Prize and prejudice: Why a lot of rotten people win the Nobel Prize

Prize and prejudice: Why a lot of rotten people win the Nobel Prize

In 1964 when Jean-Paul Sartre was given the Nobel Prize for literature, the French author and leftist icon rejected the award, saying it was “an honour restricted to Western writers and Eastern rebels”. (1) Sartre also understood the underlying intent of the Nobel awards as a tool of co-option. In fact, his other objection to the Nobel was that the winner of the prize is “in a way inevitably co-opted by simply being crowned. It’s a way of saying, finally he’s on our side”.

Just as entry to elite universities is not always based on merit, the winners of the Nobel Prize are not always deserving of honour and recognition. The unfortunate mutation of peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai from a diehard (no pun intended) critic of the Pakistan Taliban’s misogynistic laws to a mouthpiece of the very Islamist forces that tried to kill her, is a pointer to the bad picks – and misses – of the Nobel Academy.

Here’s a short list of people that even a blind judge could not have missed: Mohandas Gandhi (rejected all forms of violence), Dmitri Mendeleyev (the Russian scientist famous for the Periodic Table), Leo Tolstoy (the greatest novelist of all time), U. Thant (played a key role in defusing the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis), Anton Chekhov (one of the world’s greatest writers) and R.K. Narayan (most prolific Indian author of the modern era).

In this backdrop it comes as no surprise that Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg – famous for her cringe-worthy How Dare You monologue – has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded this month. At 16, she would be the youngest recipient of the $930,000 award won by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev. (2)

Peace Prize for warmongers

For all his failings as a political leader, Gandhi should have been a shoo-in for the peace prize. Many people of British origin living in different parts of the world today owe their existence to Gandhi because he prevented the Indian revolutionaries from carrying out a massacre of their forefathers – the 100,000-odd British soldiers, bureaucrats and civilians ruling India.

The British were committing genocide in India, but Norway – which annually awards the Nobel Peace Prize – did not want to ruffle any feathers in Britain by honouring Gandhi. It was a clear case of racial solidarity. Considered the home of the Germanic people, Norway enjoys very close relations with Britain.

In 1972 the peace prize should have gone to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Firstly she had stopped the genocide of Bengalis in East Pakistan, where three million of them had been killed by the Pakistan Army in a short span of eight months during the previous year. Correspondents of Time magazine quoted a US official admitting that what the Bengalis had endured was “the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland”. (3)

Secondly, Mrs Gandhi prevented the massacre of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners who had surrendered before the Indian Army by mass evacuating them out of East Pakistan, thereby preventing their killings by vengeful Bengali soldiers of the Mukti Bahini guerrilla army.

However, Norway had no problems awarding the peace prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973. There is a special place in hell for Kissinger, the US Secretary of State, who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. During the 1971 Christmas bombing – named Operation Linebacker – American bombers dropped 20,000 tons of explosives on North Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. During Linebacker and a bombing campaign preceding it, the US dropped a total of 155,237 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, killing thousands. (4)

American satirist Tom Lehrer commented: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” (5)

Kissinger was a serial offender. Just two years earlier, he had winked at Pakistan’s massacre of nearly three million Bengalis, mostly Hindus, in East Pakistan or modern Bangladesh. He had described Indians as “bastards” for putting an end to the genocide. (6)

The Norwegians were red faced when North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, who was jointly awarded the prize, declined it, saying peace in Vietnam was a big lie. Kissinger had no such scruples and accepted the prize “with humility”.

In 1994 the peace prize was awarded to three people jointly – Yasser Arafat, the head of the terrorist outfit Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. One of the Nobel peace prize committee members, Kare Kristiansen, resigned in protest at the honour given to Arafat, whom he described as “too tainted by violence, terror and torture”. (7)

Presidential follies

By giving the 2009 peace prize to US President Barrack Obama even as he was ramping up the war in Afghanistan, and in 2012 to the European Union after it had bombed and destroyed Libya, the Nobel awards gave tacit approval for war. It was almost Orwellian. Russian channel RT commented: ‘‘Sometimes the makers of permanent war are awarded for bringing temporary peace.’’ (8)

Obama wasn’t the first American president with a penchant for war to be honoured by the Nobel Academy. In the exact same year he became a Nobel Laureate, Theodore Roosevelt showed his determination to see the United States as a great power using military force, primarily in the Caribbean. Many American newspapers found the award curious, and The New York Times later commented that “a broad smile illuminated the face of the globe when the prize was awarded … to the most warlike citizen of these United States’’. (9)

US President Woodrow Wilson was awarded the peace prize in 1919 for his sponsorship of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. But Wilson was a racist whose administration wreaked havoc on the government careers of thousands of African Americans in the 1910s, says Eric S. Yellin, associate professor of History and American Studies at Richmond University, Virginia.

“In 1912, and when Wilson arrived in the nation’s capital in March 1913, he brought with him an administration loaded with white supremacists,” Yellin writes in the literary magazine Berfrois. “His lieutenants segregated offices, harassed black workers and removed black politicians from political appointments that had been held by black men for more than a generation.” (10)

It was Wilson who introduced segregation in the US civil service, which had offered social mobility for black Americans.

Another nasty character honoured by the Norwegians was Cordell Hull. The American, who received the peace prize in 1945 for his role in establishing the United Nations, was directly responsible for condemning hundreds of Jews to the Holocaust.

In what is known as the St Louis crisis, in June 1939, Hull threatened to withdraw support to US President Franklin Roosevelt if the ship SS St Louis, carrying 950 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, was allowed to dock in an American port. Lobbying by Hull, and the Christian Right, ensured the Jews were not allowed to enter the US but had to return to Europe, where the Germans desptached more than a quarter of them to the gas chambers. (11)

In 2013, the peace prize could have easily gone to Vladimir Putin. While the Americans, their NATO allies and the Gulf emirates had wanted to bomb Syria into the Stone Age, it was the Russian President’s forceful intervention that averted war in the Middle East. But Putin is not strictly speaking a Westerner nor an Eastern rebel so he didn’t fit the bill.

Europeans preferred

Ever wondered why famous Indian authors such as Munshi Premchand, Amrita Pritam and Narayan never received the Nobel? They were giants of the literary world, yet they didn’t make it.

Whether it is the raw primal emotions in a short story like ‘Kafan’ or the decadent sensuality of Nawabi Lucknow in ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, Premchand was both master stylist and storyteller, and an obvious candidate for a Nobel, says Swarajya magazine. (12)

Narayan was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times, but never won. In an illustrious career spanning six decades, he produced classics such as Swami and Friends that introduced Indian writing to the world. Narayan won fans all over the world of whom author Graham Greene was the greatest, but the Nobel committee didn’t ignore him for decades. India’s opposition to the West during the Cold War was definitely a factor.

But there could be an even more insidious factor at work. According to the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, the Nobel Academy prefers to pick European authors. ‘‘Since 1995, 85 per cent of the winners have been Europeans,’’ it said in a 2008 article.

According to American author Burton Feldman, the Swedish Academy lacks the linguistic competence needed for a truly international jury, which is not surprising. “Unprepared to read fluently and directly in major and populous languages such as Chinese, Arabic or Hindi, not to mention minor ones, the Nobel committee is overly dependent on translations . . . ” (13)

Prejudice was evident in the very first prize in medicine. In 1901, the Nobel was awarded to Emil von Behring for the discovery of antitoxins, but not to his close collaborator Shibasaburo Kitasato, the legendary Japanese physician.

The Nobel judges aren’t above bribery and corruption either. In 2008 Harald zur Hausen bagged the Nobel Prize for medicine for discovering that HPV causes cervical cancer. But even as the Swede was basking in his newfound glory, he was being investigated by the police. It emerged that AstraZeneca, a pharmaceuticals company with stakes in HPV vaccines, had close links with key members of the selection committee. Further investigations revealed AstraZeneca was also sponsoring the Nobel website. (14)

In 2018, a sex scandal cancelled the literature prize. In November 2017, the Swedish media revealed that the husband of one of the academy members had been accused of serial sexual abuse, in assaults alleged to have taken place over more than 20 years. The accused man was Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer and cultural entrepreneur, married to the poet and academician Katarina Frostenson.

During the investigations it was discovered that “there had been heavy and well-informed betting in advance of the prize in several of the early years of the century”. Frostenson was accused of leaking the names of seven prizewinners to her husband ahead of the announcements. The names of prizewinners are the subject of intense speculation and on which many people place bets with betting firms. (15)

Causes of bias

While European ethnocentrism is clearly at work in the fields of science and literature, in the peace prize a deciding factor is Norway’s geopolitical tilt. As a NATO member, Norway reflects the prejudices that are inevitable because of the country’s entanglement in the military alliance.

Francis Sejersted, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s, said without mincing words: “The Prize … is not only for past achievement…. The Committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account… Awarding a Peace Prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act.” (16)

In fact, in a rare moment of candour, the Nobel Academy questioned its own competency: “Is a committee that is constituted only by members of the political establishment in one small West European nation really capable of assessing who – in the whole world, in the preceding year – has done the most for peace? Is it not likely that their decisions will be marked by ethnocentricity, or by some kind of ideological bias?” (17)

Tools for subversion

India has always been a target of the West’s propaganda apparatus. In 2014, when child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the peace prize, author Sankrant Sanu wrote in Niti Central: “The verdict is still out on Satyarthi and the Nobel on whether he is a hero manufactured by Western institutions for their own interests or a simple, unassuming human rights worker. Given the pattern of funds…and relationships with evangelical organisations such as World Vision, we should take our newly minted hero with a grain of salt.” (18)

Malala, who was jointly awarded the prize with Satyarthi, could have been a credible voice against the ongoing radicalisation of her country’s society by the Pakistan Army and the Islamist parties. Instead she has kept up a steady stream of tweets against India while not saying a word against the killings and mass disappearances of Pashtuns, Balochs, Sindhis, Waziristanis and Swatis in Pakistan.

In March 2019, Malala travelled to Japan “to meet with young women and girls who are challenging the country’s long-standing patriarchy”. (19) In Tokyo she called on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and said: “I hope that he can use his G-20 presidency to help my sisters in Japan…. reach their full potential because the world works better when girls go to school.”

Only a fool would believe Japanese women need advice on patriarchy from a hijab wearing Pakistani.

Her constant tweets on Kashmir have exposed her true intentions as a front for the Pakistan Army, says Canada-based journalist and TV anchor Tahir Aslam Gora. “The girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban has become the voice of the jehadi Taliban, Kashmiri militants and ISI.” (20)

Gora argues Malala’s transformation started soon after she got the Nobel. That’s when she decided to use her celebrity status to advance the agenda of the Pakistani establishment by cherry picking facts. “The aim of the Malala Foundation is to talk about issues facing young girls around the world but she never talks about home. She has never spoken about the forced conversion of Hindu girls in Pakistan.”

According to Gora, however, Malala’s real loss of credibility happened with her series of tweets on Kashmir immediately after India scrapped Article 370 and ended the state’s special status. “You say, ‘Let Kashmir speak.’ But have you ever said ‘Let Balochistan speak’? You don’t care about Hindu and Christian girls, but do you care about the sufferings of your own Pashtun sisters? Thousands of Pashtuns have been killed because of the brutalities of the Pakistan Army. But you have no shame.”

The red carpet welcome given to Malala by the Pakistan Army and her conducted tours with full official protocols revealed to the world that this girl was now a plaything of the military. Gora points out that her tweets claiming to be the voice of girls in Kashmir are highly suspicious. For, if there was a telecom ban in Kashmir how was she able to communicate with those girls? Gora is certain these are fake anecdotes from people who do not exist. “I’m sure you are putting these words in their mouths,” he says, and adds that he has been following Malala’s writings since her early days and is prepared to do a “forensic analysis” to prove she’s simply recycling her words. “What a fraud you are, Malala,” Gora concludes.

Clearly, the Nobel committee goofed up in Malala’s case and may now be about to commit a bigger blunder with Thunberg.

Impact of the Nobels

In a detailed study, University of Minnesota professor Ronald R. Krebs says the peace prize has more often brought the heavy hand of the State down on dissidents and has impeded, rather than promoted, conflict-free liberalisation. (21)

For instance, awarding the Nobel to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, women’s activist Shirin Ebadi and the Dalai Lama only strengthened the hand of hardliners in Myanmar, Iran and China respectively. It brought zero benefits to the awardees or their cause.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the prize in October 1989. Krebs shows what happened next: between November 1989 and April 1990, the Chinese executed 2,000 Tibetans, imprisoned countless more, banned religious processions and forbade even burning of incense in Tibet.

It was a clear message from China to the West: we won’t be bullied, so don’t ever piss us off.

Once upon a time the Nobel awards enjoyed iconic status but increasingly millennials are detached from the whole exercise. Back in the day, people around the world, especially Indians, were in awe of the awards. But in today’s world of instant communications where people are able to figure out Thunberg as a clueless, poorly informed teenager who is being manipulated by the media liberals and her own social climbing parents, these awards are a big yawn.

People are also questioning the very raison d’etre of the Nobels, which ironically rest on the foundations of war. The awards are the legacy of Alfred Nobel, a weapons magnate and the inventor of dynamite. Among the tens of millions that his invention killed include his own brother. Therefore, Alfred’s primary motive in establishing the academy was to repair his family’s dented image with a huge show of philanthropy.

And if you are still here, here’s something to chew on – no black scientist has ever won the Nobel. If that isn’t a clear case of bias, you probably live under a rock. (22)


  1. Burton Feldman, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige, page 78
  3. M. Sanjeeb Hossain and Bahzad Joarder,
  4. BBC,
  5. The Guardian,
  6. Russia Beyond The Headlines,
  7. BBC,
  8. RT,
  9. Irwin Abrams: The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates, p.61
  10. Discrimination as Reform: Wilson’s Federal Segregation, Berfois, October 16, 2013,
  11. St Louis Incident,
  12. Swarajya,
  13. Burton Feldman, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige
  14. The Telegraph,
  15. The Guardian,
  16. The Nobel Prize,
  17. The Nobel Prize,
  18. Niti Central, October 2014,
  19. MalalaFund, Twitter,
  20. TAG TV,
  21. The False Promise of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ronald Krebs, University of Minnesota

Featured Image: Nobel Media AB 2017. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.