Although Asia has drawn level with North America and Europe in terms of economic growth and now boasts several institutes of excellence, little of this gets reflected in the Nobel awards announced each year. While it is difficult for lay persons to judge the merit or otherwise of those chosen for the science prizes, in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize, some of the choices have been comic. Take the example of Henry Kissinger, Nobel Peace Prizeman. It was Kissinger who ensured that the United States turned away from the genocide taking place in what was then East Pakistan. Despite reports from diplomats in the field, best exemplified in the telegram sent to the US State Department by Archer Blood and others in the US Consulate in Dacca, Kissinger not only refused to so much as pick up the telephone to ask General Yahya Khan to cease the bloodshed, but assisted him as well as the “Butcher of Bengal”, General Tikka Khan, in their mission of extermination. Kissinger worked the phones to ensure that the PakistanArmy was supplied weapons by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other states. Both he as well as his boss Richard Nixon were unhappy that the US could not itself provide such lethal assistance to Pakistan, but consoled themselves by the fact that enough weapons were supplied to ensure that hapless Bengalis continued to be shot in their thousands. In particular, the Pakistan Army went after the Hindu minority, in what was then East Pakistan, remorselessly, sparking off a panic exodus of significant numbers of the community to India.
Assisting an army that was murdering tens of thousands of unarmed civilians was not the only contribution made by Kissinger to the sort of peacemaking that the Nobel committee seems to have thought it fit to award a prize to. Others include the bombing of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. While there has been much comment in the media about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and its contribution to the mass murders that took place in that country, there has been almost no attention paid to the contribution made by the bombing to the deaths of innocent Cambodians, or indeed those in Laos and Vietnam, who were unfortunate enough to come within range of B-52 bombers armed with, among other variants, chemical defoliant bombs. The Vietnam War could have been settled years before it finally ended, and on the same terms as paved the way for the US withdrawal from that country in the 1970s, except for Henry Kissinger’s insistence that the war continue in the form of intensified bombing, in an effort to persuade Ho Chi Minh to surrender wide enclaves of South Vietnam to US proxies. More recently, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Barack Obama, presumably because of a single statement opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was made by him as a Senator.
In a burst of candour, someone in the Nobel Committee has told journalists that the pathetic performance of this country of 1.26 billion people in the award of Nobel Prizes was because those in the country tasked with making such nominations allow “invitations to nominate to rot in their desks”. Certainly the fact that not a single nomination from India was received last year for Medicine ignores the fact that several doctors across the country have made important breakthroughs in medical care. Not only do those tasked with making nominations for the Prize not send more than a few names to the Nobel Committee (with less than 10% of the institutions involved sending even a single recommendation), most of the names they send are those working abroad rather than in facilities in India.
It is torture for members of the academic and scientific community in India to recommend anyone other than themselves for any award, but the Nobel Committee needs to introspect as to whether its own criteria for naming the individuals or institutions that send nominations for the Nobel Prizes is in need of change. Across the country, and despite the chilling effect of Victorian-era laws and official mindsets on the cultivation of original thought, there have been many pioneers who may better deserve the attention of the Nobel Committee than the usual suspects rounded up by them each year to suggest names from India.
Even this columnist has run into clusters of scientists who have come up with brilliant ideas, and sometimes even operationalised them in the form of new products, only to find that both private industry as well as the state sector remains wedded to traditional (mainly foreign) suppliers. If North America and Europe are still holding on to the overwhelming bulk of Nobel Prizes, it may be because in both locations, those with original minds find a much more conducive medium to operate in than is the case in India. Only when this country gets gifted with a leadership that has confidence in its own people, and is willing to give them the encouragement found elsewhere, will India catch up not with Australia (and its Mumbai-sized population) but with countries such as France, which have excelled in science for centuries.