As the race hots up…

Now that the rules of eligibility for India’s highest civilian honour have been relaxed, that hardy perennial- Bharat Ratna for Sachin Tendulkar — has bloomed again. Namita Bhandare writes.

Now that the rules of eligibility for India’s highest civilian honour have been relaxed, that hardy perennial- Bharat Ratna for Sachin Tendulkar — has bloomed again. So have a dozen others. Yes, Sachin must get it, but not before hockey player Dhyan Chand. Why not four-time World chess champion Vishwanathan Anand? And surely we must include India’s first individual Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra.

These are good names. Now toss in a few more. Justice Markandey Katju is rooting for Mirza Ghalib, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Subramaniam Bharati. “People are talking of giving Bharat Ratna to cricketers and filmstars,” he lamented in a widely circulated email. “We ignore our real heroes, and hail superficial ones.”

Real or superficial, it’s open season. The Assam Assembly has passed a resolution for a Bharat Ratna for Bhupen Hazarika. The Sherpa community believes that Tenzing Norgay deserves the honour. CNR Rao, chairman of the prime minister’s Science Advisory Council wants it to go to Homi Bhabha. Why not Charan Singh, asks son Ajit Singh? Why not Jagjivan Ram, asks daughter Meira Kumar? Kanshiram says the BSP. Vajpayee surely, says the BJP. MS Dhoni, insists the Jharkhand Congress. Me, says kathak dancer Sitara Devi.

The Bharat Ratna has been awarded to only 41 people. The broadening of norms to include athletes is to ensure that Tendulkar, arguably the most popular Indian on this planet, is honoured. “This is one of the biggest days of Indian sport,” said sports minister Ajay Maken. From the Mumbai Cricket Association to the state Opposition, from Union minister Vilas Rao Deshmukh to even Shiv Sena boss Bal Thackeray, everybody is batting for Sachin and there is an unseemly scrum of politicians basking in reflected glory.

At 38, it is argued, Sachin is too young to be a Ratna. In any case, he doesn’t need its validation. He owns practically every record of the game. He has the sort of financial security few athletes can dream of. He has the gratitude of an adoring nation. These are well-deserved. His service is not on par with that of Mother Teresa or Bhimrao Ambedkar but he’s given inordinate happiness to an emotional nation. I don’t belittle that.

But perhaps we should use this occasion to consider who should be on our country’s honours list — and why. I am perplexed by some choices — Indira Gandhi, commander of the Emergency, or VV Giri and Morarji Desai for instance. If you go further down the Padma awards list then the devaluation is clear. Every doctor who has ever put stethoscope to a politician’s chest gets a Padma Shri and every year generates its own controversies. Clearly, the honours system hit rock bottom when NRI hotelier Sant Chatwal, whose CV includes a jail stint and allegations of bank fraud, managed to wrangle a Padma Bhushan in 2010.

In another few weeks the new list will be out. Dhyan Chand and Sachin Tendulkar may well top that list. But along with the cheers, let this be an opportunity to infuse transparency. Let this be an occasion to make that list count, not descend to the level of a preschool award function where every child gets a prize and nobody is left out.

Give Sachin the Bharat Ratna by all means but ask also, what constitutes service and achievement. If it is the creation of jobs, then why not Ratan Tata? If it is wealth, then Dhirubhai would qualify. Or would you look at other parameters altogether: a life dedicated to others (Baba Amte)?

The original rules of 1954 did not allow for posthumous awards. Now that we have them, surely, we need a cut-off date. If Katju wants Ghalib, why leave out Kalidasa or Vyasa? Why wait for death before honour? If Bhupen Hazarika qualifies for a Bharat Ratna, were his skills not worthy of being recognised in his life?

Finally, the Bharat Ratna has eluded the one citizen to whom we owe our independence. But then, does Mahatma Gandhi really need it?

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer n
The views expressed by the author are personal

In the theatre of normalcy

Opening cinema halls in defiance of militants or separatist hardliners, even under security, should be a matter of prestige if not priority. Namita Bhandare writes.

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Farooq Abdullah is not a man I always agree with. When he suggests that India would be better off as a ‘controlled democracy’, I roll my eyes. When he sacks his brother for disparaging Rahul Gandhi, I am perplexed. But when Farooq Abdullah says he wants cinema halls (and liquor shops) to open in Kashmir, I find myself in complete agreement.

Let’s keep liquor shops out for now (after all Gujarat is also a dry state). But no movie halls? Kashmiris have been denied the pleasure of the big screen since the late 1980s when outfits like the Allah Tigers forced movie halls to shut down and Asiya Andrabi’s Dukhtaran-e-Millat marched through Srinagar ensuring that none operated. Journalist Harinder Baweja recalls a time when visiting the state’s public gardens was banned. Even now, she says: “There is nothing for young people to do. Psychological problems are rife because there is no outlet for them.”

And yet, this is not the 90s when militancy raged, the army responded and human rights violations were reported. This is 2011, the close of a year that has chief minister Omar Abdullah insistent on the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) and politicians declaring a return to normalcy citing as evidence of the absence of stone-throwers and presence of tourists.

Can a state claim to have returned to normalcy when movie halls remain shut? Farooq Abdullah says he wants movie halls (and liquor shops) to reopen to ‘get more tourists’. It’s a misplaced reason. Movie halls must open because normalcy goes beyond the uneasy quiet of the streets. Normalcy must include parks and picnics, shopping and restaurants, movies and popcorn. Movie halls must open for the people of Kashmir, not for the tourists who will come and go.

The loonies have responded. Asiya Andrabi says she will not allow Kashmir to turn into a ‘prostitution centre’. For Jamaat-e-Islami, movie halls and liquor shops are the source of ‘obscenity, immorality and imprudence’. And Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani wants a fatwa. Within and outside the state, the political establishment has neither denounced this reaction nor supported the demand. Farooq stands isolated. Even the chatterati, so prickly over censorship elsewhere in the country, is silent on this gag order.

Kashmir and movies have a long and sentimental relationship. One report claims that over 90 films were shot in the state between 1960 and 1990. Kashmir repaid that love; at one point, there were 18 theatres in the Valley alone. Movie-going in Kashmir, as in the rest of India, was a way of life, one of the cheapest forms of entertainment.

Perhaps that is the problem: there are those who don’t want Kashmir to be bracketed with the rest of India. Perhaps normalcy is a dirty word to them. Perhaps there are too many vested interests that would rather see young people throw stones than watch Rockstar (partly shot in Kashmir) in a movie hall. Many will remember the reopening of Regal cinema in 1999 when a grenade went off and the hall retreated into closure. In 1997, Broadway cinema reopened only to shut down due to slow sales — few were brave enough to venture in.

For Geelani & co, the opening of cinema halls is an instance of ‘cultural aggression’ by the government. A few months ago, an effort to host a literature festival in the state failed when Kashmiri writers (who live outside the state) objected to an ‘apolitical’ festival in a politicised state. Now the Commissars of Public Morality will decide how Kashmiris must entertain themselves — or not.

This a government headed by Farooq Abdullah’s son. Opening cinema halls in defiance of militants or separatist hardliners, even under security, should be a matter of prestige if not priority. There was reason to cheer this past week when CRPF troops vacated the Firdous theatre in Srinagar’s old city after having occupied it for close to 20 years. The challenge now is to reoccupy Kashmir’s theatres, returning them to those they belong to: the people of Kashmir.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal