About Nobel peace prize winner Kailash Satyarthi
Kailash Satyarthi was named on Friday joint winner of the 2014 Nobel peace prize along with the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images
Kailash Satyarthi was in his nondescript office in a scruffy, traffic-choked neighbourhood in south Delhi when he learned on Twitter that he had won the Nobel peace prize. Minutes later the 60-year-old activist received a call from the Nobel committee.
“He was happy of course, but there were no tears and no shouting or anything like that. He’s a very down to earth man,” said Satyarthi’s son, Bahawan, 35.
The seventh Indian to win the Nobel peace prize, Satyarthi was described on Friday as “little known” in India by the Hindustan Times, a leading local newspaper.
This is not entirely true; the activist is a familiar figure for journalists and campaigners working on child labour matters. Trim, soft-spoken, articulate, passionate and amiable, Satyarthi has kept a low profile.
He worked with Guardian Films on a documentary about modern-day slavery in Assam. In the film, he led a raid to rescue a girl trafficked from a tea estate into domestic slavery in Delhi.
During filming, he explained the dangers of his work. “In my own case I have my broken leg and my broken head and my broken back and my broken shoulder, so different parts of my body have been broken while I was trying to rescue children.
“I lost two of my colleagues – one was shot dead and one was beaten to death. Most of my junior colleagues have been beaten up many, many times. So it is not an easy game.
“It is a challenge definitely and I know that it is a long battle to fight, but slavery is unacceptable, it is a crime against humanity. I’m not talking in legal terms, morally I feel I cannot tolerate the loss of freedom of any single child in my own country so I am a kind of restless person in that sense. We cannot accept this to happen.”
Last week he was on a raid on a factory suspected of using children as cheap labour. In his 34 years as an activist, Satyarthi has freed tens of thousands of young Indians, some just five or six years old, forced into servitude by unscrupulous agents, businessmen, landowners and brothel owners.
Satyarthi has said his commitment to the cause goes back to when he was six and noticed a boy his age on the steps outside the school with his father, cleaning shoes.
“I think of it all as a test. This is a moral examination that one has to pass … to stand up against such social evils,” he said in 2010.
Born in Vidisha, in Madhya Pradesh state, Satyarthi, the son of a police officer, studied electrical engineering at a government college.
His first campaigns involved a football club using membership fees to pay the school fees of needy children, while another project became a book bank in his home town.
In 1980 Satyarthi founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) and began raiding factories, brick kilns and carpet-making workshops where children and their indebted parents often pledge themselves to work for decades in return for a short-term loan.
Frequently the loan remains unpaid back from meagre earnings and people are repeatedly resold.
In the late 1990s, Satyarthi was a lead organiser of the Global March Against Child Labour, aimed at raising consciousness about millions of children abused worldwide in a form of modern slavery. Academics remember him excoriating government officials who claimed at international conferences that the problem did not exist in India.
He also founded RugMark, an international scheme that tags all carpets made in factories certified as child labour-free.
More recently he has launched operations to rescue girls sold into abusive forced marriages and helped turn hundreds of villages into rehabilitation centres to teach trades to abused teenagers.
Relatives said Satyarthi, a married father of two, had been influenced by the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian social activists of the 1950s and 60s.
“India has hundreds of problems and millions of solutions,” the Nobel laureate said on Friday.