On a recent trip to India, I talked with a number of people who were simultaneously puzzled and elated by the news that their fellow countryman Kailash Satyarthi had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to combat child labor.
In 1997, I visited the offices of Satyarthi’s organization, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (the Save Childhood Campaign), and interviewed him by phone for a piece in The Progressive. When I mentioned this to folks in India, they confessed they knew nothing of the man or his work.
Satyarthi’s invisibility in his home nation says much about the misplaced priorities of the Indian media. But it also reveals a lot about the discomfort many Indians feel about Satyarthi’s highlighting of an issue that they would much rather have remain undiscussed.
Across the border, a much more famous personality shared this year’s Nobel with Satyarthi: Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girls’ rights activist who has become, at the age of seventeen, the youngest Nobel laureate ever. Yousafzai is living in exile in England after being almost killed by the Pakistani Taliban.
By choosing Satyarthi and Yousafzai to share this year’s prize, the committee is pairing them in many ways.
Both are exerting their efforts on behalf of children. Yousafzai’s work is well known, but Satyarthi’s is no less vital in a world where tens of millions of kids still toil in awful conditions, including millions in India itself. Satyarthi’s organization has rescued an estimated thousands of children from bonded labor.
“With this awarding of the Nobel to this wise, brave and humble man, hopefully that message will spread further and deeper: Shackling young children to a carpet loom does not resolve the root cause of poverty,” says American University Professor Robin Broad, who has known Satyarthi for a long time. “Liberating them, and giving them a chance at a childhood along with education, does.”
Broad says that Satyarthi’s work goes beyond just freeing bonded children.
“He was instrumental in getting the global anti-child-labor movement to start to understand that liberation from the carpet looms was not enough,” she says. “These children needed their childhoods and, as part of that, they needed education. And so began GoodWeave (formerly RugMark) with its schools that enable children to live the childhoods that were stolen from them and realize their dreams for a better future.”
Malala’s story is famous globally, but Satyarthi’s is also remarkable. Two of his colleagues have been killed, and Satyarthi has been severely beaten by irate employers many times.
“It is very, very dangerous and risky,” Satyarthi told a reporter. “I have my broken leg and my broken head and my broken back and my broken shoulder, so different parts of my body have been broken while I was trying to rescue children.”
Satyarthi and Yousafzai come from neighboring countries with deeply intertwined histories that have almost constantly been at loggerheads. Ironically (and perhaps not surprisingly) the Nobel announcement came during the worst cross-border shelling between India and Pakistan in years that has left several people killed and tens of thousands displaced.
“The prime ministers of the two nations may have an important and unusual chance to discuss the conflict in person in December at the Nobel awards ceremony, having been invited by the winners,” reports The Washington Post. “The invitation puts pressure on both leaders to translate the warm feelings generated by Friday’s prize into more concrete progress toward a de-escalation.”
Yousafzai did take the occasion to highlight the prize’s symbolic significance.
“One is from Pakistan, one is from India. One believes in Hinduism, one strongly believes in Islam,” she said. “And it gives a message to people, gives a message to people of love between Pakistan and India and between different religions.”
Satyarthi’s Nobel also reveals the perennial embarrassment that the Committee has faced for not giving the Peace Prize to perhaps the greatest proponent of nonviolence.
"We can't really make amends as it will forever remain our biggest omission: not having given the Peace Nobel to Gandhi,” Norwegian Nobel Institute Director Geir Lundestad told The Times of India. “We are happy that we have been able to give the prize to people like Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and now Satyarthi for following the Gandhian principle of nonviolence. It is therefore an attempt to rectify our mistake around Gandhi by giving the prize to those who actively use his doctrine in modern times.”
Satyarthi and Yousafzai are both worthy heirs.