When the Independence Award 2020 was announced a week ago, one particular name in the list drew nationwide surprise. The government picked SM Raij Uddin Ahmed for the highest national award of the country for his "glorious and outstanding contribution" to literature.
The problem is that the name is so unfamiliar among literary circles across the country that hardly anyone is aware of his contribution to literature.
How can a man chosen for such an honor be someone whose contribution is totally unrecognized till date and whose name had hitherto been totally unknown – wondered Mohammad Rafique, a renowned poet who received Ekushey Padak in 2010. Talking to The Business Standard he said, "This, I fear, will gravely smear the dignity of an award which has a history of raising frequent debates."
The Independence Award, since its inception in 1977, honours individuals and institutions every year ahead of the Independence Day. The usual categories are contributions in the war of independence, medical science, education, literature, journalism, science and technology, fine arts etc.
This year, nine individuals and an organization were picked for the award. SM Raij Uddin Ahmed's name in the list has drawn nationwide controversy.
SM Raij Uddin Ahmed, a retired bureaucrat, has authored 25 books, including a number of books of poems. Born in 1960 in Narail, he is mentioned as a valiant freedom fighter in the official declaration of the award. On 15 January this year, he retired as the Deputy Land Reforms Commissioner of Khulna.
Talking to the Business Standard over phone about his literary career, SM Raij Uddin Ahmed said, "I am a poet and a cultural organizer. I have ventured into many genres of literature and written many books on regional histories. One of my books on rivers of Bangladesh is being used as a reference book in many universities."
Nevertheless, it was only after the declaration of the award on February 20 that his name came to light and some of the poems written by him began to be shared on the social media and many jaws dropped at the sheer standard of his literary acumen.
Anisul Hoque, a popular novelist and poet who received Bangla Academy Award in 2012, said, "By the standard of the poems I have read, he (SM Raij Uddin Ahmed) cannot be considered eligible even for an annual literary publication of, say, Mitali Sangha or Udayan Sangha – frequent names for most of the district level cultural organisations. How did this name manage to reach such a venerable list remains a matter of curiosity!"
Sumon Rahman, a writer and poet, smells a rat in the process of making the list for the award. Talking to The Business Standard he said, "The process of selecting the names remains mysterious. There is hardly any accountability and transparency in the procedure."
When asked Kamal Chowdhury, a poet and former principal secretary to the Prime Minister, explained the process at work in deciding two of the highest awards of the country - Independence Award (Swadhinata Purashkar) and Ekshey Padak. Ekushey Padak is managed by the cultural ministry while the Independence Award, the highest honor of the state, is administered by the cabinet division. Former laureates of the award, different government ministries and agencies propose names to a committee titled "Cabinet Committee for National Awards." This committee prepares the final list from the proposals.
According to a government circular issued on January 15, 2019, the latest committee was formed with A K M Mozammel Haque, the liberation war affairs minister as the convener and 12 other ministers and state ministers as members. The committee has 10 top bureaucrats, including the cabinet division secretary, as well.
When enquired about how his name was proposed for the award, SM Raij Uddin Ahmed told The Business Standard that as an official of the Land Commission, his colleagues in the ministry of land took the initiative.
Asked about the criticism on his being an obscure choice, Raij Uddin retorted, "And who are these people who are criticizing me? I do not know them either."
SM Raij Uddin Ahmed claimed that he has a wide range of readership throughout the country and his cultural organisation "Gangchil" has become a household name with branches in almost every district.
Nevertheless, Anisul Hoque and Mohammad Rafique opined that the award committee should be reorganised so that prominent personalities could be included in the process of selecting names in order to avoid any unwanted controversy.