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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009

A Peace Prize for Vague Promise, not for Real Performance

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by N A Karim


Of the now six Nobel Prizes the announcement of the names of awardees for Literature and Peace raises a few eyebrows everywhere every year. Unlike the science subjects, selection from among the nominees for peace is indeed a difficult task. Hands that were stained with human blood have received the medal and the cheque while men of meaningful peace have been overlooked, not once but several times. However, people all over the world look forward to the news of the selection every year because the stake in world peace is so strong for individuals, societies and nations.

Vagaries of selection for the award of this prestigious Prize for Literature have also puzzled people The Nobel Prize was instituted in 1901 and the first winner for Literature, Rene F.A. Sully Prudhomme, the French diplomat and poet, is now seldom remembered even by the French people. Leo Tolstoy had published all his major works before the end of nineteenth century but the prize went to the French poet mainly because of the Eurocentric view of the world of the Committee in those years. India’s Rabindranath Tagore got the prize in 1913 mainly because of his Gitanjali which along with a few other works had been translated into English at the initiative of the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. Gitanjali’s mystic songs made a special appeal to the Western minds; along with the figure of Tagore with his long white beard and loose flowing gown made him look like a prophet straight from the Old Testament world. These might have particularly influenced the sensitive minds of the West.

But it was only much later that the Norwegian Academy began to look to other countries of Asia and Africa for honouring them with the Prize. During the Cold War period writers who knowingly or unknowingly indicted the life in the Soviet system in their works were selected for the award without assessing the intrinsic literary worth of the works. The hangover of that highly charged political atmosphere seems to be there even today. Those who resisted the communist system and wrote about it are honoured even now while those who wrote and fought against predatory Western imperialist occupation are totally ignored. This bias is evident for all to see. The ingredients of the literary sensibility of the writer are more important than the creative greatness of the writer.

The early surprises of the selection of the awardees of Prizes might have provoked Bernard Shaw to remark in his characteristic forthright manner: “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite. But only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”


The Nobel Peace Prize is decided by the Committee of Representatives of Norwegian Parliament. And the selection of Barack Obama for the 2009 award was a surprise but for many a pleasant one as he is looked upon as a symbol of hope and change at a time when the world is sinking in the quagmine of seemingly endless cruel genocidal wars and an economic depression. In the midst of many adverse factors he sustains that hope of a significant change to a better world order though very little has been achieved by him so far. For a man who inherited two wars and the threat of an economic recession as deep as the Great Depression of the thirtees of the last century he could somewhat stop one war and sustain hope for a change for the better in the other; but that hope is fast fading day by day. The fact of the matter is that he would not be able to live up to his professions of peace as long as he presides over the destinies of a rapacious capitalistic state and predatory imperialistic system.

Obama is not in any sense a man of peace. Of those who won the Nobel Peace Prize none stood fully for peace. Roosevelt stood for war. Henry Kissinger, again of America, was more interested in war diplomacy than peace initiatives. However his, co-awardee, the President of Vietnam, Le Duc Tho, declined the honour evidently on principle. Obama has been in the White House hardly two weeks when the nomination for this year’s prize was closed. Therefore it was not for his work as the most powerful political executive head of the world. Had it been for it, his record is almost as smeared as that of his predecessor, Bush, because the first phase of the surge of Obama’s Af-Pak policy made nearly three million innocent civilians refugees in their own country in a week’s operation in the Swat valley.

On the whole more than one hundred years of history of the Nobel Peace Prize has been a mixed bag of all and sundry heads of governments like Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the US—men fighting their enemies but temporarily agreed to peace plans they knew would not hold, Chief Executives of supranational organisations like the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Organisation (UNO), Kofi Annan, human rights fighters like Martin Luther King Jr., Human Rights Watch organisation like Amnesty International, Red Cross that does humanitarian work during and after the war. They got the Prize three times for their work in various theaters of war. Never do they condemn wars. They take wars for granted, so also the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who does his stipulated statutory work. Then a few odd awardees like Albert Sweitzher, who spent his whole life rendering medical service to poor Africans in remote and difficult areas of equatorial Africa, Mother Teresa, who never once in her life condemned war but considered abortion as the greatest threat to mankind.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is altogether a different cup of tea. Those who were selected were writers all right, poets novelists playwrights of varying worth. In the Cold War years political considerations had influenced the Committee and Literature became something like a paper cartridge in the fight between the two camps, the Anglo-American and the Soviet.

The author is a former Professor of English and an erstwhile Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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