The ‘JP movement’, Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan-led political movement of the 1970s, and the consequent anti-Emergency struggle, nurtured a political discourse where young idealistic men and women came to realise that democracy wasn’t just about time-bound elections and separation of power among the three pillars of the state but also about social and economic justice to the masses.
There was a realisation that the commitment of the elite of the society to liberal values could be very fragile, unless backed by the will of the marginalised majorities. With that kind of perspective of power to the people, various ideological streams, including what is described as right-wing groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), as also those from the JP movement and other independent minded groups, started engaging with struggles of equity at the grassroots. However, few took up issues of child labour and bonded labour.
Swami Agnivesh and his younger colleague, Kailash Satyarthi, were exceptions in this regard. They worked for the ‘antim jan’, the last and lowliest people, among the so-called contractual labourers, whose working conditions, the Supreme Court had said, amounted to those of bonded labourers. Agnivesh and Satyarthi’s work started before institutions like the National Human Rights Commission had been established. Initially, Agnivesh and Satyarthi worked in areas around Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They were particularly active in the carpet industry of Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur that employed child labourers. The two of them took on a whole lot of vested interests but worked ceaselessly, risking their lives as they faced several physical attacks. There was also a concerted campaign through various means, including mainstream media, to discredit Agnivesh and Satyarthi. There were efforts to paint them as agents of foreign capital, particularly the German carpet industry. The solidarity funding they received from Germany was, quite unfairly, presented as evidence of this.
However, there were several professional journalists, to start with veteran editor of Jansatta newspaper Prabhash Joshi, and later others in English language newspapers, who gave space to their struggle. Agnivesh and Satyarthi stuck to their mission with courage and consistency despite the many odds. There is a caste dimension to their work as well. Most who work as bonded and child labourers belong to the dalit community, and to work among dalits in a society with strong attitudes on caste is particularly challenging.
It is part of our unfortunate political culture that you don’t get space under the wings of leaders and mentors with whom you start your work. This was repeated in the case of Satyarthi as well. He fell apart with his mentor Agnivesh, who incidentally is a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, also called the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, for his work to promote communal harmony. The initial falling apart was not very easy. There were bitter exchanges of allegations and distancing. But of late there has been a rapprochement. The two have been jointly working on issues of social regeneration.
Initially, Satyarthi and his associates focused on raiding establishments employing child labour and bonded labour, rescuing these labourers and ensuring their welfare. In later years, it also involved research, advocacy and much legal work. Some of his prominent associates in this struggle have been Vidyasagar, a professor of economics from Tamil Nadu; Jai Singh, an activist from Punjab; professor Gopal Aiyyar; and Mahavir Prasad, social psychologist at National Labour Institute. Satyarthi’s work has been backed by several intellectuals, journalists, social scientists, dalit and human rights activists. Satyarthi was secretary general of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha in 1980, and set up the Bachpan Bachao Andolan the same year. He was a key activist in the 80,000-km-long Global March against Child Labour in 1998. The march helped highlight the issue of child labour at the international level.
This award to Satyarthi is a welcome sign. It has come at a time when our leaders, globally both in the field of economy and politics, are wedded to the ideals of growth, while issues of social justice and human rights are relegated to the background. In that context, one of the deserving has been awarded. It will inspire young people in South Asia, as Satyarthi’s work is well known in the people’s movement circuit. It would help restore the health of society if more such efforts and people are rewarded.
It carries strong symbolism and is a message of peace and justice that Satyarthi, an anti-trafficking activist, and Malala Yousafzai, somebody who symbolises the struggle against war, have shared the award.
I have known Satyarthi for nearly four decades. Some of us founded Lokayan in 1980. Lokayan was a forum that provided intellectual support to activists working in the field, and that is when I came in contact with Satyarthi. In a broad sense, we all belong to the same community, with our varying degrees of commitment and contribution. Satyarthi, along with several of us, was part of the Nagrik Ekta Manch that worked to provide relief to the victims of the anti-Sikh riots that broke out in Delhi in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
(As told to Archis Mohan)
The author is a Delhi-based Gandhian socialist activist. As lieutenants of social activist Swami Agnivesh, Satyarthi and Pratap have known each other for nearly four decades.