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A Nobel Prize for all deprived children

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Mahendra.Ved
Written by Mahendra.Ved

From New Straits Times

THE Nobel Peace Prize this year is for deprived children, everywhere. The choice of an Indian and a Pakistani brings focus to the world’s largest concentration of the young. It is a commendable act to promote peace, even if coming from the inventor of dynamite.

The choice of Kailash Satyarthi, a crusader of children’s rights who had been five years in running (unknown to most Indians), and Malala Yousafzai, the teenage braveheart who had to be a year older (still, the youngest ever) to get it, has opened up national fault lines.

It has also generated international brouhaha that, although well meant, is somewhat patronising.

With mortar fire on the India-Pakistan border, the international community has appealed to stop a frequent occurrence that hurts and displaces civilians, including children. Both Malala and Satyarthi have made a joint appeal for peace. Malala went a step further to urge the two prime ministers to attend the award ceremony in Stockholm in December.

The Nobel did not end the booming of guns. It did not make Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif exchange greetings. Actually, both India and Pakistan have reasons to be proud, as well as feel embarrassed. India, because it is the world’s second-largest hub of child slavery and illegal labour, and Pakistan because Malala, shot grievously in the head in 2012 by her elder compatriots and now living in Britain, cannot return home.

Her attackers have been caught only a month back. Although a belated military operation is under way, the Taliban remains strong and defiant. Mullah Fazlullah, on whose diktat Malala was hit, is its leading light and is at large. The movement is alive and growing, with fighters being “exported” to Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

The response to the Peace Nobel in the two countries has been varied. Most Pakistanis seem proud of Malala, but she has also been called an “American agent” and worse. This has gone beyond the Taliban to many conservatives, who oppose women’s education. They see red in Malala getting the Nobel.

There is a sad similarity between the first Pakistani Nobel laureate, physicist Abdus Salaam, and Malala. Salaam couldn’t stay in Pakistan. Malala can’t go back to Pakistan. Salaam, who had laid the foundation of many institutions pursuing science, left after his Ahmadiyya community was declared non-Muslim. He died a heartbroken man in France.

Karachi’s Dawn newspaper carried a photograph of Malala, sitting alone with empty seats around, with a comment: “The empty seats suggest that the teenage female education activist is in a class of her own. But for a country that has the third-largest number of out-of-school female students in the world, they also suggest that Malala has a long struggle ahead of her to bring the missing girls to schools.”

While in Mingora, Malala’s hometown and across Pakistan, people, especially the young, rejoiced and social media was in a frenzy of pride; representatives of mainstream parties, including that of Sharif, held a rally in Karachi and demanded a “jihad”.

“One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world,” said Malala. Surely, that cannot happen without peace.

While Indians have uncritically welcomed the Nobel for Satyarthi, they are upset at his being hyphenated. The Oct 10 announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee emphasised the “common struggle between education and extremism”, which is OK. But, why club India and Pakistan, and why a Hindu and a Muslim? The campaigns for education and ending child labour in India are certainly not the product of, or hit by, extremism.

Satyarthi happens to be a Hindu, but his mission is for all children in 144 countries. If the Nobel Committee meant to make a symbolic case, the approach left something seriously wanting.

Mahatma Gandhi, who led India’s freedom struggle against the British, was denied a Nobel three times. The Nobel Committee said it could not undo this “mistake”. Fine. But, Gandhi was above all narrow considerations. In tagging Satyarthi by his faith and, then, awarding him for “maintaining Gandhi’s tradition”, the Nobel Committee has made another mistake. How will it undo this mistake?

Of the world’s 165 million child labourers, 65 million are in India. India is doing something about it, both at the state and non-governmental levels. Satyarthi has pointed out that the fight against child slavery began with India. It has yet to catch on in many developed countries, where slavery thrives.

His is a civil-society initiative. President Pranab Mukherjee asked that the Nobel to Satyarthi be seen as a “recognition of the contributions of India’s vibrant civil society”.

Urban India has a unique grouse — an acknowledgement and a feeling of “shame” that many did not know enough of Satyarthi and his work, till the Nobel happened. Not a Page 3 socialite, he has mostly worked away from the media glare.

I barely escaped this “shame”, having met him and written about his work in this space in July.

“These children are slaves. They work in factories and brothels, and they number in the millions… a child goes missing every eight minutes. Human memory is very short. We are hurt by what we see, but we forget very quickly,” he had said of the 80,000-plus children he had rescued from bonded labour.

India is a leading maker and exporter of carpets, most of them to the West. Traditionally, its weavers have been underage children. They are engaged young, as nimble fingers get trained in the craft faster and better. Thanks to Satyarthi’s relentless efforts, India must now certify that the carpets it exports are not woven by children.

Satyarthi has championed the deprived children’s cause for three decades now, facing bullets for annoying the touts and employers who thrive on child labour. The Nobel comes as he prepares for the global “End Child Slavery Week”. Much needs to be done.

Photo – Indian children working at a coal depot in Meghalaya state. AFP pic

About the author

Mahendra.Ved

Mahendra.Ved

Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based journalist. He writes a column for The New Straits Times in Kuala Lampur. He is Senior Editor with Power Politics monthly magazine and contributes to several journals. He is a regular on All India Radio and had long stints before turning to freelance with The Times of India and The Hindustan Times. He began his career with United News of India (UNI) news agency. Ved has co-authored two books, Afghan Turmoil: Changing Equations (1998) and Afghan Buzkhashi: Great Games and Gamesmen (2000). He writes on political affairs and focuses on India’s neighbourhoods. He also lectures at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications and Times of India’s Times School of Journalism.

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