THE BLOG

Before Malala, There was Kailash and Iqbal

10/10/2014 09:54 EDT | Updated 12/10/2014 05:59 EST
ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Resolute didn't begin to describe Kailash Satyarthi.

He would storm into carpet looms with reckless abandon. He would walk for hours across fields, and up and down hills, in search of stolen children, seemingly unaware of the blistering heat that felled others in his group. And when night came, his mind was already into the next day, to which looms his team should raid, and how to get police to pay attention to what he considered to be rampant crime all around northern India.

In the mid 1990s, when I was a correspondent for the The Globe and Mail in New Delhi, Kailash was an emerging figure in the anti-child labour movement. Today, his long march was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize, which he will share with the equally unwavering Malala Yousafzai.

She will get much of the world's attention, for good reason. But Kailash shouldn't be overshadowed. And no one should forget Iqbal Masih, the Pakistani boy who inspired them both, escaping from child labour at age 10, speaking out intentionally and than being shot dead, at age 12, in his hometown of Muridke.

Iqbal's assassination altered the world for children.

Not long after the shooting, Kailash took me on another trip through the carpet belt. He had been a frequent source on the issue of child labour. He had formed an organization devoted to the "rescue" of kids who had been sold by their families, through complex networks of middlemen, to the rural looms that made carpets for sale around the world. There were tens of thousands of them across northern India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Kailash seemed like a zealot when we first met in Delhi, a devout Gandhian who had no time for nuanced arguments about the economic demands of rural society, the complexities of India's caste system, or the appalling quality of its village schools. Child labour was wrong, he said. Bonded labour -- as the form of slavery was technically known -- was abhorrent.

We traipsed through countless villages where we found looms, usually in mud huts that were as hot as steam baths, crowded with children at work. Their small hands, and dexterous fingers, were often cited as attributes. And their labour was needed, it was usually said, to help their families survive.

Usually with an inconvenienced local policeman and perhaps a magistrate in tow, Kailash would march into the loom and demand the release of the children. He made sure local and sometimes international media were there, too. He often arranged for the young labourers, many of them not yet 10 years old, to move to boarding schools, through his impressive network of Gandhian support groups.

In 1996, I was with Kailash when an equally determined person, a young teenager named Craig Kielburger, visited New Delhi to raise awareness back at his own school in Canada about child labour.

Like Kailash, Craig had been shocked and moved by Iqbal's murder. I wondered if their idealism stood a chance against the entrepreneurs of northern India and the major international retailers like Ikea that they wanted to target.

They pushed on, with an uncompromising view that would prompt Craig to launch Free the Children, and Kailash to make Bachpan Bachao Andoloan, or the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, an internationally respected group. Kailash also launched Rugmark, to certify carpets made without child labour, a pioneering effort in fair trade labelling.

Their work paved the way for Malala and another generation of activists carrying on what Iqbal started. (Ironcially, Malala's own fight on behalf of girls almost cost her her life at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban, which has roots in Muridke, the town where Iqbal was killed.)

A couple of years before Malala was born, Kailash dragged a group of us on a series of raids in Uttar Pradesh, in the searing heat of summer. After a day walking through villages and rice fields, and endless shouting matches with aggrieved carpet makers, Kailash stopped at a dingy roadside hotel for the night. The power wasn't working, so no light or air conditioning. Mosquitoes were rampant, the floors were covered with broken glass, and the dorm-style room we shared reeked of an adjacent bathroom that hadn't been cleaned in who knows how long.

He had no time for complaints, instead finding a candle to light the room and leading his group in Hindi folk songs, saying they needed to rest, restore their calm and prepare for another day.

In the dim light he reminded us there were children, still at work.

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