After all how objective or desirable can the Nobel Prize for Peace be if Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest messenger of non-violence the world has seen for centuries, never got it? His name was nominated several times but Sweden did not want to annoy Britain.
The Nobel Prize winners for 2023 have been announced. Since Indians give so much importance to this prize, it is useful to examine if the criteria for the prizes are entirely objective. The dominant trend happily accepted by the rest of the excluded world has seen non-negligible mention of Asian, African, and Latin American names over the years. In the run-up to the announcement of a double Nobel Prize in literature in 2019, the head of the award committee, Anders Olsson, made a bold claim. “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature,” he said, “and now we are looking all over the world.”
Since the inception of the Nobel Prize in 1895, it appears to be consistently Eurocentric. Over 75 per cent of winners in the last 20 years have been from Europe. The United Kingdom has won 137 prizes; Germany 111; France 73; Russia 32; Sweden 33; Canada 28; Switzerland 27; and Netherlands 22. The United States has won the maximum, 406. The one exception in Asia is Japan, which has won 29 prizes. Is it coincidental that it is a staunch ally of the West? It is striking, though, that Sweden itself, with a population of only 9.5 million, has won the same number of prizes as all of Asia and Africa, with a combined population of 5.5 billion.
Not until the mid-80s had a single African, Arab or Chinese writer won, though Asia’s writers had a sparse presence in Rabindranath Tagore (1913) and Yasunari Kawabata (1968). Latin America fared marginally better, with Gabriela Mistral (1945), Miguel Ángel Asturias (1967), Pablo Neruda (1971) and Gabriel García Márquez (1982). For the late Chinua Achebe, the trailblazing writer from Nigeria who won the 2007 Man Booker International prize, the Swedish laurels that eluded him were quite simply a “European prize.”
No Indian after Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 has got the Nobel for Literature. In a country, that has arguably the richest linguistic heritage in the world, is there not a single writer since 1913 worthy of this award? Munshi Premchand, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Mahasweta Devi, Gulzar. V.S Naipaul — Indian by descent and British by choice — did win the Prize in 2001, but only after he had endeared himself to the West after 9/11 by his strident criticism of the Islamic world.
Legitimising West's interests
It is essential that, instead of getting mesmerised by the aura of the Nobel Prize, we objectively question some of its decisions. After all how objective or desirable can the Nobel Prize for Peace be if Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest messenger of non-violence the world has seen for centuries, never got it? His name was nominated several times but Sweden did not want to annoy Britain. After 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru was nominated 11 times, but he too did not get it. However, Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state and national security adviser to American President Richard Nixon, won it. His contributions to peace included using bombs in Vietnam and supporting Pakistani dictator General Yahya Khan in the Bangladeshi Liberation War!
Civilisations like India, which have evolved since the dawn of time, and have a rich tradition, should learn to judiciously interrogate biases wrapped and presented as global objectivity. This is not to defame or devalue the Nobel Prize but to argue that we should, through our own standards and minds, be able to evaluate its impartiality and objectivity. In the present circumstances, it’s obvious to rule out that the prize is used to legitimise the West’s interest and appears to suffer from biases and purposive convenience. The US and the West unilaterally and unreasonably break all international law and invade Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, killing millions are still considered favourable for winning these awards.
Lack of diversity
There are also blatant double standards involved in other categories as well. For example, On October 5 Jon Fosse, a Norwegian, was awarded the world’s most prestigious writing prize. Many literary buffs had never heard of him. Fosse writes mainly in Nynorsk, a form of Norwegian that is, even among the country’s writers, a minority pursuit. His best-known work is a trilogy called “Septology”, which boasts itself as a “radically other reading experience” that is still little known. The writers of the stature of, for example, the Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and the Somali Nuruddin Farah are perpetually in the running without finding success gives credibility to Achebe’s judgment about the prize’s having limited horizons.
Critics, since the middle of the 20th century, have argued for a series of simple measures to ensure more transparency in the Nobel Foundation’s nomination process. To begin with, let’s look at some numbers which necessitate it. Of the 141 peace laureates to date, only 19 have been women; of 119 literature laureates, only 17; of 227 medicine laureates, only 13; of 192 chemistry laureates, only eight; of 224 physics laureates, only four; of 93 economics laureates, only three. There are other curiosities as well that plague the conscience of the Nobel Prize Foundation. Questions on the lack of gender and racial diversity in the prize’s history are not new. The figures available in the public domain just add to the claim of it being a male bastion, of the 141 peace laureates to date, only 19 have been women; of 119 literature laureates, only 17; of 227 medicine laureates, only 13; of 192 chemistry laureates, only eight; of 224 physics laureates, only four; of 93 economics laureates, only three. Nobel Foundation’s board of directors & vice-chairman Goran Hansson in 2019 when questioned on the lack of gender and racial diversity in the Prize’s history said that women have only recently been allowed into STEM fields so their contributions will take time to reflect in the awards
According to a 2019 UNESCO report less than 30 per cent of researchers in the world are women. According to the American Institute of Physics, women now earn 20 per cent of bachelor’s degrees and 18 per cent of PhDs in physics. The American National Science Foundation found in a 2014 study that women make up more than half of the jobs in psychology and social sciences now.
Lacking in transparency
Societal changes have surpassed the Nobel’s affirmative actions. If the Foundation has indeed added more women to the nomination process as they claim to be, how many, from which regions, from which universities? These numbers are missing.
The academy never discusses potential winners and even keeps nominations secret for 50 years. To begin with, the first and foremost series of reforms that the Nobel Foundation must execute is to make the nomination process public. An award that claims to represent the best of the best without even revealing who was considered should not go unnoticed without some scepticism; the archives of past nominees and nominations must be revealed within due timeframe without maintaining a lot of secrecy and shedding the bourgeois treatment given to the winners.
“If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner.” said French writer Jean-Paul Sartre while rejecting the Nobel Prize accorded to him in 1964. Sartre became one of the only two individuals in history to refuse the award. Perhaps, he was wary that there would be attempts to dissuade his crusade against colonialism and he didn’t want his readers to be influenced by his association to a global institution of a particular order.
(The writer is a political science graduate from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India and a commentator. Views are personal. She can be contacted at email@example.com)