Politics of the Nobel Prize

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanOct 27, 2014 | 12:33

Politics of the Nobel Prize

A Nobel Prize is always a moment for celebration and a Prize for peace, doubly so. Indians have always been disappointed that Mahatma Gandhi did not get the Nobel. Legend has it that the Nobel committee could not find an equivalent name from Pakistani end. Whatever the reason, one can console oneself by claiming that Gandhi did not need the Nobel. In fact it is the prize that increases in grace when it recognizes Gandhi. Oddly, despite a wave of great social movements that produced Chipko, Sewa, the Manipur Resistance, Indians have never made it to the Peace Prize.


An Irom Sharmila, an Ela Bhatt, a Bahujana could have been great candidates but movements in India never got the recognition they deserved in the West. Our best had to be content with a huge collection of Magsaysay Awards. When the Committee announced the award of this year's Peace Prize to Malala of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India, there was collective gasp of surprise and joy. Malala, one could understand was the darling of the West, a courageous woman defending the rights of childhood and of women against the worst forms of fundamentalism. Malala had already received the Sakharov prize. Satyarthi was more of a surprise. A gadfly around the bureaucratic departments a man who insisted on "the Rug mark" to identify child labor free rugs, he is the exemplary NGO, effective within his basic focus. The Nobel Committee through this joint award also suggested a rapprochement between India and Pakistan at a moment of deep belligerence between nations. In an odd way the overall message of the Nobel Committee overshadowed the individual achievements of the awardees. The key terms in the Indian case are peace, child labor and European or western construction of both. A certain social construction of reality, a perception of problem is critical in understanding how the award to Satyarthi was consumed in India and the West. The Western construction of childhood reconstructed the idea of childhood after the industrial revolution. Historians like Philippe Aries has shown that the child was shown as a miniature adult, that families would swap children for dangerous jobs like the chimney sweep.

The idea of childhood as a period of innocence, of a long gestation of freedom followed the works of Walter Itard, Maria Montessori and Frobel. The destruction of crafts also removed children from the domain of work. Now work was considered as inimical to childhood and school seen as compulsory.


The right to education was now seen as an intrinsic part of childhood. As the West began outsourcing labor to Asia and Africa, human rights activists became concerned with exploitation of children. Companies making carpets and shoes were subject to scrutiny and sweat labor became an issue. Child labor became a major debate and countries like India, Indonesia, Bangladesh were asked to enforce labor standards. Unfortunately this was easier said than done as India's economy which was located in craft systems employed a vast amount of child labor whether in weaving, carpet weaving or glass making. Cities like Firozabad suddenly became notorious for employing children in noxious production practices. Through agencies like UN, World Bank, international NGOs, the battle against Child labor acquired a global touch. Yet questions remained. Was the western nation of childhood the only one? Did schooling have to be separated from work and the craft system? Was such an enforced division feasible in India? This is not to say that we are unconcerned with childhood but to ask whether constructions of childhood have to be standardized and universalized. Are learning processes in the informal or craft economy to be dispensed with? These are issues which cannot be dismissed summarily.

Recognition At one level, the recognition of Satyarthi and Malala can be seen as a western ethnocentrism, a bias in cultural perspective where some constructions of Islam and childhood dominate. Such an assessment is not a sour grapes story. It is not impelled by arguments that there were more deserving people than Satyarthi for the job. Let us affirm his courage, his commitment, even his relevance. All it raises is the issue whether certain forms of suffering and certain forms radicalism are more equal than others. One has to ask whether the Nobel award becomes more a case in anthropology of cultural perception than a universally or even generally valid judgment of worth. There is a reverse problem which is even more difficult to raise in this era of political correctness, where the school is seen as a childhood paradise. I often wonder whether our current schools are as harsh on children, destroying childhood through heavy tuitions, competitive exams at one end to unsanitary conditions on the other. School can be a harsh phenomenon. One is reminded of a great story by Ray Bradbury. A father walks through his old school, recollecting all the bullies and violence he had to contend with. Suddenly a spirit greets him and asks him whether he would impose the same violence on his child. It offers him the option of taking the child's place and out of love for him, the father becomes the child. In a fictional sense, Bradbury captures both the violence of school and childhood. Sanitized schools do not solve these issues. While celebrating Satyarthi's prize, let us not forget these questions. The dreams of childhood demand that we answer them. It is the anomalies and ethnocentrism of childhood and not Satyarthi that continues to plague us. I do not want this paper misread or read as a sour grapes tract or an anti-western tract. I want to see the event in all its aspects and warn of its dangers. When the West chooses its preferred radicalisms, it is dictating policy tacitly to us. We have to be conscious of this and act on it.

The writer is a social nomad

Last updated: October 27, 2014 | 12:33
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