Bharat Ratna for Amartya Sen

Print edition : January 30, 1999

The country's highest civilian honour is a tribute to Amartya Sen's distinguished scholarship and to the impact of his work, with its energetic advocacy of policy action on behalf of the poorest, on public discourse.


BY a presidential announcement of January 18, Amartya Sen became the third Nobel laureate and the first social scientist of any description to receive the nation's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. Sen is the 36th recipient of the award since it was instituted in 1954.

Of all the civilian awards, the Bharat Ratna is unique not merely in the meticulousness with which it is awarded, but also in the exclusivity of the consultations that precede it. Unlike the "Padma" awards, which are covered by a strictly codified procedure of reference and evaluation, only the President and the Prime Minister are privy to the deliberations preceding the Bharat Ratna. In this sense, the award is the fruit of what is perhaps the most discreet process of consultation in the Republican scheme.

According to the scheme of the Government of India that brought the Bharat Ratna and the Padma awards into being in 1954, the Bharat Ratna is awarded for "exceptional service towards the advancement of Art, Literature and Science and in recognition of public service of the highest order." The Bharat Ratna medallion is in the shape and design of a peepul leaf - the peepul itself is evocative of the Buddha - and on the obverse of the medallion is a replica of the sun with radiating rays. The medallion is in toned bronze.


Politicians who have been honoured with the Bharat Ratna constitute one category of recipients. Among the others, there have been scholar-statesmen like S. Radhakrishnan and C. Rajagopalachari, scientist-admi nistrators like M. Visvesvaraya and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and statesmen from beyond India's borders whose political practice has deeply influenced and touched the country, like Nelson Mandela and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. In the case of Dhondo Keshav Karve, the award honoured concern and impact in the field of progressive social reform.

As a Nobel laureate and Bharat Ratna, Sen belongs in the company of the physicist Dr. C.V. Raman and Mother Teresa. As a scholar of rare depth and insight he belongs to the category of Raman and the Sanskritist P.V. Kane. As did Satyajit Ray, Sen earned what many consider the highest international award in his discipline prior to gaining a similar honour in his home country. Ray, it will be remembered, won the Oscar for lifetime achievement in cinema before he was honoured with the Bharat Ratna.

A pause in the award of the Bharat Ratna ended in 1997, since when seven persons have been conferred the honour. Association with the freedom struggle, longevity of public service and adherence to a set of core values have been recognised in the cases of Gulzarilal Nanda, Aruna Asaf Ali and C. Subramaniam. Outstanding service and achievement in priority areas of national endeavour have earned recognition in the case of Abdul Kalam. The musical genius of M.S. Subbulakshmi was honoured in 1998, with the entire nation agreeing, with rare unanimity, that her Bharat Ratna was long overdue. At the investiture at which Amartya Sen will receive the Bharat Ratna, the other awardee will be Jayaprakash Narayan.

President K.R. Narayanan has shared the esteem in which Sen's work is held the world over. There was widespread public expectation that this President would accord the country's highest civilian honour on Sen, an expectation that has not been belied. Shortly after the award of the Nobel Prize, President Narayanan proposed a Bharat Ratna for Sen to Prime Minister Vajpayee, and the Prime Minister agreed to the proposal readily. The official announcement from Rashtrapati Bhavan came on January 18.

The Bharat Ratna is a tribute to Amartya Sen's distinguished scholarship and to the impact of his work, with its energetic advocacy of policy action on behalf of the poorest, on public discourse. Perhaps what is needed next is action for popular empowerment that gives substance to the symbolism of the honour.

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