Monday evening was relatively peaceful after the media scrum over the past weekend. A few hangers-on could be seen waiting outside the L-6 office of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan in Kalkaji, a south Delhi neighbourhood, while the staff flitted in and out of the hallway, escorting visitors at the appointed hour to meet with the 60-year-old Nobel Laureate Kailash ‘Satyarthi’ Sharma. Others are turned away because Bhaisahabji, as he is affectionately called, would not meet anyone without a prior appointment. A man with a bouquet walks in to felicitate Satyarthi (Hindi for “a seeker of truth”; the name has stayed with him from the days of his association with Swami Agnivesh, a social activist, with whom he collaborated on social causes such as bonded labour, and after his marriage to Sumedha, his wife of 36 years) but he is politely told to wait his turn. Some journalists who fail to meet him in his office are asked to try their luck at his 73, Aravali Apartments residence at Alaknanda before he flies out to Germany on a short visit later that night.
It was on Friday afternoon India time when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Satyarthi’s name as the co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize (along with 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan who lives in exile with her parents and siblings in Birmingham, UK, after surviving a 9 October 2012 attack on her life by extremists in Mingora, Swat Valley’s main town) at a function in Oslo. Everything has been a blur since then for Satyarthi and his family. As coincidence would have it, the announcement of the award came a day after the second anniversary of the attack on Malala and two days after the wedding anniversary of Satyarthi and on the eve of the International Day of the Girl Child, which is celebrated on 11 October.
Satyarthi’s office has seen a steady stream of visitors over the weekend. A notice board displays newspaper clippings about his winning the Nobel Peace Prize and a modest seating area for guests showcases some of the awards and plaques that have come his way in a 35-year-long career. A black board hung on a wall proudly proclaims that the Bachpan Bachao Andolan has rescued 83,525 children till 30 September. Between receiving well-wishers and entertaining media interviews, the Satyarthis — Kailash Satyarthi, his wife Sumedha, son Bhuvan Ribhu, daughter-in-law Priyanka Ribhu and daughter Asmita — were received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who congratulated him on winning the award. Satyarthi’s wife and son are equally involved in the activities of his NGO. The Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s activities are carried out under the banner of Association of Voluntary Action, which handles funds and whose financial audit reports are shared on the Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s website.
For the son of a police constable born in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, Satyarthi’s journey through life is nothing short of remarkable. He quit engineering to plunge headlong into activism, influenced as he was by the discrimination he saw around him when he was of an impressionable age. To his credit, he did not allow the occasional aspersions cast at him sotto voce to distract him from his goals. Satyarthi is the first Indian citizen to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Mother Teresa who won the Peace Nobel in 1979 became a naturalised Indian citizen in 1948) and only the eighth Indian to win a Nobel award. “I am thankful to the Nobel committee for recognising the plight of millions of children who are suffering in this modern age. It is a huge honour for me,” Satyarthi said immediately after the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced his name to an unsuspecting nation caught in the midst of two Assembly elections and ceasefire violations by Pakistan at the Line of Control and the international border in Jammu and Kashmir. The Peace Nobel to the Satyarthi-Malala duo made as loud a thud as the artillery shells that were fired across the border, prompting the people, the governments and the militaries of the two South Asian nuclear-armed neighbours to pause, however fleetingly, and reflect on the burden of a Peace Nobel that had just been thrust upon the warring Indian subcontinent.
Religion and nationality
What confounded some, at home and abroad, was the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s 10 October press release announcing the award. A relevant portion from the text of the press release said, “The Nobel committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.” The references to religion and nationality (and the re-hyphenation of India with Pakistan) have been variously described by some Indian commentators as condescending, patronising, gratuitous and eminently avoidable. Those references seemed to compound the embarrassment of (and disbelief in) both countries of not only having to live down the recent border skirmishes but to live up to the expectations of the international community now that a Peace Nobel has been jointly awarded to an Indian and a Pakistani national.
However, if the resumption of the ceasefire violations after a hiatus and the Pavlovian response by their respective bureaucracies is any indicator, India- Pakistan peace might be premature just as the Peace Nobel for Barack Obama in 2009 was controversial. The Norwegian Nobel Committee had said the following about Obama then: “The committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons. Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.” Obama not only failed to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility as promised but the US sees itself returning to Iraq only three years after it pulled out its troops from there. Also, the situation in West Asia (be it the Israel-Palestine issue or Syria) and North Africa (which is still to recover from the after-effects of the Arab Spring) does not inspire much confidence either.
Yet, there are constituencies in both India and Pakistan that are keen to see a normalisation of relations through dialogue but, as with all things subcontinental, patience will be of the essence. As Norwegian Nobel Institute’s Director Geir Lundestad said, he was more hopeful about the Peace Nobel helping to further reduce child labour than the likelihood of it leading to a rapprochement or a detente between India and Pakistan. What he left unsaid though was that peace would be a bonus and a welcome consequence of the Peace Nobel — especially if the afterglow of the Peace Nobel were to have a salutary effect on the prime ministers of India and Pakistan when they meet in Kathmandu for the SAARC Summit next month.
In her statement to the media, Malala — at 17, the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize — took the initiative of inviting both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and Prime Minister Modi of India to grace the 10 December award ceremony at Oslo. For her part, Malala described the award as “a message of love between two religions”. She thanked her father for “not clipping her wings” and said she was proud to have shown that “a girl is not supposed to be a slave”. She dedicated her award to “all those children who are voiceless”, saying that “my message to children around the world is: Stand up for your rights”.
Struggle for rights
At the same time, there are those who insist on treating the Peace Nobel for what it is: a recognition of the Satyarthi-Malala duo’s struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. As the Nobel committee said in the press release, “Children must go to school and not be financially exploited. In the poor countries of the world, 60 percent of the present population is under 25 years of age. It is a prerequisite for peaceful global development that the rights of children and young people be respected.” The efforts made by NGOs and individuals around the world are paying dividends, too. As the committee noted, “It has been calculated that there are 168 million child labourers around the world today. In 2000, the figure was 78 million higher. The world has come closer to the goal of eliminating child labour.” A former Indian diplomat echoed similar sentiments when he said that too much should not be read either into the timing of the Peace Nobel being awarded to the Satyarthi-Malala duo or to the situation at the India-Pakistan border. The award was not meant as an intervention in the recent border skirmishes or an attempt to play peacemaker.
Satyarthi’s name, as indeed that of some of his compatriots, has been doing the rounds of the Nobel nominations for some time now. Some Americans such as Tom Harkin, a lawmaker from the state of Iowa, and University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde and some European lawmakers are known to have re-nominated him since 2005. (When Satyarthi began receiving death threats, he moved to the US at the invitation of Harkin. His daughter joined him in Iowa where she was enrolled as a student.)
However, one will have to wait until 2064 or wait for a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to break his/her vow of silence, whichever comes earlier, in order to say with any degree of certainty as to how and why Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel. According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, “Proposals received for the award of a prize, and investigations and opinions concerning the award of a prize, may not be divulged. A prize-awarding body may, however, after due consideration in each individual case, permit access to material which formed the basis for the evaluation and decision concerning a prize, for purposes of research in intellectual history. Such permission may not, however, be granted until at least 50 years have elapsed after the date on which the decision in question was made.” According to Lundestad, Satyarthi’s name was among a dozen-odd names of Indians who were nominated for this year’s Peace Nobel. The number of Indians being nominated for the award is increasing year on year, too.
Shot in the arm for NGOs
The Peace Nobel to Satyarthi and, by extension, his NGO, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, would have come as a shot in the arm for the NGO movement in India today. An Intelligence Bureau (IB) report, the contents of which were published by the media in June, had targeted certain foreign-funded NGOs and Indian NGOs supported by foreign NGOs for fuelling protests with a view to obstructing developmental projects. It claimed that the pursuit of such an agenda had a negative effect on the GDP growth.
Following the media reports, some members of the civil society had voiced their anxieties and concerns at the attempts to discredit the NGOs. Mathew Cherian, CEO of HelpAge India, says that governments, past and present, would do well to change their viewpoint on activism and rethink their attitude towards civil society in general and the NGOs in particular. “Both the UPA and the NDA always viewed civil society with suspicion, especially those who receive funds from foreign sources,” says Cherian. He feels that the ngos and genuine people’s movements must not be unfairly criticised or made a scapegoat for the failings of the governments, be it labour issues, women’s rights or acquisition of land.
According to data collated by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, there are an estimated 168 million children globally who are engaged in child labour. India accounts for 5 million child labourers as per government data and 50 million, as per NGO estimates. India needs to pass the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill pending before the Rajya Sabha and ratify the ILO (International Labour Organisation, a United Nations agency) Convention Number 182 on worst forms of child labour and Convention Number 138 on the minimum age of employment.
A double-edged sword
Another reason for the disquiet in diplomatic circles is the possibility of the Peace Nobel being used as a disruptive tool of intervention or being motivated by geopolitical considerations. If it was a Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, it could be a similar figure from the developing world, India included, in the future. (Irom Sharmila and her relentless campaign for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, is a case in point.)
This writer was witness to the developments in India and certain other world capitals leading up to the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo when China warned countries of “consequences” if their diplomats attended the ceremony. The Norwegian Nobel Institute had invited 58 ambassadors based in Oslo of which China, Russia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Cuba, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, excused themselves from the ceremony. (Russia and Indonesia ensured that their envoys were not in Norway at the time.) India joined at least 36 other countries, including the US, the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands in participating in the event. As diplomatic sources then pointed out to this writer, New Delhi recognises that the Nobel prizes are a political issue; they are in a sense like the Miss World contests that are accused of being driven by market considerations.
The dissonance was clearly brought out in the international discourse that followed the announcement of the Peace Nobel to Xiaobo, too. As Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, then argued, “(The) West has double-standards when it comes to judging human-rights violations. It does not condemn American society because it violated every canon of human rights by being the first modern western society to reintroduce torture. Instead, it sees Guantanamo as a blemish that should not take away from all the good that American society has done.”
This inability of the West to understand that there may be an alternative point of view could well create a major problem for the world, Mahbubani said, responding to Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland’s argument that silence undercuts the most basic tenets of human rights and that supporting a Chinese dissident could not worsen conditions for the opposition in China.
Already, doubts are being raised about whether the Peace Nobel for Malala would increase hostility in Pakistan towards her and everything she has come to represent. Some of the commentary published by a section of the Pakistani media and the opinions voiced by Pakistanis on social media indicate a deep suspicion of the Nobel awards, with some calling it motivated or a conspiracy by the West.
All of which begs the question: How noble is the Nobel Peace Prize anyway?