Bharat Ratna: Why ignore defence forces?

by Air Chief Marshal NC Suri (retd)

Recently there has been a considerable media hype on the award of India’s highest civilian award to Sachin Tendulkar for his outstanding performance in cricket. It cannot be denied that he has brought tremendous credit not only to himself and his family but, above all, to our country in the field of sport by breaking all previous records in cricket and setting new ones.

A few days back the PMO, as reported, amended the eligibility criteria for this award based on the recommendations of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Sports Ministry by including sportsmen for the same, thereby paving the way for Sachin Tendulkar and Dhyan Chand to be considered for this most prestigious award. This was followed soon after by the Rifle Association of India recommending the name of Abhinav Bindra for the Bharat Ratna on the basis of being the only Olympic gold medalist.

I have no hesitation in accepting their laudable contribution to our country, but in all honesty cannot come to terms with equating them in stature or lifelong contribution with our stalwarts like Jayaprakash Narayan, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, JRD Tata, Mother Teresa, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri, just to mention a few.

Notwithstanding this, I would like to state unequivocally that they are worthy of civilian awards appropriate to their contribution in the field of sports. I do feel that we should not compromise the dignity and importance of the Bharat Ratna, the most prestigious award of our country.

I wonder why it does not occur to the government to consider the armed forces for such an award. After all, it cannot be denied that India’s integrity has been preserved by the ultimate sacrifices made by the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. India today is a vibrant democracy not merely because of the political leadership but also because of the loyalty, dedication and devotion of the personnel of the armed services.

We have always valued and cherished a democratic system of government and abhor any alternatives. It is because of this orientation that the armed forces lay down their lives on a daily basis in support of a civilised society and form of governance. This orientation has not come about by waving a magic wand but by the leadership at the various senior levels culminating in the highest, namely the Service Chiefs, many of whom have post-retirement been appointed as governors in different states, and ambassadors to foreign countries. Today the armed forces represent the most disciplined segment of our society and continue to be so even after retirement.

We are apolitical and serve the government whenever called upon in all its endeavours. Yet the government and the media do not seem to recognise the sacrifices and unflinching loyalty of this very important segment of our society. Today the officer with the highest profile is a stalwart and an icon, Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Marshal Arjan Singh, who post-retirement went as ambassador to two countries, and subsequently was appointed Lt-Governor of Delhi, and who in his nineties continues to serve the government and the armed forces with the utmost loyalty, dignity and professionalism. He has been a true example of ‘Service before Self’ and exhibited leadership qualities beyond compare.

As an Indian, I find it difficult to understand why Marshal Arjan Singh’s name has not been been considered or recommended for the Bharat Ratna. I am somewhat disappointed that our sacrifices and loyalties have not been recognised by the country. Let the country show its gratitude to the armed forces now by honouring Marshal Arjan Singh with this prestigious award which he richly deserves.

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