By Mohan Guruswamy
Oct 30, 2014
The Nobel Peace Prize cashes in on the brand value of other Nobel Prizes, which are awards for professional merit and outstanding contributions to physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and economics. These awards are administered by the Royal Swedish Academy for Sciences and the Karolinska Institute. According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the peace prize was to be specifically awarded to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” This was the yardstick used to deny Mahatma Gandhi the prize.
It also is administered very differently. Alfred Nobel stipulated that the members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee be five retired members of the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament, and be directly “appointed” by it. Thus, a country that is an active member of Nato, the most militarily engaged alliance of the Western world, awards them. The award no longer has any criteria, save consideration that it serves a certain political agenda.
It is quite clear that both Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi have done nothing for world peace. But both have served their nations in other ways. They have embarrassed the ruling elite by highlighting the inequities within the systems they preside over. They have made them alive to the essential realities of their countries and the jobs on hand. The number of child workers in India is in the millions.
Ms Yousafzai’s struggle to extend education to Pakistani girls, frowned upon by radical Islamists, is well known.
Now just 17, Ms Yousafzai became a symbolic and primetime victim of the religious extremism being espoused by the US’ former allies, the Taliban being foremost among them. It all makes a good story, though it is also very obviously a contrived one, unless we swallow hook, line and sinker the legend that she began writing a blog at the age of 12 and her ambitious father and some superb huckstering by Western journalists like Christina Lamb had little to do with it?
I wouldn’t know much about Ms Yousafzai, but Kailash Satyarthi I know personally. I first met him in the early 1980s when he was an aide to Swami Agnivesh who was leading a heroic struggle to liberate bonded labour, then an endemic practice in India. The story of Swami Agnivesh’s Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM) is the stuff of legends. BMM activists, most notably Swami Agnivesh and increasingly Mr Satyarthi, waged a relentless guerrilla struggle to free bonded labour from enforced servitude in brick kilns, stone quarries, carpet and Durrie factories, and wherever the cycle of usurious interests made loans impossible to repay and hence condemned the borrower to perpetual servitude. The Supreme Court of India took notice of this and in a landmark judgment forced the enactment of laws to free bonded labour and to stipulate minimum physical conditions in all workplaces for unorganised labour.
It was during this campaign to liberate bonded labourers that Swami Agnivesh noticed the number of children in servitude, serving out time in often hard labour for the debts of their parents. The carpet and Durries weaving cottage industries preferred to employ children because their more nimble fingers were better suited for the intricate and repetitive process of knotting coloured strands of fibre into the pattern on the loom. But not all these children were bonded. Most of them were, in fact, working for fairly decent wages to mitigate the economic circumstances of the family.
But as Swami Agnivesh puts it: “A child never works long hours every day voluntarily. There is a compulsion to do so. Even if it is due to economic reasons, it is forced on the child.” This too, therefore, was deemed by the BMM as bonded labour. Little did he realise then that it would one day become a major favourite with Western funding agencies such as the Hague-based Novib, the London-based Christian Aid and the Washington-based Bread for the World. The narrow funding stream was soon a torrent.
But the problem was that Swami Agnivesh is a man of many parts. He is also nobody’s man. A political agitator and activist, he is active in seeking reform in the Arya Samaj. He is a staunch nationalist and has often tended to put what he perceived to be national interest above all else. He balked at foreign attempts to write the BMM agenda. This was when Mr Satyarthi began to sense an opportunity to seek a new ground entirely for himself.
Swami Agnivesh and Mr Satyarthi had been toying with the idea of having a system of certification to ensure that bonded or child labour was not used in the manufacture of a product, at this stage only carpets and Durries. Mr Satyarthi, on one of his US visits, mentioned this to US Senator Tom Harkin. The Iowa Democrat responded enthusiastically to the idea that Indian goods for export should be required to have such a certification and began to push this idea with the US Trade Representative’s office. At this stage the Indian government interceded and convinced Swami Agnivesh that this will have disastrous consequences for all Indian exports as there is no way of knowing where in the supply chain child or bonded labour was used. But Mr Satyarthi was not convinced.
He had decided to spread his wings. The funders too were very supportive. Thus began Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an initiative to put an end to the employment of children. This is always a problematic issue in a poverty ridden country and that too one without a social security net in place to catch the falling. But Mr Satyarthi pushed ahead and there were plenty of foreigners eager to help. Even today the clutch of activities and foundations he controls are mostly foreign funded.
But the parting was ugly. The Mukti Pratishtan, the mother organisation of the BMM, filed cases against Mr Satyarthi in 1996 for defalcation of accounts, usurping its property and working against its interests while employed with it. This case is still being heard in a Delhi court. There is good reason to believe that the Norwegian Nobel Committee did not do due diligence. For it is clear that the story of Mr Satyarthi it has internalised and Mr Satyarthi’s own narration of it makes no mention of the more than a decade with the BMM, as Swami Agnivesh’s comrade in arms.
Diligent or not, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize clearly has political overtones. This is made very explicit in the reasons advanced for this year’s award by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee: “What we are saying is that we have awarded two people with the same cause, coming from India and Pakistan, a Muslim and a Hindu. It is in itself a strong signal.” The work of both the winners this year has nothing to do with the tensions between India and Pakistan. They have nothing to do with promoting religious harmony between Hindus and Muslims. But those very clearly are not the considerations.
Mohan Guruswamy held senior positions in government and industry, and is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.