Let’s globalise human compassion


In a world where globalisation is the new mantra and we’re all connected with each other through high-speed internet, air travel and so on, “we are getting disconnected with each other in our hearts. We are squeezing inside ourselves and getting localised with various political slogans and promoting the sentiment of selfishness, which we saw in Brexit and other cases. So why not start a movement to globalise human compassion?”

With such powerful words in an impassioned speech filled with anguish and anger, but also inspiration, challenging each of the 2,450 Rotarians assembled at the South Asia Literacy Summit in Chennai, Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi set about the task he performs best — advocacy for children. Children deprived of education, healthcare, freedom and their very childhood.

Compassion, he said, was inherent, and inbuilt in each of us. “Sometimes compassion is the most precious gift which we confine to ourselves or only to our biological children.” But when millions of children in the world were deprived of their childhood and denied the most basic rights, and enslaved in demeaning and dehumanising bondage and labour, “the education and freedom of such children can come only through the compassion which is inside each one of you present here.”

Children have shown me scars and wounds… if they felt sleepy, they were hit with hammers or cut with big scissors used for cutting cloth. They were never given any medicine.

The time has come to get out of our narrow selfish worlds and realise that while globalising economy and knowledge, we are becoming selfish. “When you see a child out of school and working on the streets, dhabas, restaurants or as domestic help in your friend or relative’s place, just close your eyes for a second and think: If that girl working in such servitude was your own daughter, what would you do? Put your son, or grandson in that child’s place and try to connect with such children with the compassion that is inside each one of you.”

Every few minutes reiterating that the assembled Rotarians were a very powerful group that could achieve anything it wanted, Satyarthi recalled that barely three weeks earlier, at his Mukti Ashram in Delhi, he noticed a 10-year-old boy who was unable to walk. “I was shocked to find that he was forced to work for 22 hours in a jeans factory in a small, dingy room in Delhi, seated on the ground in the same posture.” This had resulted in deformed legs for him and several other children who were rescued.

“Another boy said when I missed my mother I was hung upside down from a ceiling fan and beaten. Children have shown me scars and wounds… if they felt sleepy, they were hit with hammers or cut with big scissors used for cutting cloth. They were never given any medicine.” His wife Suvedha and he consoled them and told them that they were now free and could go to school. Except two, none responded.

Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi with RI President John Germ.
Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi with RI President John Germ.

“When we pursued them, they said it is too late for us, we cannot go to school now. A 14-year-old boy feels he is no more a child and it’s too late for him to go to school. This is a challenge for each one of us. You have power, my friends; but you’re not using your power, capacity, knowledge, wisdom, experience, and more important, your compassion to the full extent. If a single child says in this country that it is too late for me to go to school and I am no more a child, and that his childhood is lost, then we have to stand before a mirror and ask ourselves if we are really civilised and cultured. This is the land of the Buddha and Kali whose power we worship as a deity; Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, Lakshmi the goddess of wealth and prosperity.”

Why not use such power, knowledge and prosperity to ensure that children retain their childhood, Satyarthi thundered.

Enumerating other shocking incidents, he said the media had recently reported how a hostel warden punished a group of girls by parading them naked and taking their pictures. A three-year-old girl was raped and killed by her uncle. “If our daughters are not safe in their homes, neighbourhoods, and more important, schools, then we have to act now, we cannot wait. This is a serious challenge.”

Congratulating Rotarians for the “happy schools” they were making, he said the challenge was to make every school a happy school. “You have the power… instead of just 200 or 2,000 such schools, you can do much more. Each of you can take bigger challenges and adopt more schools, villages, spend some of your time, energy and money for this cause. And make sure that every child is in school, safe and happy.”

A literacy hero in each Rotarian

Satyarthi said that he saw in the literacy heroes getting their awards “unlimited power, light, energy and hope. I could see the spark in their eyes and yours, and the glow on their faces and yours. That glow is not for being wealthy or educated, but pride for giving back to the nation’s most deprived and needy children the gift of education, by way of making happy schools or creating libraries. Congratulations.”

If a single child says ‘it is too late for me to go to school and I am no more a child, my childhood is lost’, then we have to stand before a mirror and ask ourselves, “Are we really civilised and cultured?”

He recalled how as a child of 10, he had felt helpless to see his classmate dropping out of school and leaving town because he couldn’t afford to pay fees or buy books. “I cried because it wasn’t his fault, then became angry wondering why didn’t he ask me; though I wasn’t born in a rich family I could afford to go to school.” So next year, after the results were out, along with a friend he rented a thela (wheel cart) and went around the locality requesting parents and students who were moving on to next class to donate their textbooks instead of selling them as raddi. “Within four hours, we were able to collect 2,500 used books.”

He had worked both in Pakistan and Bangladesh for freeing children from the shackles of child labour. “We know South Asia is a land of great values and leaders and has richness of knowledge. Can’t we take the lead in creating a world where all the children are free?”

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals had specific language on education, Satyarthi said, with its core components being inclusive, equitable, quality education and life-long learning. “Education is the key to all human rights, it cannot be ignored any more. Unfortunately, 60 million children have never been to school, another 200 million children couldn’t complete their primary or secondary education. Globally, 263 million children are not in schools.”

What is most distressing is the fact that the money required every year to educate all the world’s children “is nothing but just 4.5 days of global military expenditure. I am not a big believer of arms and ammunition; what is the use of a world where the number of soldiers is more than teachers, the number of bullets produced, sold and used is more than the number of pencils and books. How can we call ourselves civilised and cultured? What do we need; toys and pencils in the hands of children or guns, bullets and bombs? Just 4.5 days of global military expenditure can bring all the world’s children into schools. So the world is not so poor in wealth! But it is poor in political will and our honesty… we say something but act differently. We make promises but these promises to our children remain hollow because we feel no moral accountability. We don’t feel accountable for children who are on the streets and not in schools.”

But these were not simply numbers and digits. “Every child has an eye which is looking at you; you may see it or not. Every (deprived) child is knocking at your door crying for freedom, for education, for her childhood. It is our moral accountability to take up this challenge,” he added.

Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi takes a selfie with RILM staff and RILM Secretary Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury.
Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi takes a selfie with RILM staff and RILM Secretary Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury.

Donations galore

Following his speech, RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta invited Rotarians to open their hearts, and purses, to donate to the cause Satyarthi was espousing so passionately. In a few minutes a total of Rs 46 lakh was collected and included donations from PDGs Ravi and Rajyalakshmi Vadlamani (Rs 5 lakh) Summit Chair J B Kamdar (Rs 2 lakh), PDG Ashish Ajmera (Rs 2 lakh), DGE Maulin Patel (Rs 2 lakh) and Rs 1 lakh each from DG Vinay Raiker, PDGs Ramesh Agarwal, Hanumanth Reddy and Savita Unani of Inner Wheel.

For RILM, PDG V J Patel repeated his donation of Rs 51 lakh, just as he had done last year.

Pictures by Vishwanathan K

100 million for 100 million

Through his emotionally charged and stirring speech, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi called upon Rotarians to join his campaign 100 Million for 100 Million. Recently he had convened a summit for about 200 Nobel laureates, top academicians and world leaders, hosted by the President of India. “We have come out with a strong bill — Delhi’s Bill for children. We are trying to build strong moral voices. But here I see a moral leader in each one of you. I call upon that leader to rise up and fight against all kinds of barriers and boundaries and make South Asia a great region.”

He invited Rotary to partner him in his campaign 100 Million for 100 Million; 100 million young children were deprived of education, healthcare and freedom. “Many of them are forcibly married at a young age, and are bought and sold like animals, often at a lesser price than animals. Many of them are radicalised by fundamentalist forces in different parts; some are going to become the bombers of jehadis. We cannot wait. We are inviting more and more dangers if we avoid the situation because the children who are not in schools are more vulnerable to such situations.”

But on the other hand, he was sure we also had at least 100 million young people, and “people like you across the world, who are willing to do something about these children. Your own children, brothers and sisters, have an element of idealism and values and hunger to do something good for society.”

More often, that energy and idealism go untapped, “so they spend their time connecting on social media, which isn’t bad, but shouldn’t remain a mere superfluous connect. We have to give them a challenging role to make our society a better, safer place. At least 100 million people in the world are hungry to take up challenges on education, peace etc.” His initiative was to connect these two diverse constituencies, and make one set of 100 million the champions for the other.

“If you feel there is a changemaker and champion inside each of you, I invite you to be one of the 100 million changemakers to create a child-friendly, fear-free world for our children. You have the energy and power, just channelise it. Let us march together and talk in the language of humanity and compassion to ensure a safe, happy, healthy and educated childhood for our children.”


Why he said ‘yes’

Disclosing the reason for agreeing to attend the Rotary Literacy meet for the second consecutive year, Kailash Satyarthi said “when I gave my consent, my office was surprised as I have 27,000 invites from across the world… if I have to accept them all, I have to live an additional 100 years!”

He went on to regale the audience saying that five people give you a medal and citation for peace “and take away your peace for the rest of your life. This is happening to me.’

He then recounted the story of how he had learnt about his Nobel citation and replica of the Nobel medal being stolen when his house was burgled. “My wife Suvedha and I were visiting Latin America and were with the President of Panama and the First Lady when the news came. They thought I would cancel the trip and return to India. But I said it is up to the police to do their work. What can I do? Luckily the original medal I had dedicated to my nation immediately after bringing it to India. It is now with the President of India and in a museum. While giving it away to the President, which has never happened anywhere in the world, I recalled the great mystic and poet Kabir Das: ‘Mera mujh me kichh nahi, jo kicch hei so toh. Tera tujh ko sopta, kya lage hei moh. (Nothing is really mine; it belongs to the nation. So I am giving it to her)”

With a twinkle in his eye, Satyarthi added, “So when I learnt about the theft, I thought of another doha from the same poet: Bhala hua meri matki toot gayi, mei toh paniyabharan se chhoot gayi. (Good I broke my pot; I don’t have to fetch water anymore!)

Following the theft, he received many calls and mails from across the world, but was really touched by one letter from an Inner Wheel member from Madhya Pradesh, who had attended last year’s Literacy summit. “She wrote in Hindi to say: ‘Bhaiyya, it is shocking that the most precious thing on India’s land has been stolen. But, you have something which is much more precious than the Nobel medal and citation… the love that we have in our hearts for you.’ Thank you for that. Nobody can steal the love you have for me as your brother. That letter made me return to your conference!”

(Since the Literacy meet, the stolen citation has been found, thrown in a forest.)


When Kalu challenged President Clinton

Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi related a riveting story about how Kalu, a boy from India who had been trafficked and enslaved for long years, challenged Bill Clinton “morally, spiritually but also politically”, when he was the US President. It was around 2000 and Clinton was slated to release Kerry Kennedy’s book Speak Truth to Power on some 50 human right defenders like Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, etc, who were changing the world. “There was a chapter on my work and she invited me to the US for the release. I said I am not a celebrity or champion; whatever I am is because of children, so it’s better if you invite a child. I’ll find one from India who is even more passionate than me in children’s rights.”

In 2015 Kailash Satyarthi received the World’s Children’s Honorary Award.
In 2015 Kailash Satyarthi received the World’s Children’s Honorary Award.

She was “even more delighted” and Satyarthi chose Kalu, who was trafficked from a Bihar village, enslaved for another six years in Uttar Pradesh and used as labour for carpet making. Along with 30 children, Satyarthi rescued Kalu. “They were beaten badly, branded with cigarettes or burnt with match sticks for making silly mistakes.”

It was shocking to find different parts of his body burnt with cigarettes or having wounds and cuts. “The boy said whenever I felt sleepy or cried for my mother or father and said I want to go back home, I was burnt and branded and no medication was ever given. Sometimes his cuts were filled with matchstick powder and burnt, so that the flesh and skin could burn together and meld.”

They were first taken to his centre Mukti Ashram in Delhi and then transferred to Balashram in Rajasthan for long term rehabilitation. Kalu was so passionate about education that after learning something in these two places, he was sent to school. The boy was brilliant, given double promotions and stood first in his class. “So we sent him to other places to motivate children to go to school in a school chalo abhiyan that we organise in hundreds of villages every year. The boy was able to bring about 60 children to school with his passion for education,” Satyarthi said.

At the book release, Clinton noticed the boy sitting in the galaxy of human rights veterans, called him and started chatting with him. “Kalu talked frankly and freely and after some formal talk, said: ‘I know you are the most powerful leader on earth and you can do anything that you want for children like us who are not going to school and working somewhere as slaves.’”

Imagine Clinton’s surprise when Kalu added: “I also know you are not going to remain President forever. But is it necessary to be president in order to bring all children into schools? I could do it with 60 children, why can’t you do it with all the children in the world?”

Added Satyarthi: “A boy who was enslaved and treated so brutally, had the moral courage to challenge the President of the US. I want to see that moral courage in each one of you for education. I refuse to accept that the people sitting in this hall have no power to put an end to the scourge of illiteracy in this country. You have that power. Why did you become Rotarians? Because you have an element of humanity, love, service, compassion. Today I call upon globalisation of that compassion.”

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