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Focus on the causes, not recipients

Ranjona BanerjiWhat was more exciting for India? That an Indian was a joint recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (with Pakistan) or the chance to use your politics to slam the winners and find as many reasons as possible to prove that these winners were unworthy?

It was honest of so many to admit that they had never heard of Kailash Satyarthi of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan; although it would be impossible for anyone to claim they had never heard of Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan — she has been in the news ever since the Pakistan Taliban shot her for trying to get more girls in Pakistan into schools. And yet both have been attacked almost equally in their respective nations.

It cannot be denied that the causes Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai espouse are bigger than them and need to be addressed. Anything else may be good economics or good bigotry or good religion and good tradition, but it is bad humanity” Pic/AFP
It cannot be denied that the causes Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai espouse are bigger than them and need to be addressed. Anything else may be good economics or good bigotry or good religion and good tradition, but it is bad humanity” Pic/AFP

It is also understandable that people would object to the Nobel Committee’s citation which said it had chosen a Muslim and a Hindu and someone from India and from Pakistan to make a special point — one in fact that reeked of patronising sentimentality.

But if you set all that aside, what have you got in front of you — the problems of child labour and the denial of education to female children. And yet Malala Yousafzai has been attacked in Pakistan for being a publicity-hungry girl who has got international fame for no good reason. And Satyarthi has been attacked in India for not being as perfect as many hoped while others felt there was no need to make such a fuss about children who are forced to work.

Interestingly, most objectors on both sides of our shared border currently under fire seem to be from the political right. The arguments offered have been that the Nobel Peace Prize is worthless (in which case, why bother to object or pay attention to it at all), that someone else deserved it more (which you could say about every award on the planet) and that these two are frauds (which is the same as saying anyone I don’t approve of is a fraud).

Even if we assume all these positions are correct, what bearing do they have on our ideas of child labour and female education? What justifications can we find to keep children out of schools, whether they are needed to make a living for their parents or because we are steeped in misogyny which we disguise in terms of religion and culture?

Sadly, it is remarkable, the number of people who put forward arguments in favour of child labour, usually predicated on the poverty of the parents. Satyarthi (assuming he knows anything about the subject at all, should I bow to the infinitely superior wisdom of his detractors?) has pointed to the vicious cycle of poverty that is self-perpetuating when children are unable to go to school and are forced to work during their childhood. Yet often, the very same people who argue for child labour will also passionately support education for all and give you lectures on how lack of education holds India back from preordained greatness. I suppose they don’t really listen to themselves. Or, they are trying to justify the 10-year-olds they have hired to look after their fat rich brats.

There are other reasons for being against child labour from practical ones about exploitation, slavery and injury to more sentimental ideas of loss of a childhood. Child rights are a global issue and arguments have been made for centuries against exploitation of children. The Supreme Court of India has also taken a strong stand on this subject. And yet, as we all know, insidiously, exploitation of all sorts goes on under our noses.

It is intriguing to say the least that intelligent Indians find it easy within themselves to put forth convoluted arguments to support this sort of discrimination. And yet all of them, and rightly so, would condemn the Pakistan Taliban’s attacks on girls and schools which educate them. The fact is, support for both forms of discrimination is unconscionable.

I make no case for either Satyarthi or Malala. But it cannot be denied that the causes they espouse are bigger than them and need to be addressed. Anything else may be good economics or good bigotry or good religion and good tradition but it is bad humanity.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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