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Fact Check: Did


Jawaharlal Nehru
Award the Bharat
Ratna to Himself?
President Prasad acknowledged that he was
‘acting unconstitutionally’ since this was his
‘own initiative […] without any
recommendation or advice from [the] Prime
Minister'

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As a firm believer of scientific logic, Nehru urged Indians to imbibe argumentative
abilities. Credit: Paul Hudson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sharik Laliwala

12.8K
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HISTORY POLITICS 14/NOV/2018

Note: This article was first published on June 24,


2018 and is being republished on November 14,
2018, Jawaharlal
Thousands Nehru’s
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The legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first and
longest-serving prime minister, has come under a
systematic assault under the Narendra Modi
government. The attack has been multi-faceted,
ranging from an unsubstantiated revision of history
to the spreading of disparaging myths and lies.

Sometimes, the attempt is to delete references to


Nehru’s foundational contributions in the crucial
years post independence, when India was at a fragile
stage. For instance, in 2016, the new social science
textbook for class VIII in Rajasthan – a BJP-ruled
state – erased all references to Nehru, as if he had no
role to play in India’s history. At other times, the
strategy – especially by the troll brigade on social
media – has been to spread lies invoking Nehru as
the ‘fifth column’ harming the nation’s progress. In
their imagination, Nehru becomes the ghost
hindering the birth of a ‘new’ India.

This article seeks to bust one such lie. Social media


is afloat with theories of Nehru awarding himself
India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna,
during his term as the country’s prime minister by
nominating himself for the same.

As a firm believer of scientific logic, Nehru urged


Indians to imbibe argumentative abilities. Consistent
with the invention of a new vocabulary to govern
India that marked a fundamental discontinuity from
the colonial rule, Nehru took a personal interest in
inserting the term ‘scientific temper’ in India’s
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based on evidence and facts via higher secondary
education testify to this pursuit of scientific temper.
If we apply these values, we can see the untruth in
the claim that he handed himself the Bharat Ratna.

Jawaharlal Nehru addresses a mammoth public meeting at


Ludhiana on September 18, 1949. Credit:
Public.Resource.Org/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The originating point of the controversy is the


nomination process of the award. The practice of
awarding the Bharat Ratna has been straightforward:
The prime minister recommends the names to the
president of India, who then accepts such
nominations. But this process finds no mention in
the official gazette notification of India dated
January 2, 1954, which instituted the Bharat Ratna.
An additional notification issued on January 15,
1955, to allow the honour to be awarded
posthumously also did not mention its procedural
aspect. Hence, the process under which the prime
minister or the cabinet nominates names to the
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and not the law of the land.
Before Nehru was decorated with the Bharat Ratna
in July 1955, it had been awarded only on two
occasions. On Independence Day in 1954, C.
Rajagopalachari (India’s last governor-general,
fondly called Rajaji), S. Radhakrishnan (a scholar of
Indian philosophy par excellence who went on to
become India’s second president) and C.V. Raman
(a Nobel laureate in Physics) were awarded the
Bharat Ratna whereas on the Republic Day of 1955,
Bhagwan Das (an influential freedom fighter who
helped to establish the Banaras Hindu University)
and M. Visvesvaraya (the notable engineer and
public thinker) received this honour.

On July 13, 1955, Nehru had returned from a


successful tour of European countries and the Soviet
Union, a tour aimed at the promotion of peace as the
Cold War was rapidly escalating. Nehru’s efforts to
establish India as a major player in word affairs
found popular support outside India. On Nehru’s
return to Delhi, the then president of India, Rajendra
Prasad, went to receive him, disregarding protocol.
A large crowd had gathered to celebrate Nehru’s
arrival; their cheerfulness and enthusiasm forced
Nehru to deliver a short speech from the tarmac of
Delhi airport.

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Jawaharlal Nehru with Rajendra Prasad. Credit: Wikimedia
Commons

President Prasad hosted a special state banquet


on July 15, 1955, at Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was at
this event that Prasad announced conferring the
Bharat Ratna upon Jawaharlal Nehru. This suo
motu decision by the president was ‘kept a closely-
guarded secret’ as a Times of India report dated July
16, 1955 notes. Prasad described Nehru as the ‘great
architect of peace in our time’, the same newspaper
quotes him as saying.

“In fact, the President himself confessed that he had


acted unconstitutionally as he had decided to confer
the honour “without any recommendation or advice
from my Prime Minister” or the Cabinet”, the
newspaper reported.

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This should lay to rest all the malicious untruths
regarding Nehru’s honouring with the Bharat Ratna

One should not forget that Prasad and Nehru had


ideological differences mainly regarding the role of
religion in politics; in some sense, they were
political adversaries. Nehru was opposed to Prasad’s
social conservatism. As chairman of the constituent
assembly, Prasad had expressed reservations against
the Hindu Code Bill that B.R. Ambedkar had
proposed to bring about progressive reforms within
the Hindu society.

When the first presidential elections were held in


1949-50, transforming India into a republican
nation-state, Nehru favoured Rajaji, the then
governor-general of India, to continue as the
president. Nehru wanted a modern secularist like
Rajaji as president to facilitate his role as the prime
minister, whereas, Vallabhbhai Patel favoured
Prasad for the position of president. Patel used this
election as an opportunity to keep the prime minister
in control by supporting a traditionalist like Prasad.
Finally, Patel won the internal battle, showing his
strength within the Congress party’s organisation.
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voiced his opposition to the Hindu Code Bill, visible
in a fierce exchange of letters with Nehru.

Another conflict between Prasad and Nehru arose in


1951 on the issue of the Somnath temple in Gujarat.
Prasad had accepted an invitation to attend the
inauguration of the restored temple much to the
annoyance of Nehru. Nehru advised Prasad to not
grace the occasion and to maintain a respectable
distance between politics and religion. Prasad did
not heed this advice and chose to remain present at
the unveiling of the reconditioned temple.

These intense confrontations between Prasad and


Nehru did not mean that they disrespected each
other. They did not fall into the trap of
understanding political opposition as personal
enmity, nor did they contest each other’s
commitment to the national cause which is evident
in Prasad’s conferment of the Bharat Ratna on
Nehru. This is an important lesson to remember
when ideological differences are re-defining
personal relationships and sowing the seeds of
hatred in India.

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Sharik Laliwala, an alumnus of King’s College
London and Ahmedabad University, is an
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Gujarat.