The Bangla Academy Literary Awards, which aim to affirm, connect, and energise the world of reading by showcasing the authors and illustrators, are facing a crisis of confidence.
Murmurs of discontent have been growing about the way the selection is made. This situation escalated when writer Zakir Talukder made the dramatic decision to return his Bangla Academy Literary Award, received about a decade ago, citing concerns about the award’s legitimacy.
Speaking of his bold move that has ignited fresh debates about the credentials of the award, he said: “People have lost their faith in the Bangla Academy’s method of handing out awards after the academy completely turned into a non-democratic, bureaucratic organisation.”
The writer elaborated on his accusations of the organisation’s “undemocratic” and “bureaucratic” nature, while pointing out that of the 19 key positions in the Academy, seven are expected to be filled through elections.
However, this process was discontinued 25 years ago. According to him, current members either assumed their roles or were appointed by the government, bypassing democratic procedures.
These revelations have led to further allegations that the Academy operates on an arbitrary basis and adheres to an unspoken “quota” system in awarding.
Critics argue that from the nomination stage to the final decision-making, the director general of the Academy holds significant sway over the award’s regulations, raising questions about the fairness and transparency of the process.
In 2024, Bangla Academy announced 16 recipients in 11 categories on Jan 24, a decision released by the academy’s public relations wing. However, the list announced has been mired in controversies since.
A significant change in the announcement procedure of the Bangla Academy Literary Awards has been observed since 2020.
Previously, the awards were publicly announced during a press briefing, but for the past three years, the academy has shifted to revealing the winners through press releases. This shift in practice has raised questions about the academy’s transparency and its engagement with journalists in the award process.
The timing of this year’s announcement at 10pm via a press release has drawn particular attention and speculation.
Among the awardees, Tapan Bagchi’s recognition for his contributions to folklore with his book “Choujabritti” – meaning ‘plagiarism’ – has sparked debate and calls that he be stripped of the honour.
Despite these controversies, Tapan Bagchi has refuted all accusations against his book, and the Bangla Academy has supported him, asserting that the claims are unfounded.
Adding to the controversy is the recent introduction of an ‘Art Film’ category in the awards, which began in 1960 and was governed by a strict set of rules. This new category has been criticizsd by some who believe it was created to favour certain individuals.
In defence of the selections, Muhammad Nurul Huda, the director general of Bangla Academy, stated that the nominations were shortlisted adhering to proper rules and emphasised that he had no influence over the final decisions.
Despite these assurances, the changes and controversies have led to a growing scepticism about the fairness and integrity of the award process.
NO EXECUTIVE COUNCIL ELECTIONS
Talukder received the award in 2014 and he posted the award back to the academy in a show of rejection of current methods on Sunday.
For nearly a quarter of a century, the academy has sidestepped conducting elections for its Executive Council, leading to what Talukder describes as “random” individuals steering the academy’s course.
Bangla Academy’s regulations mandate an Executive Council responsible for guiding policies, approving annual reports, and overseeing literary, cultural, research, and technological training programmes.
This council, ideally comprising 19 members with a mix of elected and appointed individuals, currently functions with only 12. The absence of elections has resulted in a skewed composition: the director general and another member joined by virtue of their roles, two were nominated by the Council itself, and the remaining seats were filled by various government sectors.
Zakir Talukder expressed frustration over the diminished role of elected members in decision-making, pointing out that without elections for 25 years, the academy has defaulted to arbitrary appointments.
“It was possible for the elected members to have a strong role in the meetings of the Executive Council. But with no elections in the past 25 years, that side has been blocked off. We’re operating on an ad-hoc basis by selecting people of our choice.
“This has led to the director general and other officials wielding unchecked control,” he lamented.
“I spoke to them sometimes alone and sometimes in the presence of some other writers and poets. Two of them have died. There’s a new director general now, but none of them have dismissed the issues as unreasonable. But there were no apparent moves to settle the problems.”
Ramendu Majumder, a cultural coordinator of the academy who was an elected member, is currently a distinguished fellow of the academy. He recalled that the last election took place during Syed Anwar Hossain’s tenure as director general from 1997 to 2001.
Nurul Huda, responding to inquiries about Talukder’s grievances, stated he had not received any formal complaints and therefore preferred not to comment on the specifics.
CRACKS IN THE POLICY
Recent years have witnessed significant alterations in the protocol for presenting the Bangla Academy Award, drawing criticism for centralising too much power in the hands of the director general.
Insiders connected with the Academy and the award process observe that the director general’s influence in selecting awardees has steadily increased over the last decade, beginning with the tenure of the late Shamsuzzaman Khan and continuing under subsequent directors Habibullah Siraji and Nurul Huda.
The prestigious award, spanning categories like poetry, fiction, research, and drama, and accompanied by a Tk 300,000 prize, is a once-in-a-lifetime honour for a litterateur, with no provision for applications.
Under the current system, up to 30 proposers, chosen from the academy fellows by the Executive Committee, shortlist nominees and forward their names to the director general.
A seven-strong Bangla Academy Literary Award Committee, including eminent literary personalities, educators, authors, and two members of the Executive Council, is formed for the selection process.
The committee’s recommendations, based on a unanimous or majority agreement, are then sent to the academy council’s chief. The committee cannot slip in names of anybody else by themselves.
A critical aspect of the policy is the appointment of the director general as the head of the awards-giving committee, granting significant influence over the nomination and final selection stages, a point of contention among many.
Syed Mohammad Shahed, the director general from 2007 to 2009 and recipient of the award in 2018 in the essay and research categories, recalls a time when the jury board and director general were distinct entities.
He notes that, unlike now, there were no restrictions on the number of fellows proposing nominees, and the Executive Committee did not have the authority to override the jury’s suggestions.
Currently, the Executive Committee holds the power to strike out any names suggested by the jury board and the chief of that board is none other than the director general.
The final announcement of the winners is made by the director general or a representative, effectively making them the ultimate decider in the award process.
However, Nurul Huda, the current head of the jury board, denies any undue influence exerted by the director general in selecting awardees.
FILMS IN THE DRAMA CATEGORY
Last year, the Bangla Academy Awards policy was amended for the inclusion of literary films or aesthetically pleasing films in the drama category.
Many have questioned the rationale behind this amendment since.
Prominent actor and cultural personality Asaduzzaman Noor believes that the addition of films in the drama category is incongruous.
Expressing his perplexity to bdnews24.com, he said: “I don’t see the logic behind it. There are various state awards for films.”
“Awards can be given for research for films in a separate research category,” he added.
Cultural organiser Ramendu Majumdar is of the same view as Noor.
Opposing the Academy’s decision, he said, “I don’t understand why this was done. I don’t think there is a need to include films in literary award categories. And to associate it with drama is absolutely wrong.”
The literary awards were introduced by the Bangla Academy in 1960. Since then, literary geniuses have received awards for poetry, novels, short stories, essay research, children’s literature and drama categories.
The first person to have received this award was Ashkar Ibne Shaikh in 1960.
Literary luminaries such as Nurul Momen, Munier Choudhury, Anis Chowdhury, Mamunur Rashid, Maloy Bhowmick have received the Bangla Academy Award.
However, there have been years when no awards were given in this category due to a lack of suitable candidates.
This year, the Academy expanded the drama category to encompass Jatra, Pala, and literary art films or aesthetic films, leading to Mrittika Chakma and Masud Pathik receiving the Bangla Academy Literary Award.
Maloy Bhowmick, a previous recipient for drama, and Professor Ratan Siddiqui, the 2019 awardee, have both voiced concerns about this inclusion, citing a disconnect between films and traditional literary awards.
Bhowmick thinks there is a “gap when no one worthy is found for the award. But even then, there is no justification for adding film to the drama category”.
Prof Siddiqui, who won the drama award in 2019, finds films incompatible with literary award categories. “I will talk about this issue if I ever get a chance to speak to the Bangla Academy about this,” he said.
Bangla Academy Director General Nurul Huda disagrees with the latest clamour about the amendment of the awards policy.
He argues that since screenplays form the foundation of films, they should be considered literary works.
“This time there was a proposal to add art films to this category. The Executive Council of Bangla Academy approved it and I think it was a reasonable decision.”
Nurul Huda maintains that such a decision was taken without multiplying the number of categories.
“There are 11 categories in total. But this time autobiography, memoirs, and travel stories have also been added to free prose.”
Professor Baitullah Quadri, a member of the Bangla Academy executive council who teaches at Dhaka University’s Bengali department, acknowledges the criticism surrounding the award categories.
He expressed disappointment over writers lobbying for recognition and lamented the increased bureaucratic influence on the Academy, raising concerns about its autonomy.
“One thing that upsets me is that the writers are blowing their own trumpets. It’s a shame for all of us. Many geniuses have not received the Bangla Academy Award. But does that make them ineligible?”
He lamented the increased bureaucratic influence on the Academy in recent times.
“Nowadays, the Academy is pressured by the ministry as well. They want to interfere in everything. It also raises questions about the autonomy of Bangla Academy,” he concluded.