NEW DELHI – During the three decades he has worked to free thousands of children laboring in dank mines and factories throughout India, Kailash Satyarthi has been shoved, kicked, threatened with deadly weapons and beaten numerous times.
His family hoped that he would cut back on child-trafficking raids when he turned 60, but just last month he directed the rescue of 23 children from a tiny basement factory in New Delhi. On Friday, the longtime advocate was sitting behind a desk at his small office in the capital when he learned from a journalist’s telephone call that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Satyarthi, the first Indian-born recipient of the honor, will share the award with Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani who became an education activist after the Taliban shot her on her way to school.
Satyarthi said it was a “great honor” and a “happy moment” for India, as well as for the children he had long worked to save. In a brief interview, he called for the “globalization of human compassion.”
“I am quite hopeful that this will help in giving greater visibility to the cause of children who are the most neglected and most deprived, and that this will also inspire the individuals, activists, governments, business houses and [corporations] to work hand-in-hand to fight it out,” he said. “The recognition of this issue will help in mobilizing bigger support for the cause.”
News of the award set off a raucous celebration at Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) office and a ripple of national pride throughout India.
The joy was tempered by critics who said they resented the Nobel Prize committee lumping India’s honoree with Pakistan’s, as if the adversarial nations were parties in an arranged marriage. Yousafzai later said that she and Satyarthi had spoken by phone and agreed that they would invite their respective prime ministers to the awards ceremony in Oslo.
Experts predicted that Satyarthi’s long-shot honor — he was chosen over favorites including Pope Francis — would probably focus attention not on geopolitical affairs but India’s still-endemic problem of child labor.
In India, children are not allowed to work in industrial jobs or other hazardous fields, but an estimated 50 million still toil in industries that make fireworks, carpets, bangles and bricks. A law banning all labor for children under 14 is still languishing in Parliament. Denizens of India’s rising middle class have been known to hire underage nannies or domestic servants.
“Indians have accepted these practices over the years, but we hope that this prize will prick their conscience, too,” said Swami Agnivesh, chairman of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front and an early mentor of Satyarthi’s.
Satyarthi is an iconoclast, fighting against widespread social tolerance for child labor in India, where many argue that the children would die of hunger if they did not have jobs. He insisted that the children he rescued attend school even as other charities were giving after-school classes for laborers, in a tacit approval of the system.
“His philosophy is that every child should be in school notwithstanding his economic background. He has rejected the theory that poverty drives child labor,” said Bupinder Zutshi, who co-authored the book “Globalization, Development and Child Rights” with Satyarthi in 2006.
Growing up in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Satyarthi has said that he became aware of India’s socially stratified society at age 6, when he noticed a cobbler’s son working every day as he was on his way to school. He asked the cobbler why the son wasn’t in class, and the man told him that he and his son had been born solely to work, Satyarthi recalled in a 2004 interview with The Washington Post.
“The seed was sown that very day,” Satyarthi said.
Satyarthi was born a Brahmin, the highest caste in India’s hierarchical system. In a society in which family names often designate caste, he gave up his true name early on, according to his daughter, Asmita, 29, a business student. He adopted the more neutral Kailash Satyarthi instead, and gave her only one name.
He gave up an engineering career for activism in his 20s and founded Bachpan Bachao Andolan in 1983. He rose to prominence in the 1990s, when he would swoop down on far-flung villages in eastern India — known as the country’s carpet-making belt – for surprise raids on dimly lit basements where children squatted on the floor, working on looms. The children lived with the loom owners and worked for hours for small payments that were sent home to their parents. The rescues, while high-profile and hyped by the local media, were not always successful. Sometimes the poverty-stricken parents preferred their children to be working than in school.
During the 1990s, Satyarthi was instrumental in convincing many European countries to boycott Indian carpets made with child labor. He developed a self-certification label for South Asian carpets headed for export that said they were made without of child labor. In 1994, the certification trademark was called Rugmark; it is now GoodWeave International.
Satyarthi he has received numerous international honors over the years, including the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Yet in India he has received far fewer laurels. He was also accused by many nationalists and others of working against Indian interests, especially in the essential export industry, and of showing the country in a poor light.
“It’s a big moment for us,” said his wife, Sumedha Kailash, 59, who runs a rehabilitation center for rescued children in Jaipur. The couple’s son, Bhuwan Ribhu, 35, a lawyer, also works for the nonprofit center. Its narrow halls are often crowded with anguished parents clutching photos of their missing children. But on Friday, they were filled with jubilant supporters passing out sweets.
Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.