It’s been a couple of weeks since the Norwegian choices for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014 were announced. The little excitement this elicited in India and Pakistan has mostly died down. With good reason too.
For a start this award has a history of having less to do with actual contributions and more to do with some part of a larger agenda. Some pretty dubious people have received this. Many more were patently undeserving. The last but not the least was Barack Obama who received it in his first year of office for “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Undoubtedly President Obama is a highly gifted person and is an inspiration to millions of people world over. But in 2009, a year after he won the US presidency and after a somewhat desultory term as US senator, even he would have been hard-pressed to tell us what exactly were his “extraordinary efforts”?
According to Alfred Nobel’s will the Peace Prize was to be 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.” Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese negotiator won it in 1973 following a bitterly fought war which saw the US rain all manner of weapons and flouting many conventions. The only reduction of standing armies they possibly contributed to was on the battlefields of Vietnam. Le Duc Tho rightly rejected it. This list is long.
Some very nice people too have received this prize but for reasons well outside the original scope set out by Alfred Nobel. The Dalai Lama and Aung San Su Kyi probably the most prominent among them. Both are leaders fighting to save their nations from the tyranny of undemocratic regimes.
It is quite clear that both, Malala Yusufzai and Kailash Satyarthi, have done nothing for world peace. But both have served their nations in other ways. They have embarrassed the ruling elites by highlighting the inequities within the systems they preside over. The number of child workers in India is in the millions. Malala’s struggle to extend education to Pakistani girls, frowned by radical Islamists, is well known. But she has also been the beneficiary of some superb huckstering by western journalists like Christina Lamb.
When John Kennedy, then running for the US House of Representatives, was asked how he became a war hero, pithily replied, “it was entirely involuntary. They sank my boat!” Malala could afford to be equally charmingly self-deprecating after a Taliban gunman shot her in the face in 2012. Now just 17, Malala became a symbolic and primetime victim of the religious extremism being espoused by the US’s 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 people like Christina Lamb had little more than a little to do with it?
I wouldn’t know much about Malala for like most of who read this I too know her from a distance and see what I am shown, read what is written and can be as much a victim of subliminal persuasion as any person buying soap is. But Kailash Satyarthi, I know personally.
I first met him in the early 1980’s 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 Agnivesh’s Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front) is the stuff of legends. BMM activists, most notably, Agnivesh and increasingly Satyarthi, waged a relentless guerilla struggle to free bonded labour from the enforced servitude in brick kilns, stone quarries, carpet and dhurry factories, and wherever the cycle of usurious interests made loans impossible to repay and hence condemned the borrower to perpetual servitude in exchange. The Supreme Court 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 Agnivesh noticed the number of children in servitude, serving out time in often hard labour for the debts of their parents. The carpet and dhurry weaving cottage industries actually preferred to employ children because their more nimble fingers were better suited for the intricate and repetitive process of knotting coloured strands of the preferred 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 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 Novid, 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 Agnivesh is a man of many parts. He is a political agitator and activist. He is active in the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement. He is a staunch nationalist and has often tended to put what he perceived to be the country’s national interest and balked at foreign attempts to write the BMM agenda. This was when Satyarthi began to sense an opportunity to seek a new ground entirely for himself.
Agnivesh and 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 dhurries. 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 which stage the Indian government interceded with Agnivesh and convinced him that this will have disastrous consequences for all Indian exports for there is no way of knowing where in the supply chain child or bonded labour was used. But Satyarthi was not convinced.
He now decided to spread his wings. The funders too were very supportive. Thus began the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (literally Save Childhood Movement) 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 Satyarthi pushed ahead. Funds were not an issue. 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 organization of the BMM, filed cases against 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 proper due diligence. For it is clear that the story of Satyarthi it has internalised and Satyarthi’s own narration of it makes no mention of the more than a decade with the BMM and as Agnivesh’s comrade in arms.
Diligent or not, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize clearly has political overtones. It cashes in on the brand value of other Nobel Prizes, which are awards for professional merit and contributions to the advancement of knowledge. It is administered very differently. It is stipulated in Alfred Nobel's will, that the members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee be five retired members of the Storling, the Norwegian parliament, and be directly ‘appointed’ by it. Then 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.
This is made very explicit in the reasons advanced for this year’s award. The explanation by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in this year's award is telling indeed: "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 have 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 is a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and based in New Delhi. This article was originally published in Rediff News on October 27, 2014.