Fascination with awards and honours are very high in Bangladesh as indicators of social prestige and recognition by the state. It also produces a loyal clan and excludes the contestants from privilege. Recognition through awards means "you are on our side."

his largely applies to the Ekushey Padak and Shadhinota award, the two most prestigious as well as politically sensitive awards. Rest of the awards are at the lower end as they are not state awards. However, Bangla Academy awards are also a producer of controversy as it's seen as official munificence. A huge load of lobbying goes on which makes the awarding business itself both controversial and not reflective enough of prestige without partisanship.

The roots of national awards?

The national awards first arrived after the 1971 war when gallantry awards were declared for the participants. One wishes one could say that they were all given without controversy but as someone who studied some of the files on the issue as a worker in the 1971 History project, I would say no. The files were full of conflicts and complaints about who deserved what but there was at least one razakar who also received a Bir Protik, most probably in Barishal area. This resulted in a lot of noise which ultimately led to its withdrawal.

A perusal of the gallantry awards by sectors would also show certain sectors were awarded more gallantry medals and some had fewer. This could be attributed to politics within the armed forces and civilian connections as well. The attempt by some officials of the post-Mujibnagar government to award Dr. Zafarullah Chowdhury with the CNC medal was shot down on the ground as no such medal category existed. It was for courage without participating in armed conflict. However, it was at this time that other categories were announced so it's not known who prevented this and why?

These awards needed recommendations and were made by the Sector Commanders so somebody had to say that someone deserved it. That being given, not all recommendations resulted in awards. We have several interviews with commanders who said they did so but none came their way. One particular case is that of Col. Dutta who recommended (Shaheed) Havildar Aulad for Bir Shrestho for his role in the Chiknagul battle but he never got any award. The proportionate number of soldiers who got awards and officers who did also shows a general trend which is inevitable in the formal world of award giving.

But if this could happen under the regime of Sheikh Mujib, the founder leader, one can understand the controversy later on. Subsequently, under Zia, several anti-1971 individuals were given national awards. By then the status of national awards had begun to decline.

The state awards

The tallest awards in town are the Ekushey and the Independence awards. Over the years they have slid in status and now are very controversial and often target of derision. Of the two, Ekushey is more controversial as it's largely focused on cultural activists who obviously go close to the establishment for patronage and gains and are ready to participate in the proxy political war in the cultural space.

Shadhinota Podok has also began to be controversial though less so because certain people were awarded who are not known for their achievements. It's not fame but a record of achievement. While it's true that the Centre activists are unhappy when the fringe gets an award, it's also true that there is no strong evidence that the awards are being considered for their non-metropolitan achievements and not other factors.

However, most awardees are non-controversial as they belong to spaces people know very little about. Essentially, it's not a transparent process which has caused so many questions to be raised and ultimately so many negative responses to some names on the list.

The Amir Hamza issue

This year's Shadhinota award has descended into a social media-driven circus of accusations and support, trashing of writers of each other, mocking of awards of all kinds and making fun of the writer as well. It has been also speculated based on as yet unproven accusations that the late Amir Hamza was/is a hardcore supporter of the party in power even with charges of committing mayhem and violence.

More transparent has been the process which was followed which led to his awarding. It seems the writer's son is a mid-level GOB official who got him enlisted and the recommendation was made by the Commerce Secretary of the GOB. When asked, the Secretary apparently has stated that he didn't know the writer before but was impressed by his son's narrative of the father and thus signed and forwarded the application. Both the books were written on Bangabandhu.

It has been said by his supporters that he is a poet of the margins and that he is being trashed because he is not of Dhaka's babu class which may well be true. But then as pointed out, if the son gets the application signed by an amla who doesn't know the poet, the process is seriously flawed too.

It's not who gets the award but how that matters when it comes to the highest in the land. Unfortunately, it's not the first time that controversy has hit such awards, and it won't be the last. In the end, the responsibility of diminishing its status will lie squarely with the granting authority. The onus is on them to come up with a more credible system.

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