A reluctant celebrity hiding in plain sight

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Photo: Tehelka Archives
Photo: Tehelka Archives

Nobody issued a fatwa against him or threatened to put a bullet through his head. The man who has wowed the world now was, in fact, busy doing his thing for more than three decades without the country becoming any more sensitive about intractable problems almost literally shoved under the carpet, as it were.

There indeed is a huge slice of irony behind the whole issue. Kailash Satyarthi, 60, had a rather unsung and innocuous status before the astounding star turn: he had a Twitter following of around a hundred before the news broke. Within minutes of the news having broken out, the following reached 29,000!

Sociologist Ashis Nandy, who is apprehensive that the Nobel Prize in both India and Pakistan may be turned into “nationalist clap-trap”, is not the only one who feels that behind the prize there is an agenda, and that the dramatics indulged in by the Nobel committee raise more than the usual questions about the intent and motives guiding the whole thing. In fact, geopolitics has always crept its way into the Nobel, even though the prize has apparently raised what some commentators call “the visibility level of children’s rights”. But, as Nandy points out, “these children do not have any vote, so it is very difficult to politicise the issue”.

The defining moment in Satyarthi’s crusade came in 1992, when he went global. That year, he led a march spanning 125 countries trying to sensitise people and governments about child labour. The alliance that he formed at an international level has increasingly acquired a global footprint, a factor that increased his visibility on the international circuit in a significant way. Not surprisingly, a few organisations across the globe were forced to sit up and take notice, and starting 1994, a series of awards have come Satyarthi’s way. He has got the Defenders of Democracy award (United States); Fredric Ebert International Human Rights Award (United States); Robert F Kennedy International Human Rights Award (United States); Alfonso Comin International Award (Spain); and also, recognition on the list of ‘Heroes Acting to End Modern Day Slavery’ (the US State Department).

“This dichotomy, of being recognised abroad but ignored at home, is at once reflective of the value that we attach to concerns such as fighting child labour and the general somnolence about real people and real issues,” says Soumyajit Saha, who works for a Mumbai-based think-tank.

Amazing as the metamorphosis is, not everybody has been floored by it. While any number of statistics will empirically prove the sheer enormity of the fight against child labour and how little has been achieved to change the situation, the key issue relates to how the status quo is not disturbed by the conferment of such honours. “There has been an abiding sub-text to all such prizes. Apart from the patronising and far-from-subtle nudge to India and Pakistan to ‘behave’, the sponsors want to tell the undeveloped East to concentrate on such areas where noiseless, uncontroversial and value-free recognition can come their way,” Meenakshi Mukherjee, a sociologist with the Delhi University, told TEHELKA. She points out how several of the extremely deserving scientists have, for instance, generally gone unheralded with recognition very sparingly coming the way of someone like Venkataraman Ramakrishnan. Men of the stature of MS Swaminathan, who fathered the Green Revolution, and Varghese Kurien, who pioneered the White Revolution, have been studiously ignored. While Mukherjee is quick to give both Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai their due, at the same time she says that comprehending the geopolitics behind the prize must never be obscured from vision.

US-based academic Geeta Chaudhary observes, “Child labour remains caught in the global and national faultlines of capitalism. There is a distinct unwillingness or inability to change the structure of global capitalism or national power relations.” Chaudhary also points out the fact that even when children are rescued by groups such as Satyarthi’s South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, many of them find their way back because of endemic poverty and the lack of laws.

Not surprisingly, Satyarthi’s crusade has had a rather layered texture, his career having been marked by more than the usual run-ins with corporations and factory bosses. “In the country, he has been treated as someone who has been raising a lot of noise about a ‘trivial’ issue and hence has been conveniently ignored,” one of his associates was quoted as telling a financial daily.

First step Satyarthi says he has reached 80,000 of the 6.3 million child labourers in the country, Photo: Tehelka Archives
First step Satyarthi says he has reached 80,000 of the 6.3 million child labourers in the country. Photo: Tehelka Archives

When he began his crusade alongside Swami Agnivesh more than three decades ago, they encountered resistance that was laced with a counter-question: What will the children eat if they don’t work? Is begging on the streets better than working? Satyarthi says he has reached 80,000 of the 6.3 million child labourers in the country. He and Agnivesh had a parting of ways in the public domain four years after they began together as spearheads of their crusade, but in recent times, they have apparently patched up.

Bhadohi, a major centre for carpet weaving in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is where Satyarthi has spent a lot of his time and become a household name. It was here that Satyarthi began his crusade to save bonded child labour in 1981. At that time, this small town, about 50 km from Varanasi, was infamous for children working as bonded labour in the carpet industry.

The myth that was fostered in the region was that only the soft and supple fingers of children could weave intricate ‘magic’ on carpets. In the 1990s, Satyarthi’s jeep making rounds of Bhadohi warning carpet units not to exploit children was a common sight. The activist is also the founder of RugMark, a widely known international scheme that tags all carpets made in factories that are free from child labour.

After Satyarthi’s campaign to save children from bonded labour got an element of international acceptance, RugMark gave way to GoodWeave in 1994. The effort clearly antagonised the stakeholders of the carpet trade here as well as abroad and Satyarthi faced a gamut of threats and worse. Along with Swami Agnivesh, Satyarthi is said to have rescued 41 children from the carpet industry in Balwariya village of Kon block, Mirzapur district, Uttar Pradesh. All these children belonged to Palamu district, now in Jharkhand.

It was after this famous Balwariya incident that Satyarthi launched Bachpan Bachao Andolan. It transpired that the children were held captive for three years and not allowed to meet their parents. Satyarthi is said to have rescued not only about 10,000 children working as bonded labour in Sonbhadra, Bhadohi, Mirzapur and other parts of eastern UP, but also 1,000 Nepalese girls from the region.

Satyarthi readily admits that the crusade he has led has a long way to go before it can make a dent in the problem — one that has defied a solution and has everything to do with a mix of the social set-up on the one hand and governmental negligence on the other. But now that he has got the Nobel, the urge to appropriate him will be that much greater among the power elites. It is to be seen how awareness and identification with his cause takes shape in the wake of the Nobel. “The fact is that at the political and social levels, the ruling classes have been quite apathetic and indifferent to the continued prevalence of child labour,” says one of his associates. In his moment of triumph, the laureate will, however, have to guard against the over-exuberance of new suitors who may have a vested interest.

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