Bharat Ratna ( Jewel of India) is the highest civilian award of the Republic of India. Instituted in 1954, the award is conferred “in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order”, without distinction of race, occupation, position, or sex.The award was originally limited to achievements in the arts, literature, science, and public services, but the government expanded the criteria to include “any field of human endeavour” in December 2011.The recommendations for the Bharat Ratna are made by the Prime Minister to the President, with a maximum of three nominees being awarded per year. Recipients receive a Sanad (certificate) signed by the President and a peepal-leaf–shaped medallion; there is no monetary grant associated with the award. Bharat Ratna recipients rank seventh in the Indian order of precedence.

The first recipients of the Bharat Ratna were politician C. Rajagopalachari, philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and scientist C. V. Raman, who were honoured in 1954. Since then, the award has been bestowed on 45 individuals, including 12 who were awarded posthumously. The original statutes did not provide for posthumous awards but were amended in January 1955 to permit them. The former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri became the first individual to be honoured posthumously. In 2013, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, then aged 40, became the youngest recipient; while social reformer Dhondo Keshav Karve was awarded on his 100th birthday. Though usually conferred on Indian citizens, the “Bharat Ratna” has been awarded to one naturalised citizen, Mother Teresa, and to two non-Indians, Pakistan national Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and former South African President Nelson Mandela. On 24 December 2014, the Indian government announced the award to independence activist Madan Mohan Malaviya (posthumously) and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The “Bharat Ratna”, along with other personal civil honours, was briefly suspended from July 1977 to January 1980, during the change in the national government; and for a second time from August 1992 to December 1995, when several public-interest litigations challenged the constitutional validity of the awards. In 1992, the government’s decision to confer the award posthumously on Subhash Chandra Bose met with controversy. Due to the debate surrounding Bose’s death, the posthumous mention of Bose was much criticised, and his family refused to accept the award. Following a 1997 Supreme Court decision, the press communiqué announcing Bose’s award was cancelled; it is the only time when the award was announced but not conferred.

Several conferments of the award met with the criticism. The then Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru (1947–64) and Indira Gandhi (1966–77, 1980–84) have been criticised for nominating themselves in 1955 and 1971 respectively. While the posthumous awards for K. Kamaraj (1977) and M. G. Ramachandran (1988) were considered to have been aimed at placating the voters for the respective assembly elections; the decision to confer the posthumous award upon Madan Mohan Malaviya in 2015, who passed away a year before the Indian independence in 1947; and the award for Vallabhbhai Patel in 1991, who passed away in 1950 before the award was instituted was much criticised.