Noisy OB vans and an unending caravan of cars: on Friday afternoon, Kalkaji, a middle-class locality in south Delhi, was suddenly abuzz with activity and animation. It’s barely an hour since the news flashed on TV screens. But everybody knows that L-6, a slim, unremarkable two-storey building, has become a very famous address. For word has gone around that it is the workstation of child rights crusader Kailash Satyarthi, who has been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, the spitfire teenage activist who defied the Taliban.
At a time when the chronically sparring neighbours are again trading gunfire on the northern side of the border, leading to over a dozen deaths and causing thousands to flee home, the symbolism and larger meaning of sharing the world’s most coveted prize between the two is not lost on anybody, least of all Satyarthi himself.
“I know Malala personally and will definitely call to congratulate her. I will tell her that besides our fight for child rights, especially for girls, we must also work for peace in the sub-continent. It is very important that our children are born and live in peace,” says the 60-year-old activist, dressed in a sober sand-coloured kurta and standing bare feet, even as frenzied reporters jostle for his attention.
Satyarthi’s association with child rights goes back to his first day in school in Vidisha, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, when as a five-year-old, he witnessed discrimination: a child sitting outside his school working with his cobbler father. “I asked my teachers and my headmaster and they said they are poor children but it was not very convincing. One day I went to the boy’s father and I asked, since all of us were going to school, why didn’t he send his son to school? He replied: ‘We are born to work.’ I could not understand why some people were born to work and some others were born to enjoy life,” he says.
The incident became a permanent marker in his mind even though he went on to become an engineer. The activist says that even as a student, he wanted to work against child labour but didn’t know how. There was no study or legislation against the social evil. “Even the agencies of United Nations never took up the cause till the 1980s. The notion of child rights came only in 1989 when the UN convention on the rights of the child was adopted,” he says.
Later Satyarthi quit his job and started Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an NGO dedicated to rescuing children from bondage and working for their rehab across over 140 countries in the world.
His first rescue happened in 1981 at a brick kiln in Sarhind, Punjab. “The father of a girl came to us. We were publishing a magazine, Sangharsh Jaari Rahega, and he somehow came to know about it. He had come to publicise his plight but I realised it was not just a matter of writing something. I had to act because it was a matter involving a 13-14 year old girl who was about to be sold to a brothel. When I help a child and look into his eyes, I feel as if he or she is freeing me,” he says.
It has been an eventful three decades since. Satyarthi was beaten up on several occasions, two of his colleagues killed. But a card-carrying optimist, he has kept the faith. The award might have surprised some but it appears that the Nobel Committee had him on the radar for some time.
Reacting to the award, he says, “I was born after the death of Mahatma Gandhi. If the prize had gone to Mahatma Gandhi before me I would have been more honoured. This award is for all the citizens of the country. We are happy that the issue of child rights has been recognised globally now. I will continue my work. This is an honour for all my fellow Indians, as well as an honour for all those children in the world whose voices were never heard before properly.
Then he adds: “India has hundreds of problems, but millions of solutions. “Watan ki ret mujhe aediyan ragadne de, mujhe yakeen hai ki paani yahin se niklega.” (Let me rub my feet on the sands of my motherland / I know the spring lies somewhere beneath.)
How does he intend to celebrate the prize? “Not with champagne,” he quips. “I am a teetotaller. I am waiting for the children to arrive.”
What does the Peace Nobel mean for the child rights movement in India?
I hope that youngsters and civil society organizations and every Indian will feel proud. It is a noble cause to work for the rights of children. It is a movement against child labour and everyone must join it.
What’s the next level of fight against child trafficking?
I’m not being given this award for my work in India alone. I work in 144 countries. I work in Africa with equal passion, in Latin America with equal passion. I’ve worked in Pakistan with equal passion. So it is a global fight. But I’m proud that India is where this fight began and it began through me. Then, it spread to other countries. We are born in the land of the Mahatma where solutions are made with peace and non-violence. I’ve been working 100% through non-violent means. I strongly believe in the principles of peace in all my fight.
How do you feel after being honoured with this award?
It is a great recognition and honour for millions of children in the world. I hope many more people will join the fight against child slavery. This isn’t just about India. It’s a global phenomenon. We’ll work for this globally. I’ve been working in 140 countries and my responsibility is with all the world’s children.
Who do you remember the most today?
My mother and father. My mother saw me being attacked. She cried when I left engineering for this cause. She understood my fight, encouraged me. I remember all those who were with me in this struggle, including two colleagues who were killed. Whenever I free children from slavery and take them back to their mothers, the tears of happiness in their eyes are like blessings of God. When I see the faces of liberated children, I find their smile of freedom divine and it gives me divine strength. I never feel I’m liberating them, rather it feels like they’re giving me freedom.