Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: At the outset, let me state three things loudly and clearly before the bricks start landing.

1) All things considered, the honesty and integrity of prime minister Manmohan Singh and his family is beyond debate.

2) Some things considered, the reputation of Infosys as a practitioner of “best practices” is well earned.

3) Whatever we might argue, Amartya Sen is one of the glittering stars on our intellectual firmament.

That said, we have to ask if either or all three of them have covered themselves with glory with Professor Upinder Singh of Delhi University being honoured with the inaugural Infosys Prize in social sciences “in recognition of her contributions as an outstanding historian of ancient and early medieval Indian history.”

The booty: a cash award of Rs 25 lakh, a 22 carat gold medallion, and a citation.

The catch: Upinder Singh happens to be Manmohan Singh’s daughter.

***

The academic qualifications of Upinder Singh (an MA and MPhil in history from Delhi University, and a PhD from Canada for an epigraphic study of kings, brahamanas and temples in Orissa) are not in question. Nor are her professional accomplishments: a 2008 history of India from the stone age to the 12th century.

Her commitment to free speech is well known: she has challenged the Marxist view of Indian history and challenged right-wing fundamentalists who questioned her inclusion of A.K. Ramanujan‘s Three Hundred Ramayanas for reading in the BA syllabus of Delhi University.

The question, plainly and simply, is of propriety.

# Should a major corporate be handing out huge cash prizes to the progeny of high political figures?

# Should they be accepting it so eagerly and happily, howsoever valid their claims to it?

# And because neither the media nor academia questions it, does it become all right in the eyes of the world?

***

The Infosys Prize is handed out by the Infosys Science Foundation which was set up with a corpus of Rs 45 crore  in February last year “to promote world-class research in the natural and social sciences in India”. (In addition, Infosys will contribute Rs 4.6 crore towards prize money and expenses every year.)

The prize is to be handed out in five categories: physical sciences, mathematical sciences, life sciences, social sciences and economics.

The Prize is “Infosys Technologies’ commitment to the country to promote and honour outstanding research efforts.” Its objective is to “elevate the prestiage of scientific research in India and to inspite young Indians to pursue a career in scientific research.”

As Infosys chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy puts it:

“India needs bright minds in academia, government, business, military and society to strive for global excellence. It is academia that provides bright minds for all other areas in any society. Research is an important dimension of excellence in academia. This award honours outstanding researchers who will make a difference to India’s future.”

While all that is commendable and unquestionable, the question remains: was only Upinder Singh worthy of this singular honour in this, the first year of the Infosys Prize?

***

Infosys, which has generated the buzz it sought to create by instituting and awarding the Prize in the presence of the prime minister, can wash its hands off and justly claim that it went by the jury’s recommendations.

The social sciences jury was chaired by the unimpeachable Amartya Sen. But were Prof Sen or his colleagues on the jury especially qualified to recognise Upinder Singh’s stellar qualifications?

The jury’s citation reads:

“Professor Upinder Singh is being recognized for her rich contributions as an outstanding historian of ancient and early medieval India. The depth and breadth of her scholarly research are matched by a rare ability to communicate her findings to a broad audience of students and intellectually curious non-specialists. She has been a pioneer in supplementing literary sources with an impressive array of archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic evidence to brilliantly reconstruct early Indian history. The vast chronological span of her scholarship stretches across millennia from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic ages to 1200 CE.

“Equally impressive is the geographical spread of her research, covering all the diverse regions of India. Attentive to regional distinctions, Singh is able to offer an overarching and subtle interpretation of Indian history and culture. As an innovative scholar who enables her readers to re-envision the idea of India, Singh is an ideal recipient of the inaugural Infosys Prize in Social Sciences – History.”

The social sciences jury comprised, besides economist Sen, two economists and three historians: Princeton economist Avinash Dixit and Berkeley economist Pranab Bardhan; Harvard historian Sugata Bose, Cambridge historian Christopher Alan Bayly and former Oxford historian Tapan Raychaudhuri.

Bose is a professor of modern economic, social and politial history; Bayly is a professor of imperial and naval history; and Chaudhuri is a former professor of Indian history and civilisation.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “Of all the historians in all the Universities of the world, we zeroed in on a professor of ancient and early medieval history who also happens to the prime minister’s daughter?”

***

It can be argued that Clean Mr Singh is not the sort who will be swayed by things like these. As a man of letters himself, he is likely to see the award for what it is: a gifted daughter earning her just desserts on her own merit.

It goes without saying that the prime minister and his daughter are adult individuals and professionals in their own right; it is wrong to club them or see them together beyond a point.

After all, Manmohan Singh’s youngest daughter, Amrit Singh, is a fine lawyer who has fought long and hard for the rights of inmates at Guantanamo Bay. If we do not see Amrit Singh’s efforts in conjunction with Manmohan Singh, why should we smell a rat in Upinder getting an award?

It can also be argued that neither Infosys, which is now the byword for Indian IT, nor its eminent social sciences jury has anything to gain by handing out a prize to his daughter.

So, why should we question it?

The answer is propriety.

Either you can spot it, or you don’t.

***

Photograph: (from left) Infosys chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy, Prof Amartya Sen, Vice President Hamid Ansari, Prof Upinder Singh, Infosys chief Krish Gopalakrishnan and Infosys director T.V. Mohandas Pai at glittering ceremony at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi on 4 January 2009.