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Gandhi - the Nobel Prize’s greatest omission?

Last update - Thursday, October 22, 2009, 04:25 By Priya Rajsekar

Is Mahatma Gandhi the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s most famous omission? This year more than most – following US President Barack Obama’s award of the prize, amidst gasps that resounded all the way from the White House – the issue resurfaced again.

Let’s face the facts. Obama is a much-loved and admired president, and although a quiet inner voice warns us that it is probably too soon where he is concerned, we feel generous enough to applaud and join in the celebrations. And yet, especially for Indians worldwide, that nagging feeling of having been let down by the failure to recognise Gandhi in this lifetime is a hard one to quell.
Even as Obama himself voiced that he felt ‘humbled’ and believed the prize was more a call to deliver than a recognition of achievements, the world’s media channels were swamped with articles on the Nobel committee’s omission of the Mahatma. After all, Obama himself has been a very vocal admirer of Gandhi and has on many occasions sought to equate his ideals with those of the great soul.
Incidentally, on the eve of Gandhi’s 140th birthday, Obama gave a statement on the occasion, saying: “The America of today has its roots in the India of Mahatma Gandhi and the non-violent social action movement for Indian independence which he led. Tomorrow, as we remember the Mahatma on his birthday, we must renew our commitment to live his ideals and to celebrate the dignity of all human beings.”
As the Nobel Prize website informs us, Gandhi was in fact nominated for the peace prize several times, first in 1937 (when he was shortlisted) and finally a few days before his assassination in 1948. A now famous statement from the committee’s advisor describes Gandhi as being “frequently a Christ, but suddenly, an ordinary politician.” Interestingly, questions were also raised over whether Gandhi had been denied the prize to avoid incurring British displeasure.
There is little solace to be had from knowing that in 1948, following Gandhi’s death, the committee felt there was no living individual worthy of the award and so what was largely considered to be the Mahatma’s place on the list was ‘silently but respectfully left open’.
The pages of history will always highlight this incorrigible omission. But perhaps we could take heart from the fact that this year’s award has gone to a man who has undoubtedly worked towards Gandhi’s ideals of peace. Obama is a man who’s faced up to the truth of his country’s failings at Guantanamo Bay, an American President who has chosen to extend a hand of friendship towards the Muslim world and – in a move that will endear him to the Hindu population worldwide – celebrated Diwali at the White House for the very first time, as a festival of the victory of good over evil, of knowledge over ignorance.
As Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, noted: “Maybe giving it early is a welcome change.”

Priya Rajsekar is a freelance writer

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