Last Friday, a Pakistani and an Indian jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala Yousufzai, the cherubic kid who was brutally attacked by the Taliban on board her school bus, needs no introduction. Indeed, her face is familiar primarily because global organisations and the media in the very countries fighting their world-wide wars against ‘Islamist terror’ enthusiastically pounced upon and made the plucky little girl their very own mascot to highlight one undeniably evil aspect of life under the Taliban and other extremist groups.
But though 60-year-old Kailash Satyarthi has been campaigning for child rights for much longer than little Malala has, few would actually recognize the greying, bearded man with glasses and dressed in the trademark khadi kurta worn by many activists. For 30 years and ever since the electrical engineer quit his job to set up his NGO, the “Save Childhood Movement” , the father of two has braved death threats, the murder of two fellow activists and relentless intimidation in his endeavour to free impoverished minors from forced labour and return them to schools. Joining hands with international activists, Satyarthi has managed to push the number of minors forced into work around the world, from 250 million down to 168 million. In India alone and to date, he has been able to free 83,000 child labourers and send them back to school. Satyarthi’s activism and that of many other NGOs also resulted in India fortifying its existing anti-child labour laws and draconian punishment for violators of the law.
"The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism"
However, India’s society continues to be surprisingly blase about child labour; it is common to see eight-year-old kids with shoe-shine kits and 12-year-old kids sweating it out as cooks in roadside chai-shops or as welders bent over the bonnet of a car. I won’t comment on Pakistani civil society, but let it suffice to say that both Malala and Satyarthi fully deserve the honour. And except for a few disgruntled villains in the Taliban who have threatened Malala all over again for winning the world’s highest honour, and jealous moaners in India (who have been bitching about Satyarthi’s ‘media-savviness’ but have nothing to say when one points out that publicity is essential to highlight such an evil) millions of Pakistanis and Indians are thrilled.
But in a typically neo-imperialistic stroke, the Nobel Prize Committee didn’t rest at simply awarding the two deserving activists. Instead, it chose to spoil it by making one of the stupidest statements heard in the history of the Nobel Prize, at least as far as India is concerned.
“The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,” Norwegian Nobel Committee Head Thorbjoern Jagland said.
Other than racial oneness between North India and Pakistan, 1.25 billion Indians from southern, western and northeastern India see very little commonality between themselves and Pakistan. There is a chasm even between their respective literacy rates. According to Pakistan’s own Education Atlas 2013, the country’s literacy rate has stagnated at 58%. Almost half the adult population cannot read and write. In India on the other hand or according to its official statistics of 2011, the adult literacy rate had grown to 74.04 %, ten percentage points under the world average of 84%.
Of course, nothing can be found objectionable in suggesting a joint campaign for improving education in both countries. Indeed Satyarthi told this columnist in his first worldwide exclusive print interview and just hours after receiving the news in New Delhi last Friday, that he intended to work together with Malala against the exploitation of kids and for promoting the schooling of girl children. Even without the Nobel Committee’s schoolmasterly cane wagging at them, both activists are intelligent and committed enough, to have mulled a joint initiative on their own.
But extremism is another thing altogether. In the overwhelming opinion of Indians who have borne the brunt of terrorism in Pakistan, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and in Mumbai, any suggestion that there could be a cross-border joint campaign against ‘extremism’, is the height of absurdity. And a ‘Hindu’ and a ‘Muslim’? Is that what Malala and Satyarthi are reduced to? Sadly, the pedantic speech by the Nobel Committee implies that it is their respective religions, and the tense relationship between their countries, and not their tremendous achievements as activists, that are the real reasons behind the award. Sri Lankan readers need no further explanations, having suffered this kind of neo-colonial ‘mentoring’ for three decades, during which the world hectored and lectured them, too, about how to run their country and make peace between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.
“It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of any candidate but that the most worthy shall receive the prize,” wrote Alfred Nobel in his will.
It would be fair to assume that the late Nobel would not have wanted religions to be brought up either. Indeed and when announcing the earlier physics and chemistry Nobel Prizes some weeks ago, the Nobel Committee had made no mention of whether the awardees were Christian, Jewish or Buddhist. So why in the case of the subcontinent ?
But of course. Those awardees live in the civilised West. Satyarthi lives in a banana republic. It doesn’t need a degree in quantum physics to read the statement for what it really is; very obviously, the Nobel Committee had the recent tension along the India-Pakistan border in mind.
Indians will continue to celebrate the international recognition that the Nobel will bring Satyarthi’s very crucial campaign against child labour.