The first three Bharat Ratnas saw the future with clarity
(From top) : C.V. Raman, S. Radhakrishnan, C. Rajagopalachari
Three Indians were decorated with the Bharat Ratna in the very first year — 1954 — that the civilian awards were instituted: the elder statesman, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the vice- president, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and the Nobel laureate, C.V. Raman. No one said at the time that all three were south Indian, all three Brahmins. Their pre-eminence was manifest. They accepted the decoration with respect and went about their work according to their lights.
All three had a Calcutta connection. CR had served as the first governor of West Bengal, the other two had taught, with distinction and dedication, at the University of Calcutta. Om krato smara kritam smara, the Isha Upanishad tells us. The work alone is to be remembered, the work alone.
It is instructive to see, on the anniversary of our Independence, what these men had to say in the midst of and, indeed, from the very heart of their work, about their country, their people.
CR was a prisoner of the raj in 1921. Holed up in Vellore Jail, he could have been bitter about his jailors, about the imperial power. He could have looked forward to swaraj as one might to a dreamlike goal. But no, he did something that surprised his contemporaries then and surprises us now. He wrote in his jail diary: “We all ought to know that Swaraj will not at once or, I think, even for a long time to come, be better government or greater happiness for the people. Elections and their corruptions, injustice, and the power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration, will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice, and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration. The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination.”
This was a full quarter century before swaraj was attained.
Radhakrishnan was a member of the constituent assembly on the midnight of August 14/15, 1947 when, with Jawaharlal Nehru, he made a speech of surpassing value. Reminding the nation of “our national faults of character, our domestic despotism, obscurantism, narrow-mindedness, superstitious bigotry”, he said almost exactly what CR had said 25 years earlier. Radhakrishnan’s words: “Our opportunities are great but let me warn you that when power strips ability, we will fall on evil days… From tomorrow morning — from midnight today — we can no longer throw the blame on the British. We have to assume the responsibility ourselves for what we do. A free India will be judged by the way in which it will serve the interests of the common man in the matter of food, clothing, shelter and the social services. Unless we destroy corruption in high places, root out every trace of nepotism, love of power, profiteering and black-marketing which have spoiled the good name of this great country in recent times, we will not be able to raise the standards of efficiency in administration…”
That was said at the very moment free India was born.
I do not have access to any comment made by C.V. Raman on the eve of Independence but the following observation of CVR’s to young Indians is an agnatic cousin of CR’s and SR’s: “Success can only come to you by courageous devotion to the task lying in front of you and there is nothing worth in this world that can come without the sweat of our brow. I can assert without fear of contradiction that the quality of the Indian mind is equal to the quality of any Teutonic, Nordic or Anglo-Saxon mind. What we lack is perhaps courage, what we lack is perhaps driving force which takes one anywhere. We have, I think, developed an inferiority complex. I think what is needed in India today is the destruction of that defeatist spirit…”