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'

Note: This article was first published on June 24, 2018 and is being republished on May 27, 2020, Jawaharlal Nehru’s death anniversary.

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 constitution. His efforts to promote critical thinking 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 president to confer the Bharat Ratna is a convention 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 world 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.

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.

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. Later on, as the president of India, Prasad again 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.

Sharik Laliwala, an alumnus of King’s College London and Ahmedabad University, is an independent scholar of the history and politics of Gujarat.