The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two activists for childrens’ rights in South Asia, Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi from India, is a welcome reminder that much remains to be done in this part of the world on behalf of its young people. India and Pakistan are among the world’s youngest countries. But too many children are still denied a quality education, subject to gender-based harassment, and forced to work illegally. Ms Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for writing against their attempts to impose Islamic law on her home in Swat in north-western Pakistan, is now a much-admired campaigner for girls’ education – although she is still a 17-year-old schoolgirl. Mr Satyarthi has had a long career agitating against child labour in India. Things are much better than they were when he started out, in the early 1980s, but there is much still to be done.
Two things are worth noting. The first is that, although Mr Satyarthi’s prize is the sixth awarded to an Indian since Independence, it is not a cause for patriotic celebration. It is a celebration of an Indian’s work, not of India. Of those six Nobels, four have been to people who have spent their careers outside India (three scientists, and the economist Amartya Sen); and it is difficult to see that as anything but a negative reflection on India. The two others are Mother Teresa and now Kailash Satyarthi. For both of them, their work reflected the failings of Indian society. Another point is that the reactions to Mr Satyarthi’s award have been illuminating. While many politicians have responded positively, the muted reaction from India Inc to the award on Friday is disturbing. In the end, child labour is a problem for the private sector as much or more as for the rest of the country. The reputation of the Indian private sector will suffer if it is seen as insufficiently vigilant – one of Mr Satyarthi’s most visible successes was showing how Indian sub-contractors for the clothing multinational Gap were employing children. The leading lights of the Indian private sector should have chosen this moment to reinforce their commitment to being vigilant about child labour. In general, Indian laws, particularly those in the past 10-15 years, have acted positively on this issue. By giving parents a reason to keep their children in school – through midday meals and free and compulsory education – more has been done against child labour than in all the decades prior to that.
While the recognition of children’s rights is welcome, there is nevertheless something disturbing about the Nobel prize committee’s logic. Ms Yousafzai did not need her work or sacrifice paired with Mr Satyarthi’s. Questions are also likely to be raised about the manner in which the committee has drawn an equivalence between Ms Yousafzai’s circumstances, in which local powers and laws are not a support, and Mr Satyarthi’s, which are not similar. To reduce Ms Yousafzai, in particular, to a unitary identity of a “Muslim” is a disgrace given the nature of her struggle. And India’s struggle against child labour, ably represented by Mr Satyarthi, is hardly a “Hindu” struggle. This heavy-handed attempt at balance does damage to the cause of secularism, to the multiplicity of identities, and to the very activism it seeks to reward, by diminishing and reducing it. If the attempt is to claim that peace is born of better educated children, then that is a very different point – and Ms Yousafzai’s insistence on secular, identity-free education should have been the point. Instead the Nobel committee has dropped identity and nationalism into a struggle where it should have been absent.