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The pros and of the award debate

Amin Al  Rasheed

Amin Al Rasheed

Thu, 1 Feb 24

Two things are trending on social media: 1. Controversy over a story about human sexual identity in a seventh-grade textbook, and 2. Bangla Academy Award. Both are associated with books or knowledge. It is a good sign that people are talking about books and knowledge on social media. However, the discussion about who has won the Bangla Academy Award in different genres of literature this time has been overshadowed by the fact that fiction writer Zakir Talukder returned the award ten years after receiving it. Therefore, in this article, we would like to examine the pros and cons of the Bangla Academy Award debate.

This time, 16 writers have been nominated for the Bangla Academy Award in various genres of literature. A Facebook post by Zakir Talukder on January 28 struck like a sudden thunderbolt amid chatter, banter, and sarcastic comments on social media about who won the award in which category - where he posted his letter to the Director General of Bangla Academy informing him his decision to return the prize and its cash value of one lac takas. He also uploaded an image of a cheque of the said value signed by him. There, Zakir Talukder wrote: 'Sent. Feeling free.' And the noise started. As there were questions about why he returned the award after ten years, many congratulated him on this belated but courageous decision.

That day, an explanation regarding his returning the award was also published in the media. He claimed, 'Bangla Academy has lost its credibility among the conscious people due to Bangla Academy's lack of democracy and bureaucracy, and it has been running its activities without electing the executive council for 25 years. To quote him, 'When the institution's importance diminishes, the award loses its value. This award seems like a meaningless burden to me now. Sadly, Bangla Academy could not maintain its standards.' (Prothom Alo, January 28, 2024).

Now, a question arises here. When Zakir Talukder accepted the award, was there much democracy in the Bangla Academy? Wasn't there bureaucracy? Was Bangla Academy much more acceptable to conscious people back then? If not, why, ten years later, does the award seem like a 'meaningless burden' to him? Did he show his genuine courage through this act or remind people that he also received the award ten years ago? Some of the sarcastic commenters on Facebook wrote that he got publicity worth one crore takas by returning 1 lac. Those unfamiliar with him and his writings also got to know him now. However, if Zakir Talukdar has returned this award as a protest against the lack of democracy and bureaucracy of Bangla Academy, the question that will come up is, will Bangla Academy become a much more democratic and bureaucracy-free institution through this incident? For now, that hope is done and dusted.

The process and the criteria by which the Bangla Academy Literary Award is given each year remain questionable. There is no competition for this award. The process is not transparent. The award is not for a specific book but for an author's overall literary achievement. As a result, even 'mediocre' writers get awards for 'overall merit.' Again, the institution that gives the award, i.e., the writers working in Bangla Academy, are also considered for this award. There was no exception this time, too. Though ethically justifiable because there is a conflict of interest here.
A question may arise as to whether a Bangla Academy award-worthy writer working in the institution will be considered ineligible just because they work in the Academy. This is a central argument. The international practice is people associated with the organization that gives the award will not be considered for the award. This is morally correct. Because Bangla Academy employees can influence the award process in many ways, they can be regarded after they retire from Bangla Academy or if they are not associated with this institution based on employment. Consequently, in the debate that has now begun, these questions need to be raised and are being raised. And it warrants a solution.

It is true that being a good writer or an honorable person alone is not the yardstick for getting a state award. That a powerful syndicate decides who receives state awards is an age-old allegation. A section of bureaucrats and pro-government intellectuals are reportedly active in the syndicate. Therefore, being a good writer may not suffice for consideration for the Bangla Academy, Ekushey, or Swadhinata Padak (Independence Award). Simply put, it cannot be concluded that someone will get a state award because of their excellent writing or significant research.

Does that mean that all those who receive state awards are ineligible? Of course not. Indeed, many of those considered for various state awards each year are deserving writers and researchers. However, many worthy writers are also left out of the prize. Their readers wait for years to know their favorite author has been nominated for a state award, but every year, they are disappointed. Maybe some of them will get it in the future. Many may not. Again, many are considered for the award or may receive it according to various rules and regulations, regardless of whether their writings are unknown to most readers.

It is also true that many write well but remain unnoticed. They never come to the limelight for many reasons. They do not have much readership, but their writing has depth. Research is important. It would be noteworthy if the Bangla Academy awards such a humble writer. However, this is not yet the case. The reason for this is the calculations at work behind all-state awards, including Bangla Academy. Those who pass the hurdle are rewarded. The main factor for this is that Bangla Academy does not seem to have been able to establish itself as an institution outside of the vicious cycle of party politics and bureaucracy that the government and autonomous institutions of Bangladesh are muddled.

As a result, the Bangla Academy Literary Award and the state's highest civilian award, the Swadhinata Padak and the Ekushe Padak have been, at times, controversial. Its main reasons are political considerations and syndicates in awarding them. The government in power plays favorites with these awards, whether poets or scientists. The government is expected to be objective in naming awardees in science and literature. However, the reality is different as many incompetent, ' obscure,' and even 'notorious' persons have received these state medals, while notable others have been deprived of the honors. Many individuals who have contributed significantly to the history of Bangladesh have yet to receive the Swadhinata Padak or Ekushey Padak.

In recent years, a writer's political belief, allegiance, and connection have become the foremost consideration for the award, rather than their writings or works. That is why the awards are controversial. People troll and criticize on social media. As a result, even for those deserving to be honored, it becomes an embarrassment.

What is the solution?
A standard can be followed. For example, the Bangla Academy will elucidate by which consideration and criteria and for which books they are nominating writers for the academy literary award for that year and attach a written statement while announcing the names of the awardees. Readers can then collect those books and understand why they were nominated in the first place. By doing this, it will be possible to compare the writings of those award-winning writers with those who did not get it. Because Bangla Academy is said to be the symbol of a nation's intellect and mind, ordinary people should know their workings. Since the award's cash value is public money, the public has the right to understand who and why the Academy is giving that money.

It is important to note that just because someone has received a state award does not mean they are a great writer. It is equally important to remember that just because you didn't read their books does not mean they are not good writers or unworthy of an award. You may not have read the works of many who have received Bangla Academy awards in different genres. Some may not have heard the name before. That doesn't mean they don't deserve the award. We can read very few works from very few authors in one life.

Nonetheless, state awards and even the Nobel Prize in literature have always been controversial. Therefore, there is no scope for comparing literary quality with the award. A writer can get awards for a plethora of reasons. They can get it because of the quality of their writing, popularity, or both. They may also have connections with those who nominate the awardees or based on a recommendation from the power that be. That is why it is not always known who gets the award by which qualification. In some instances, it is conceivable. However, that assumption may not always be correct.

Writer: Current Affairs Editor, Nexus Television

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