 1947, the dominant castes privileged tertiary education and neglected primary education. The result: India has the largest pool of illiterates. Rural areas lack roads, drinking water, health centres – and schools.

Rao, Tendulkar and other dominant caste Bharat Ratnas are beneficiaries of this discriminatory system. The groves of academe have been breeding grounds of discrimination. And over the decades there have been times when an overwhelming majority of India’s test cricket side has consisted of Brahmins from Maharashtra and southern India. Understandable therefore that some people who champion the rights of members of the oppressed castes should dismiss the announcement of the award to Tendulkar and Rao as another ugly case of dominant castes choosing their own for their “Brahmin Ratna”.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar Statue of Dr B.R. Ambedkar at Chavdar Tale Mahad, Wikimedia Commons/Mayurhulsar. Some rights reserved.

About the author

N. Jayaram is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writes Walker Jay's blog.