'Do civil servants have the right to select persons for state awards?'

Muntasir Mamun

Hisotrian Muntasir Mamun speaks to Prothom Alo over the recent fiasco involving the Swadhinata Award

Q :

After a volley of criticism, Ali Hamza's Swadhinata Award (Independence Award) for literature was revoked. Two years ago too, the government had to revoke the Swadhinata Award for literature of another person. What sort of carelessness is this?

This proves yet once just how ignorant and irresponsible the individuals who make the nominations are. This incident has angered me, pained me. It is even more painful because Awami League is at the helm of state. This party is steeped in heritage. It has fought for the heritage and the culture of this country.

Q :

There have long been questions about the process in which this award is given. Even earlier, you have called for a change in this process. No change, however, has been brought about.

Keep in mind that the award had been initiated during the military rule. We are carrying on a continuation of those times. The military government was dependent on the bureaucracy and this applies to the award process too. The entire process is demeaning to an individual. One has to fill up a form with nitty gritty details of one's father, grandfather and ancestors down the line. And it is the civil servants who will determine who will qualify for the award. Do civil servants have the right to select persons for state awards? And even after such a scrupulous examination of a person's lineage, how can such a mistake be made? These are not mistakes, these are simply the whims of bureaucrats. And the ministers simply accept the list from the civil servants with no question. This is shameful.

The names of SM Rais Uddin Ahmed (left) and Amir Hamza (right) were announced for the Swadhinata Award but later revoked in face of strong criticism

Q :

This happened twice, consecutively.

We who are involved in the world of literature are neither powerful nor wealthy and so they treat us as they please. I plead, please do not embarrass us in this manner any more. Drop art and literature from the Swadhinata and Ekushey awards. Why humiliate us in this manner? I feel all of this is done in a carefully planned manner. The Awami League government is in power and they have always had a good rapport with the people of art and culture. Even the party chief is devoted to people of this sector. Even during the rule of BNP-Jamaat, when Awami League was going through difficult times, these people extended their support and assistance to Awami League even more than the party people did. I feel there is a carefully crafted conspiracy to create a distance with these people.

Q :

Bureaucrats may dominate the national award process, but there is a ministers' committee at the highest level. Why do they accept all this? Aren't the ministers responsible for this dismal state of affairs?

Yes, of course. The problem is, the government is busy boosting the GDP. I feel the level of economic development that the government has achieved at present, will remain intact. But who will boost the cultural GDP? No matter how much economic development there may be, this will be of no use unless there is cultural development. I see no signs of development of the cultural GDP and this does not bode well.

The late professor Humayun Azad would say that in this country the person deserving a shoe, gets an award and the person deserving an award, gets a shoe. That is so true. We have failed to break away from this trend.

Q :

What process should there be for selecting the Swadhinata or national awards?

There should be a committee for national awards. Simply put, nominations will be sought at a certain time. The nomination will just mention the person's name and why this person should be awarded. There is no need for any elaborate details of ancestry. Officials of the ministry will draw up a list from these nominations. There will be a committee to examine this list. The committee will be headed by a minister and will comprise experts (who have been awarded). They will make a short list from these names. The committee can even add names to the list even if these persons haven't been nominated. The officials will prepare the bio-data of the persons on the shortlist and will give this to the ministers' award affairs committee. From there a list of the awardees will be finalised. The entire process will be transparent. We must immediately emerge from the one-sided process completely dependent on bureaucrats or else such shameful incidents will continue to occur. Such incidents are not only humiliating to us, but is insulting to Sheikh Hasina's government.

Amir Hamza

Q :

The government changed its stand about the Swadhinata Award in face of criticism. How do you think this was possible?

Social media and the news media took a strong stand against Amir Hamza's award. And some members of the civil society spoke up. It was because of their concerted efforts that the government moved away, or had to move away, from such a thoughtless step. This couldn't have happened without the staunch stand of the media. Any attempts to constrict the scope of the media must be stopped. If they do not speak out, such wrongdoings will continue. The government administration machinery often takes up a stern stance against expression of thought, but hardly any action is taken against those spreading hatred against free-thinking persons. It is really hard to discern what role these authorities that control the government are playing.

* This interview appeared in the online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir